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 his daughter commits a radical act of Vietnam War protest and goes into hiding. Here, Swede’s sorrow is just that of any father, not one who knows how easily his social standing can be ruined by reminding WASPs that he doesn’t belong. 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. But Dawn, too, is reduced to a series of melodramatic tics, as is Merry, who never gets to attain the caricatural frenzy that reveals her own desires and vulnerability beneath her infuriating single-mindedness.
The Vietnam War provides the backdrop of Merry’s radicalization, yet it exists largely as window dressing, lacking the forcefulness of debate that Roth conjured in his novel, as if he had written it during the thick of the social upheaval. The war of the film 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. Roth’s roiling, inward-looking literature is difficult to translate into images, but surely one could do better than replicating only the basic surface of the novel.
As he does in the book, Natan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) nests the narrative within the framing device of his own storytelling, but Roth slyly used Zuckerman to hammer home how much it was being filtered through multiple perspectives of the older generation and thus couldn’t help but be skewed. Here, Zuckerman simply relates the facts with only occasional emotional investment, personifying the tediously literal approach of this adaptation.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8–18.