On American Pastoral and Canadian Shields

Movies: #TIFF16 American Pastoral press conference

Ewan McGregor’s adaptation of Phillip Roth’s novel points out the problems in bringing internal narrative to the big screen, but the actor-turned director faced the same challenge as those who braved the work of Carol Shields

By Jay Stone

TORONTO — Here’s something pretty interesting: in the Carol Shields book Unless (now a motion picture at the Toronto International Film Festival), a sensitive teenage girl sees a monk setting himself on fire and is inspired to drop out of society and become a mute beggar in front of Honest Ed’s discount emporium in Toronto. In the Philip Roth novel American Pastoral (also a movie at TIFF), a sensitive teenage girl sees a monk setting himself on fire and is inspired to drop out of society and become a domestic terrorist.

This tells us something about Canada and the United States — or perhaps just something about Carol Shields and Philip Roth, and about the film industry in general. Both movies use the fight for human rights as a metaphor for our wider ills, and both come from largely interior books that rely on narration to make their novelistic points.

Neither author has been particularly well served by cinema, but Roth has in particular been ill used. Only two of Shields’ previous books have been made into movies (Swann and The Republic of Love, both well-meant misses) but Roth has been taken to the movies — or, more accurately, to the woodshed — eight times now, with varying success. The adaptations range from the baffling (Portnoy’s Complaint) to the ridiculous (The Human Stain, with Anthony Hopkins as a light-skinned African-American) to the noble failures (Elegy, based on The Dying Animal, with Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz involved in a May-December romance.) For the record, American Pastoral, Elegy and The Human Stain share a producer, which may tell you something else about the film business.

This year sees two more Roth novels on the big screen: Indignation, which was faithful to Roth’s story, and American Pastoral, whose baggage — a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that has become the first movie directed by its star, the Scottish actor Ewan McGregor — means an even more difficult time in translating the writer’s voice (a combination of aggrieved masculinity, sexual obsession, political effrontery and schmaltz herring) to the screen.

It’s a story of a perfect family falling apart in the 1960s; the record of a national nervous breakdown that lie so closely under the surface. Or, in the words of the Roth alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman (played this time by David Strathairn, a much more believable stand-in than Gary Sinise in The Human Stain), “You come at people with an open heart, yet you never fail to get them wrong.”

American Pastoral doesn’t totally communicate Roth’s textured sense of history, but in some way it seems to have gotten it right. “Philip very much liked the film,” McGregor reported to a post-screening press conference on Saturday. “It was a huge relief. It was very important to me to capture the essence of his novel, and he communicated to us that we had.”

In the movie, McGregor plays a character known as Swede, a high school sports hero who marries the local beauty queen (Jennifer Connelly) and has an apparently perfect life until their daughter (Dakota Fanning) decides to join a violent group protesting the Vietnam War.

It gives McGregor a new title — film-maker — that he says he very much enjoys, although he doesn’t split the roles of actor and director when he’s on the set. “I never really felt I dropped the director role and stepped into the actor role,” he said. “It’s all part of the same thing.”

Actors, he says, are part of the creative process.

“We don’t just get out from their trailers to say our words and then get wheeled off again. We are film-makers. We’re part of film-making.” He said he learned the craft by being on a lot of movie sets, an education that full-time directors do not enjoy. “Danny Boyle doesn’t spend an awful lot of time on Martin Scorsese’s film sets,” McGregor reminded everyone. “So I drew from all of them.”

As for his future of a filmmaker, McGregor said he’d have to feel the same passion as he felt about American Pastoral. “It’s a very costly experience,” he said. “For 16, 17, 18 months of your life you’re carrying something very precious and it’s a funny thing. You’re trying to be a husband and a father and a human being . . . I can only assume that’s why it’s taken me 15 years of wanting to do it, because I had to have a story I was so burning to tell.”

And the story itself. It fell to Strathairn — who played Zuckerman, who stood in for Roth, and was therefore the closest thing to the author himself — to explain its significance.

It’s about a time of protest, and of violence, that challenges the idea of the American Dream. And that’s a familiar challenge today.

“(Philip Roth) takes this family as the repository of a time. A time that has repeated itself in our country’s history,” Strathairn said. “ I think you have to see it more than once to understand it.”

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 8-18, 2016

THE EX-PRESS, September 10, 2016


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