When it comes to adapting great works of literature for the screen, it’s almost always a mistake to tell it like it is. What makes a story “great” on the page is inextricably tied up with the power of prose; not just what it’s about, but how it’s about what it’s about. An adaptation of a great work of literature necessitates a great director, because a great adaptation is defined by the tension between two authors, two creatives wrestling over what makes a story – or a piece of art – so powerful. There are exceptions, but think of The Shining, The Leopard, Apocalypse Now, even Fantastic Mr Fox – all overflowing with distinctive, personal gambits that try to get to the heart of the matter.
Philip Roth is about as archetypal a “great” novelist as they come, so perhaps someone should have thought twice before handing the reins of his Pulitzer Prize-winning story to Obi Wan Kenobi. It’s easy to see why Ewan McGregor stepped in after original director Phillip Noyce dropped out; it’s a project with sweep, meaning, and anguish in plentiful supply, providing the opportunity for the Scot to replenish his diminishing actor’s stock after a series of misfiring projects.
That the result does the opposite is not entirely McGregor’s fault – though his lack of actorly depth and a flat visual sensibility do the film no favours. No, the core problem is John Romano’s screenplay, which presents the least appealing version of Roth’s novel imaginable. Retaining the literary structure of flashbacks – David Strathairn visits a high-school reunion, where he finds out about the grim family history of Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor) from his brother (Rupert Evans) – for no discernible reason, the film presents a confusing and rushed version of a historically rich story, where Seymour and his wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) see their daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) become a radical activist in the era of Watergate and Vietnam.
Beauty, Psycho, Gangster, Honey – add “American” to a title, and it acquires a big picture focus. Unfortunately, Pastoral is expressed in the same petulant, immature terms that Merry processes her political views. Foundations of character are jettisoned in favour of tired material on the American dream, which, combined with Alexandre Desplat’s slushy score, is too tasteless and airless to convince. Connelly and Fanning try their best, but nothing seems to click. This probably should have stayed on the page.
American Pastoral is released nationwide on 11th November 2016 and it’s currently screening at the Everyman cinemas, to check the times visit here.
Watch the trailer for American Pastoral here: