Tag Archives: The Ghost Writer

Waxing Roth

The movie, “Elegy,” which opens Aug. 8 and stars Ben Kingsley as David
Kepesh and Penelope Cruz as the object of his desire, is the latest
film to be adapted from the writings of Philip Roth. This one is based
on his novella, “The Dying Animal.”

Despite Roth’s long,
successful career in American letters, his track record on film has
been far spottier. Yet “Elegy,” directed by Isabel Coixet, who is
Spanish, has created a certain buzz: Could it be that a woman, a
European — albeit working in English — is what it takes to
successfully translate Roth’s work to film?

Let me get back to you on that. First, to set “Elegy” in context, I decided to watch every film adapted from Roth’s work.

My mission started simply enough: a quick search on imdb.com turned up a succinct list of eight works on film and TV, stretching back to the 1950s.

Some
had never been released on video, some are only in VHS,
some were available at the local video store, some had to be tracked
down in specialty shops or in university or museum archives. My quest
led me across Los Angeles and afforded me the pleasure of visiting some
of the city’s most beautiful libraries and research facilities, as well
as some of its best-stocked video stores.

In
1960, Roger Corman produced “The Battle of Blood Island,” which was
adapted from a 1958 short story that ran in Esquire titled, “Expect the
Vandals.” Shot in black and white and only 64 minutes long, “Blood
Island” is part of a trilogy of films Corman made in Puerto Rico.

Netflix
carries this film as a DVD double feature, paired with a non-Roth film
called, “Shell Shock” (that has nothing to do with Roth). Locally,
“Blood Island” can’t be found at Blockbuster, the Santa Monica or Los
Angeles public libraries or such local rare video sources as CineFile or Vidiots.

So, I turned to my video store of last resort, Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee on Tujunga Avenue in North Hollywood, a shop whose eccentric and extensive film collection rarely disappoints.

It was there that I found one lonely DVD of the film. The story is set on an island in the South Pacific,
where two American soldiers, Moe and Ken, are the only survivors of an
attack on Japanese forces and are forced to hide out and get along. Moe
is a 35-year-old Jewish accountant, with a wife and kids back home, who
sprinkles his conversation with Yiddish expressions. Ken, who was
injured in the
attack and whom Moe must take care of (but resents doing so) is a
younger, more naive, all-American kid. Moe is not very likeable, but we
understand his predicament. At one point, Ken, pushed to the end of his
rope, makes an anti-Semitic jab at Moe. We know Ken didn’t really mean
it, but Moe feels Ken’s comment justifies his worldview.

In
the end, the two are rescued — just before the island is to be used as
a nuclear test site. The film is more a character study than anything
else, and our feelings about Moe are left unresolved. Nonetheless, Moe
represents an early proto-Roth protagonist, one who has not yet moved
beyond ethnic identity, but remains plenty angry.

Roth’s next
adaptation to film appeared in October 1960, when “The Contest for
Aaron Gold,” originally published in 1955 as a short story in EPOCH,
appeared as an episode of the television series, “Alfred Hitchcock
Presents.”

I first turned to the Paley Center for Media’s library,
but they did not have a copy. They directed me to the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which had a copy that I was allowed to screen only in the media lab of UCLA’s Powell Library.
The special treat here was Powell Library, which stands across from
Royce Hall on the UCLA campus and is worth visiting just for the beauty
of its main reading room. “The Contest for Aaron Gold” is noteworthy
because its Philip Roth-esque lead is played by the recently deceased
Sydney Pollack, who turns in a credible performance as a sculptor who
has taken a job as the ceramics instructor at a summer camp. In the
film, all the characters have Jewish last names, but there is no
mention of the place being a Jewish summer camp, or of the campers or
the counselors being Jewish. But there is some tension here
between the lead character trying to stand up for his artistic beliefs
and not cave in to the pressures of the man running the place — some
of the issues around money and career that arise later in “Goodbye,
Columbus.” “The Contest” ends with a twist suitable for Alfred
Hitchcock. As a one-hour episodic TV drama, albeit a slightly obvious
and gimmicky one, I found it satisfying and enjoyable.

Almost
a decade passed before the next Roth work turned up on the screen. By
the time it did, Roth had become celebrated, and somewhat notorious,
for both his first collection of short stories, “Goodbye, Columbus,”
which came out in 1959, and for “Portnoy’s Complaint,” published in
1968. Both were made into films, and both star Richard Benjamin.

“Goodbye,
Columbus,” released in 1969, launched the careers of both Benjamin and
Ali McGraw. This film was easy to find; a copy was readily available at
the Santa Monica Public library.

Watching
“Goodbye, Columbus” at half a century’s remove from the short story’s
original publication is a strange experience. I found myself as
ambivalent about Benjamin’s Neil Klugman as he was about the Patimkin
family. To me, the Klugmans and the Patimkins each seemed to be playing
out their own strategy for rising above their immigrant backgrounds:
One sought insulation from the evils of the world in books, the others
in business and material goods. I found it hard to be judgmental,
because I found them so much more alike than different.

McGraw’s
Brenda Patimkin was a far more sympathetic character than I recalled.
Klugman, by contrast, never really seemed to care for Brenda beyond his
desire for her (a trait common to Roth characters that would be
examined in greater detail in “Portnoy”). In the original reviews, the
film was praised for its naturalism and its humor, but from the 21st
century perspective, I found it a less than satisfying experience.

“Portnoy’s
Complaint” was published in 1968 to huge acclaim. The 1972 film,
written, produced and directed by Ernest Lehman, was considered a huge
failure. Lehman was the screenwriter of such classics as “North by
Northwest,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “West Side Story,” “The Sound of
Music,” “Sabrina” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” — “Portnoy” is
the only film he ever directed.

Watching the movie today, it
struck me as yes, failed, but better than its reputation. Lehman chose
to take what was in essence a comic monologue and set it as both a
story of a love affair and of one man’s attempt to heal himself via
analysis of that relationship and his prior ones. At the same time,
Lehman attempted to show the freedom that the sexual revolution
inspired and the consequences of that freedom. Karen Black gives a very
strong performance as “the monkey,” and Richard Benjamin delivers a
more
nuanced performance than he gave in “Goodbye, Columbus.”

Another
12 years passed before PBS offered up a version of Roth’s “The Ghost
Writer” as part of its American Masters series in 1984. As far as I can
tell, this is the only production for which Roth is credited with
collaborating on the script. That may have something to do with the
fact that Claire Bloom, whom Roth was then involved with, plays a role
in the production.

I had imagined that a copy of this would be
at UCLA or available on DVD or VHS, or even offered at Eddie Brandt.
But it wasn’t. Luckily, it was in the collection of the Paley Center, and I was able to screen it in their library.

Mark
Linn-Baker, best known as Benjy Stone in “My Favorite Year” (and who
would later gain a measure of cultural currency on the sitcom, “Perfect
Strangers”) plays the young Nathan Zuckerman, a writer at the start of
his career visiting Lonoff,
a famous older writer, at Lonoff’s country home on the very occasion
when Lonoff’s wife (Claire Bloom) leaves, and a much younger woman, his
former student, urges Lonoff to run off with her. Zuckerman, whose
parents and rabbi have rebuked him for the way he portrays Jews in his
work, imagines the young woman to be Anne Frank, an Anne who survived
the war and is now going to marry him.

Although
tension-filled, “The Ghost Writer” unfolds at a somewhat leisurely
pace, making the film perhaps not the most exciting adaptation of
Roth’s work, though certainly one of the most successful, conveying a
measure of his writing’s literary texture.

Twenty years passed
after the PBS version of “The Ghost Writer” before another Roth novel
made it to the screen. In the interim, Roth experienced a second wind
as a novelist unparalleled in American letters, during which he won
almost every major prize and award available to him, including the
National Book Critics Award,
the Pulitzer Prize and the Pen Faulkner award, among many others. If he
were an athlete, you would have him checked for steroids. In this new
era, almost everything he wrote was optioned, including “The Human
Stain.”

“The Human Stain” (2003), which stars Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, was the easiest of Roth’s films I sought out — Blockbuster had many copies — but it is probably the least successful adaptation of his work.

I
will offer here that I once tried to option “The Human Stain” myself,
but was outbid. My thought was to treat it as a murder mystery in which
the detective uncovers a secret he had not bargained for. The hoped-for
casting was Paul Newman (his agent when approached said, “Bring me an
offer”) and Ellen Barkin. So perhaps I am biased, but I believe that
“The Human Stain” is a miss — whether you blame it on the casting or
for being too faithful to the novel’s
exposition, the story just doesn’t work on screen. The most poignant
moments of the novel do not resonate.

Still,
watching “The Human Stain” the other night, I was struck by how Roth
weaved elements of the personal dramas of Anatole Broyard, who like
Roth’s hero, reached great heights while leaving his African American
heritage behind, and R. B. Kitaj, who blamed his wife’s death on those
who attacked him — all the while setting this against the backdrop of
the Monica Lewinski affair and the Clinton impeachment investigation.

Which
brings us up to “Elegy.” David Kepesh, played by Ben Kingsley, is a
teacher, a public intellectual. The movie opens with his appearance on
Charlie Rose, and he is set up as a man beyond romantic love, an
intellectual’s Hef, who finds his romance in promiscuity. So,
naturally, he is caught off-guard when he falls in love with one of his
students, Consuela, a woman 30 years his junior. And when he does, he
becomes so
obsessively convinced that he will lose her, sooner or later, that he
sabotages the relationship. There is also a further irony, an inside
joke, almost, for those who know Roth’s work, because Kepesh, who
venerates Consuela’s breasts, is also the protagonist of an earlier
Roth work, “The Breast.”

Cruz
is shot so lovingly in this film, it is hard to believe that she would
not entrance anyone. Her work in the films of Pedro Almodóvar have
demonstrated her incredible range and talents as an actress, but Coixet
provides Cruz her greatest acting opportunity thus far in an
English-language film (at least, that is, until Woody Allen’s “Vicky
Cristina Barcelona”).

Coixet also manages to soften the hard
edge of Kepesh’s narcissism, that same edge that one feels in other
films made from Roth’s work, such as “Portnoy.” Here, we understand how
a man of a certain position, of a certain age, manages his private life
with both a woman with whom he has had a
long affair (played by Patricia Clarkson) and a younger woman.

I
will not reveal the twist in the plot, and the denouement of the
relationship, but intellectually it is powerful. Unfortunately, it is
not as powerful on screen.

In the end, “Elegy” likely will not
stand as the best adaptation of Roth’s work. Roth’s work continues to
appeal because of the restless desire of his protagonists and the way
he sets their stories against the backdrops of a given time and a given
moment in his protagonist’s life, as well as the way his character’s
sex drive acts as his life force. Roth continues to ask: If none of us
get out alive, how do we go forward? And when we do, what do we make of
this life and our loves?

As I write this, several of Roth’s
other works remain under option, including “American Pastoral,” as well
as his forthcoming novel, “Indignation,” to be published in September
by Houghton Mifflin. Perhaps one of them will transcend its
provenance, to be remembered as a great film. But for that, we must
still wait — and watch.

Tom
Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an
author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday
Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other
week.