Tragedies of Omission: On Philip Roth’s Adapted ‘American Pastoral’
Ewan McGregor brings the author’s novel to screen
After a rocky road to production — marked by lapses in development, recasting, directorial switch-ups, budget adjustments, and a tepid initial film festival reception — American Pastoral, directed by its star Ewan McGregor, opened wide in theaters at the end of October. Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Philip Roth novel, it tells the story of Seymour “The Swede” Levov (McGregor), a Jewish high school athletic phenom, his wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), their daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning), and the disintegration of their Norman Rockwell-like life.
I should confess here I first encountered American Pastoral in a graduate class focused on literary antiheroines, why they are written and why they are read, and that I was profoundly frustrated by both Roth and the book: at its focus on the father’s pain to the near exclusion of the suffering daughter. I endeavored to think no more about it, until I heard that Ewan McGregor was starring in a filmed adaptation, at which point I wondered whether my lifelong adoration of McGregor’s talents would counteract my skeptical stance to Roth and his book. Considering that McGregor is the only reason I’ve ever rewatched a Star Wars prequel (or anything as gritty as Trainspotting), it did not seem impossible.
On screen, even the Levovs’ challenges at first seem idyllic — the handsome sun-kissed father, his self-assured beauty queen wife, a daughter whose charm is only enhanced by her stutter. She becomes distraught after witnessing the live TV broadcast of a self-immolating Buddhist monk, and afterwards climbs into bed with her parents who nestle with her under the comforting lamplight. Eventually she grows into an angry teenager, turning on her devoted parents and on LBJ with an irrepressible fury — yet, in a sense even this is as it should be. This is how teenage daughters do.
After yet another teen-angst-versus-parental-patience showdown, Merry finally crosses a line. She plants a bomb at the local post office, killing its proprietor, and flees. The Swede is never able to move on, spending his life trying to pick up the pieces and to understand what went wrong. Or at least, that’s what Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), the writer who worshipped the Swede in his youth (and who serves as the novel’s narrator), imagines the Swede did.
The adaptation’s most compelling qualities are its earnestness and the beauty of its visuals (qualities which coincidentally apply to McGregor himself). The film is thoughtfully shot, well cast, and John Romano’s screenplay stands as a model of how to cultivate the essence of a literary work in another form — it remains luminous and grimy at the same time. Narratively, the novel American Pastoral is as much about Zuckerman’s failure of empathy for Merry as our own struggle to feel compassion towards her (and girls like her). Roth evokes our deepest fears, that our families, our children, will be subject to forces we can’t control and don’t understand, and that we will find ourselves alone. The book is notable for its chaotic depiction of a man in a maelstrom, knowing he should let his daughter go but maintaining a visceral certainty that he must save her. In the movie, however, that aspect is flattened. It reads more as a straightforward comment on rebellious daughters and their heroic fathers, rather than as a critique of the American dream’s very existence.
We see McGregor, as the Swede, in pain, expressive and vital, and doggedly stubborn to yet find a way through to his daughter. But he and the film are both so crisp and beautiful, even in moments of disarray, that what should be unbearable is muted to dissonance. For Roth’s part I do think he “gets it,” that on some level Zuckerman’s focus on the Swede is a meta-commentary on how the affairs of men are centered socially and personally, and on how destructive that failing is. The squalidness of the book’s details is part of that — everything has a gross smell or a texture or a fetid undertone, as if to counter the artificial perfection of the halcyon setting. But some of what the film sidesteps ultimately undermines the Swede’s potential for growth.
Zuckerman, looking for early signs that should have indicated Merry was headed for trouble, imagines her in the front seat of her father’s pickup at age twelve: one strap of her dress slipping down nymphet-like, asking the Swede to kiss her like he kisses her mother. In the film the frisson of this scene arises out of the shame on McGregor’s face as he is goaded by Merry’s insistence into mocking her stutter, followed by Merry’s admission that she knows she goes too far — that she is prone to losing control of herself. But in the novel the Swede does kiss her, and spends the rest of the story convinced that this kiss ruined her for life. Not that she was inescapably confronted with the horrors of the Vietnam War at a young age, or that everyone in her life pathologizes her speech patterns to the exclusion of all else about her. The Swede is certain that Merry was somehow tainted by him. Eventually, in the novel, the Swede reaches the painful place of understanding and acceptance: “She is not in my power and she never was.” But McGregor’s Swede never does. He is the father of four daughters in real life — perhaps he hasn’t yet himself.
If, as Zuckerman clearly does, you buy that the “tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy — that is every man’s tragedy,” if you feel the Pulitzer was warranted and you are angry about Dylan’s Nobel on Roth’s behalf, then the plot is heart-rending enough. “You’ve done everything wrong that you could have,” a testy cop says to the Swede, and his protest — “What, what have I done wrong?” — is obviously not only about his handling of this situation, but of his entire life thus far. As a blonde-haired blue-eyed male star athlete, who married a former beauty queen and inherited his father’s glove factory, he has done everything right and he’s still not been handed the life he was promised. If that sounds unfair to you, you will probably enjoy this movie. However, the film struggles, just as the novel did, with a protagonist in possession of every single privilege imaginable, who is also on the periphery of far more interesting lives.
What of the tragedy of people who actually are set up for tragedy? The pathologized daughter. The wife whose only refuge is the pursuit of beauty and male attention. The widow of the man that Merry murders. The black student activists whose protests are met by the mobilized National Guard. The floor manager at the Newark Maid glove factory (Uzo Aduba, bringing far more to the screen than the underwritten role she was given) and the entire community of workers whose livelihoods are bruised by the Newark riots*. The tragedies that make this story timely and urgent and searing to more than just the fathers of daughters who do things which trouble them.
Yes, the monstrosity of Merry’s actions makes her hard to defend and impossible to like, but she did not become a monster in a vacuum. Casting Dakota Fanning — who is as expressive and talented a young woman as she was when a child actress — realizes the earlier Merry of the novel who was golden-haired and lithe-limbed, and ignores entirely adolescent Merry’s greatest sin in the eyes of her family and therapist (as written by Roth). Before she committed murder and became an unwashed Jain in atonement, she got fat.
She also stopped being apologetic for her stutter. In the book, Roth says, “by no longer bothering with the ancient obstruction, [Merry] experienced not only her full freedom for the first time in her life but the exhilarating power of total self-certainty.” What could be more thrillingly reckless than that for a teenage girl in America? No wonder we embraced Merry, and rained contempt down on her father and her author, in my literary antiheroines class.
Roth, whose depiction of female sexuality is either discomfitingly clinical or pitiably superficial, can apparently think of no better remedy for Dawn’s crisis of selfhood than a naked factory-floor breakdown in her old Miss New Jersey sash, followed by a facelift, a brand new house and an extra-marital affair. Is Dawn a tawdry, selfish materialist, as we are led to believe? Is there no scrutinizing energy left over for the external factors that might have contributed? Following Merry’s disappearance the Swede is contacted by young revolutionary Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry), and meets her in a hotel room where she demands sex in exchange for information on his daughter, who is presumably her lover. The seduction feels wildly out of the realm of possibility, that a vibrant young radical would prefer to test the character’s virtue and not simply take the $10,000 he brought with him. Are we meant to be repelled by Rita? Why should we find appalling these young women who reject the lives and values their fathers wanted them to live by, especially now as we move, grimacing and pained, through the debris of the 2016 election?
The inevitable flipside of the Swede’s devotion to the idea of who his daughter should be is a failure to accept the person she is. Yes, his disappointment and anger — at the stutter that mars her perfection, at her sizzling anger toward him and her mother, her violent crimes, the violations she endured on the run, and her living in squalor — are understandable. But, in the final scene the father and daughter have together on screen, when he has found her working at a veterinary clinic and living the life of a Jain, wearing a mask and pursuing ascetic purity as penance, his final effort to reach her is a claim of ownership. He plunges his hands into her mouth, exclaiming that he made her and that she can’t live this way. The story’s transformation into a counter-pastoral is complete. Not only does he have nothing left that he wanted — no wife, no daughter, no idyllic New Jersey life — what he did want has been diminished and destroyed. Perhaps this impossible struggle is the point: he can never let go, a tribute to the dedication and sacrifice of fatherhood, which is what this movie is ultimately about.
It’s just hard — in the wake of the post-audio tape, “I am offended because I have a wife and daughter” rhetoric which came to nothing, the persistent unchecked police brutality, the violations of women’s autonomy on every front, the national demoralization at the hands of a demagogue — to feel worse for the privileged disappointed golden boy than for the daughter who is genuinely lost. The redeeming moment of the film comes near the end, and has nothing to do with the Swede at all. It is when Zuckerman acknowledges that he could be completely off-base: that this is what life is, the potential to be wrong. I am all for films that depict the self-deprecating humility of a male novelist confronting his weaknesses. In the novel, Zuckerman confesses to this early and often. He even comes close to admitting that he was writing all this for the sake of his own shattered idolatry of the Swede, and not for the man or his daughter at all.
American Pastoral is, at its heart, the tragedy of a father whose daughter is unknown to him. And that truly is a tragic thing. The trouble with the prioritization of this tragedy, overshadowed by the Vietnam War, by race riots, Woodstock, the Moon landing, and Watergate, and framed by the idealization of a former classmate, is just how little room it leaves, in the end, for the tragedy of anyone else’s destruction.
* I’m torn about Roth’s engagement with the black factory workers in the novel. On the one hand, the employment of black workers is something which the Swede and his father pride themselves on—in which case, are the workers just props for the novel? On the other, Merry ruthlessly mocks her father when he gets an award for doing the only decent thing in hiring the workers back after the strikes and riots. So, is Roth is making a meaningful statement here about race and representation, highlighting the folly of believing that you can be “one of the good guys” while also sympathizing with the National Guard? Or does he think the Swede and his father are doing something significant—something which outweighs the need for actual representation in the book? Is Roth critiquing their absence or actually just omitting them from the narrative? Are they meaningful participants in this story, or demonstrations of a self-indulgent vanity?