'American Pastoral' turns a Philip Roth classic into a flat period piece


To undertake a film adaptation of one of America’s most celebrated literary works is a ballsy move, made all the ballsier when a first-time director is running the show. The stakes can be high; chances for success typically low. More often than not, the movie fails under the heft of its source material, and the audience files out of the theater thinking the story was better left alone.

That’s the case with American Pastoral, Ewan McGregor’s realization of the Pulitzer-winning masterpiece by Philip Roth. While McGregor’s debut hews closely enough to the novel -- Roth’s magnum opus, to many -- the story proves less powerful as a paraphrase.

American Pastoral is in many ways a small story: The All-American pride of Newark, Seymour “The Swede” Levov, lives in the country and runs his father’s glove company. He’s married to a beauty queen and raising a child with his boundless love. The perfect life.

Until his daughter becomes an angsty militant teen and decides to blow up a post office in their rural town, killing a man.

In the book, Roth’s infinite nuances elevate this “small” story into something more expansive. The dissolution of the Swede’s idyllic life becomes something more transcendent against the backdrop of Vietnam and Nixon and the political turmoil of the late sixties. In the movie, we only ever scratch the surface.

Roth’s themes are present -- family, guilt, war -- but they feel superficial and cramped in the two-hour runtime. The film gathers strength in the contemporary parallels, as we see how far (or not) we’ve come in 50 years. Yet the portrayal of civil unrest and good intentions gone bad overshadow the “small” storyline. We lose the human touch Roth so easily bestows on his characters. The exhaustive character study of American Pastoral the book withers to a basic genre piece in American Pastoral the movie.

As with any adaptation, every omission is a measured choice. With the inclusion of the book’s framing narrative, McGregor and screenwriter John Romano aim for faithfulness. Yet, they inexplicably abandon said faithfulness with subsequent plot changes and a different ending.

McGregor and Romano burn a bunch of clock and manage to leave some of the book’s subtler but extremely important plot points -- the therapist’s significance, for example -- unexplored. It’s a 400-page book, so some scenes are bound for the cutting room floor. But it’s in choosing what to leave out that makes or breaks an adaption.

McGregor earns points for trying. As if an adaptation of this caliber weren’t hard enough for a director, McGregor does double duty playing The Swede. But he bit off more than he could chew in his first outing. The movie is not quite the abject failure it’s been made out to be, but it’s nothing to write home about either. Save the two hours and the ticket price. Stay home and crack open the book instead.

American Pastoral opens in theater tonight, Friday, October 21.