One of the most despairing and searching works of American literature, Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral is a tragicomic grotesque that exaggerates both sides of the generation gap to better explore the conflict between young and old. Ewan McGregor’s inert adaption, however, smooths out the 1997 novel’s eruptions of self-loathing and doubt, leaving only loose sketches of conflict that bid for prestige. That McGregor himself plays Seymour “Swede” Levov, the goy-passing Jew whose idyllic life is shattered by bad-seed daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning), is the film’s first problem. The Scottish actor in no way embodies the crux of Roth’s character: that of a man whose hard work and ambition for the quintessential American life ultimately can only pay off thanks to his genetic fortune.
As such, the film loses the additional context of Swede’s desperate attempt to maintain his family when Merry commits a radical act of Vietnam protest and goes into hiding. Here, Swede’s sorrow could be that of any father; certainly it isn’t that of a man who knows how easily his social standing can be ruined by reminding WASPs that he doesn’t belong among them. Swede’s shiksa wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), is initially a more compelling character, a woman whose position in society has never been threatened and who therefore feels the pressure of exile all the more acutely. As news of Merry’s terrorist activity spreads, Dawn retreats within herself, carefully walking through her own home as if afraid to touch anything, of coming into contact with whatever vestiges of her apostate daughter remain behind. Eventually, however, Dawn’s breakdown becomes nothing more than a series of melodramatic tics that transform her into an object of pity—a victim of her bad seed.
Merry, too, has been drastically, irreparably simplified for the screen. She’s one of the most chaotic, unsettling characters in all of fiction. On the page, her physical form is subject to endless, erratic fluctuations of weight and hygiene, and her stutter comes and goes depending on her surroundings. She, more than perhaps any other character in the novel, epitomizes the pressures of living up to the previous generation and struggling to make one’s own way, and the nightmarish arc of her life exaggeratingly illustrates that fundamental conflict of self. In a sense, she’s also the story’s constant, a being who’s consistent in her inconsistency, and as such doesn’t suffer the same crises of identity that afflict her parents as their patiently built social status crumbles. That makes Fanning’s one-note performance all the more frustrating, as her Merry comes across as nothing more than a spoiled kid gone rogue, reflecting the easiest interpretation of the volatile character.
Just as the complexity of the rage that brews within Merry and baffles her father fails to register, the war that provides the spark for Merry’s radicalization exists largely as window dressing. McGregor’s look at Vietnam lacks the forcefulness of debate that Roth volcanically conjured in his novel, which reads as if it was written during the thick of the social upheaval. The war here is nothing more than a collection of signifiers and trite political talk, and an excuse for McGregor to predictably drop Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” into the soundtrack. Vietnam is the catalyst that truly unleashes Merry’s decisive break from expectation and normalcy, but here it’s conveyed as a greatest-hits collection of images already burned into the cultural memory, divorced from any sense that it was the first television war.
As he does in the book, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) nests the narrative within the framing device of his own storytelling, but Roth slyly used Zuckerman to hammer home how much said narrative couldn’t help but appear skewed by virtue of being filtered through multiple perspectives of the older generation. Here, though, Zuckerman simply relates the facts with only occasional emotional investment, seeming to appear in the film only because he’s also in the novel. Zuckerman’s perfunctory inclusion epitomizes an adaptation that’s more literal than literary. McGregor’s film nominally replicates the broad strokes of the novel’s plot, but like Zuckerman’s presence here, they’re divorced from their deeper context. One of the most excoriating entries in the American canon has been scrubbed clean of its multitudes.