A Fatal Problem with The Human Stain
"Why not sock the audiences early with the ‘fuck her in the ass’ line?"
I do not look forward to any book I am reading being turned into a novel.1
Lately, very seldom have I read a novel that has been made into a movie. True, I am reading fewer novels, but even those few have not been turned into movies.
Paul West (right
), the novelist whose books I have read the most in the last two years, has never had one of his fifteen novels (The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper; The Tent of Orange Mist; The Immensity of the Here and Now
) or many memoirs (Words for a Deaf Daughter; Out of My Depths; Master Class; Oxford Days
) turned into a movie. His work is eminently unadaptable, due largely to a rich prose style and a difficult genre-defying fiction. Faulkner, and even Proust, have had their highly complex work turned into movies. None of the Faulkner films have left a strong impression,2
whereas Raul Ruiz's Time Regained
(1999) defied all odds to produce something very Proustian. Oddly, the closest thing to a Faulknerian film is The Big Sleep
(1946), to which Faulkner contributed. West's early novel, Colonel Mint,
apparently interested Donald Sutherland for a moment or two, but the cinematic equivalent to the words, concoctions, and images of West's novels seems unlikely. How unlikely? He has been compared to Peter Greenaway, whose cinematic language may be more difficult than reading West's novels! Greenaway seems more successful for getting films made than for getting them seen; his most widely viewed film in theaters, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover,
pulled in ten million dollars.
Other authors I have read and reread in the last decade Raymond Queneau, Flann O'Brien, Witold Gombrowicz, Amos Tutuola, Robert Coates, Italo Calvino, Francis Ponge, Mikhail Bulgakov have a handful movies taken from their oeuvres. Gombrowicz's Pornografia
has just been filmed but was not distributed widely, or not widely enough for me to see it, and Ferdydurke,
filmed by his countryman Jerzy Skolimowski and starring Crispin Glover, has yet to appear on video or disc in the United States. Queneau's Zazie dans la Metro
might be the most famous from the authors above, filmed by Louis Malle in 1960; however, I could not watch more than ten minutes, not the least of my reasons being that regardless of the film's ultimate qualities, its style never remotely approached Queneau's with its puns, use of everyday language, and an impossibly elusive attitude that would cool out a Beat writer.3
I have always felt condescending toward people who wanted to see a) movies made out of the book they have read, and subsequently b) compared and judged the movie based on what was in the book. For the latter, I readily think of the Harry Potter
series and Lord of the Rings,
which I have seen without having read the books and found the accumulative six movies not only exhausting but remarkably forgettable.
I could devote an entire essay to this topic and mention Joyce, Nabokov, Pynchon, DeLillo, Proust, and others whose work has not found correspondingly great directors.4
The best book I've read on film adaptation of novels is Double Exposure: Fiction into Film
by Joy Gould Boyum (1985), which explored an equal number of successes and failures. One of the better adaptations was John Huston's of Wise Blood
(1979) from Flannery O'Connor's first novel, whereas a significant failure was George Roy Hill's Slaughterhouse Five
(1972). Spike Jonze's Adaptation
(2002), could be the definitive work from the writer's perspective on this topic. Personally, I have nothing to add to the theoretical debate, nor do I wish to discuss the pros and cons of books becoming movies.
Rather, I am struck by a particular work's adaptation, a book I had read a few weeks before it opened at the theaters, The Human Stain
(2003), based on Philip Roth's novel. While I was watching the film, I caught myself enjoying it because
I had read the book and, in a sense, was indulging what critics call a guilty pleasure, only I had stumbled into a room of cheap pleasures and partook of them all. At no time, however, did the delights of book-to-cinema recognitions convince me that Robert Benton's (above,
with Kidman) movie was any good.
It did not take me very long to know that I would write about the failed attempt to bring Roth's book to the screen. I tried to remember other Roth book adaptations. Two immediately came to mind: Goodbye Columbus (1969) and Portnoy's Complaint (1972). Had there been others? (The Ghost Writer was made into a television movie in 1984.) And I remembered only pieces of those two, both with Richard Benjamin, who seemed to fit Goodbye, Columbus but was out of his league for the other. In fact, Portnoy's Complaint was full of salacious material that would make a decent adaptation impossible. It reminded me of the attempt to film Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge, in terms of a project collapsing on itself, but at least Myra Breckinridge (1970) retained a few campy moments of spectacle that Portnoy did not even try to reach.
I would not be alone in abhorring the casting of three or four of The Human Stain's major roles. It seems as if Benton challenges anyone who has read the book to want to wrestle over Anthony Hopkins playing Coleman Silk. Does he expect that because it is Anthony Hopkins, we will believe he is a black man, just as we eventually believed Hopkins was Richard Nixon in Nixon (1995)? Since Silk is a black man in hiding, I suppose I could rationalize that the actor should be white! Curiously, the actor who plays the young Hopkins, Wentworth Miller, is part black (African-American, Jamaican, English, German, French, Dutch, Syrian and Lebanese descents).
Indeed, were I really to sniff and harrumph over casting, I would start with Gary Sinese (right
) playing Nathan Zuckerman. He is too far too young, far too dare I say it Gary Sinese to play Philip Roth's goddamn alter ego. As far as Nicole Kidman is concerned I was neutral (although, and I speak with minimal knowledge about acting, I found her performance similar to others: Eyes
Wide Shut, The Hours
, and Cold Mountain
, during which you see her acting). But getting balled up by casting choices and worrying about Zuckerman's age, I would lose focus if not the force of my argument,
in much the way Tarantino
's Mr. Brown in Reservoir Dogs
(1993) loses his point about Madonna when the others at the table interrupt him with their own opinions about her worse, now I am reminded that I was going to write an article about Tarantino's Madonna riff, which can be seen as his personal statement about what he wants to do to the heist movie genre.
But I digress. I must get to my original point.
Enter three male professors strolling across the campus. One of them comments that Clinton should have fucked Monica Lewinsky, because that would have made her more loyal and shut her up. Compare the book's conversation:
If Clinton fucked her in the ass, she might have shut her mouth. Bill Clinton is not the man they say he is. Had he turned her over in the Oval Office and fucked her in the ass, none of this would have happened.
The principle is plain, as articulated later in the conversation. Give someone something that they cannot talk about. The art of domination. Bill Clinton, the men say, did not carry this ability that he had exercised as Governor of Arkansas into the White House.
This moment occurs immediately less than four minutes into the film.5
I got the feeling of a statement being made to me, the reader of The Human Stain
, an unintentional message, about the way Roth's book would be treated and why this film would not really be a serious work of art. Instantly, I wondered why Benton and writer Nicolas Meyer had altered the wording. Did they actually think they were making the same point? Why not sock the audiences early with the "fuck her in the ass" line? Indeed, fuck the audiences in the ass early and dominate them. Take us to the limit and dominate us . . . aesthetically. What it told me was that they were not going to take the audience to the limit. What could I expect from the rest of the film?
Much of the novel envelops the ethos of the late 1990s, not only the politics of the Clinton impeachment but also the increasing tide of political correctness. Initially, by putting impeachment and political correctness together, Roth emphasizes the ironic relationship between Clinton's behavior and popularity. Clinton's appeal, especially to woman and liberals, was systematically undermined by repeated allegations of sexual harassment, the very accusation being the mother of all political correctness. Silk being accused of an inappropriate remark about two black students (although when making such remark he did not know that he was referring to black students) and driven from academia for it reinforces the ultimate irony because Silk himself is black. He does not defend himself from the charges and reveal his true origin even though this would have devastated his accusers. Why doesn't he? In part, Roth's restraint here illustrates less Silk's innocence than the nature of the campus witch hunt against political correctness, a mirror to the Washington, D.C., witch hunt against Clinton. Indeed, Roth's direct narrative commentary on the impeachment, nearly six pages, is one of the most insightful on the Clinton impeachment that I have read.
What would be worse, almost unimaginable, is that Benton and Meyer were actually offended by the book's view. It is fatal for a movie dealing with political correctness to be itself suffering from the very same condition. Benton seems afraid to offend the audience, afraid to offend those who would recoil at the notion of men dominating women. Not as an ideological stance, but the image of such domination! You might argue that "fucking her" suggests domination, except that the man in the film says that it will create loyalty, whereas the man in the book says domination.6
Why make the movie of a Philip Roth novel if you aren't going to turn the screws on the audience? The great pleasure reading The Human Stain comes from never being able to catch up with Roth's ironies. Roth continually keeps the reader's head spinning over the racial issues surrounding Silk's dismissal, and most deliriously do we swirl in the irony of Silk assuming a Jewish heritage to erase his African-American origins. The film dares not venture into these waters.
The movie of The Human Stain
confirmed my indifference toward the adaptation of any literary works. More, it illustrated the very reason why. Few in film, writing or directing, are as good with their craft as Roth is with his. A good adaptation is rare because what makes the writer great cannot translated into the language of film. At best, a filmed strategy analogous to the book's must be tried. Adapting The Human Stain
would mean dominating the audience the same way Roth does his readers, taking you to an aesthetic back country from which there is no coming home unchanged.
1. The opposite is so rare, that I can remember the one time I watched a movie and went to the book: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Well after I had seen Kubrick's The Killing (1956) did I read Lionel White's Clean Break. And it took me a very long to track down The Hunter by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake), the source for John Boorman's Point Blank (1967). One of the greatest adaptations I have come across, meaning that I loved both the book and movie, is A Clockwork Orange (1972).
2. The Story of Temple Drake (1933) from Sanctuary; Intruder in the Dust (1949); The Tarnished Angels (1958) from Pylon; The Long, Hot Summer (1958) from The Hamlet and two stories; The Sound and the Fury (1959); Sanctuary (1961); The Reivers (1969). The pathetic attempt to adapt Sound and the Fury's "story" and atmosphere almost brings me to tears, essentially treating the author as if he were Barbara Taylor Bradford. The Long, Hot Summer, directed by Martin Ritt and given a heavyweight cast, including Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Orson Welles, Lee Remick, and Tony Franciosa, made the greatest impression on me, perhaps because I has seen it on NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies when I was teenager. The Tarnished Angels undoubtedly has its champions among the Douglas Sirk cult, to which I am uncommitted.
3. Note the novel's opening paragraph:
Holifart, watastink, thinks Gabriel exasperated. You'd think these people don't ever wash. It says in the papers that hardly eleven percent of the apartments in Paris have a regular bathroom, and no wonder, but you don't really need a bath to keep clean. Seems none of these jokers here is makin' any great efforts in that direction. On the other hand, they haven't been picked among the sloppiest people in town it doesn't add up. They're all here by chance. fact is, the people waitin' at the Gare d'Austerlitz smell worse than the people waitn' at the Gare de Lyon. No, it doesn't add up but Krissake, what a stink. (Zazie dans Le Metro, Raymond Queneau, Paris: Olymoia Press, 1959, page 7.)
4. Harold Pinter's Proust screenplay is problematic. It was never filmed, and had Joseph Losey filmed the screenplay it would be hard to guess the results. For one, Losey's work could be hit or miss. Mr. Klein (1976) succeeds; Boom (1968) and Secret Ceremony (1968) leave me cold. However, the Losey-Pinter collaboration had an encouraging track record. The Servant (1963), Accident (1967), and The Go-Between (1970) are Losey's strongest works.
5. The scene in the novel of the Lewinski conversation occurs much later (pp. 146–151 of the Vintage edition).
6. The filmmakers' failure to make a distinction between image and ideology, or not believing that the audience would know the difference, did not reassure me that they would do much with Roth's feminist literature professor, Delphine Roux. As it turned out, this subplot never made it into the movie.