I didn’t want to post about American Pastoral. It’s not that I didn’t like the film; it was pretty involving, start to finish. And hey – Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connelly? What’s not to like? Hannah Nordberg is impressive as the young Merry, and I think McGregor does a good job of setting up and then destroying the idyllic-oh-so-perfect lives of the Levovs. That’s basically what happens in the book, and it’s pretty crushing in the movie. I would almost say, if you don’t want to read the book, or if you haven’t read it but want to, this is a good way to get a feel for it, in two hours.
But the reviews from most folks are not so great, and in some cases, I can see why. The multiple layers of the novel are only halfway done: the framing using Zuckerman at the reunion is intact but lost is the sense of Zuckerman more-or-less making up the bulk of the Swede’s life. I don’t really know how you’d do that in a movie, so that didn’t really bother me. McGregor moves a few scenes around, and makes the whole thing more linear. And anyway, I hate framing devices in anything – yes, even in Princess Bride (even with mighty Peter Falk). Just tell me the story; don’t tell me a story about a guy telling me a story. So I could’ve done without that, too. However, I think the criticism is that all that is quintessentially Roth and essential for capturing the complexity of the book. But then – his novels are notoriously hard to film, so perhaps McGregor is just the most recent invader of Russia – maybe only failing because he tried in the first place.
American Pastoral is the first Philip Roth I’ve read, and it was definitely not my cup of tea. Of course, that makes me feel stupid, because this damn thing won the Pulitzer Prize and is on a few lists, like “Best 100 Novels”, “Best Novels of the 20th Century” and even one called “Best Novels that Only Morons Wouldn’t Immediately Fall in Love With”. (I might be a neandertal, but at least I’m an honest one.) As to whether or not you should see the movie, I can only say that what you’re getting is a simplified version of the novel. Isn’t that usually what happens with literary works, as opposed to books written for the express purpose of being optioned for films? Not always, but often, I think. Kudos to McGregor for having the guts to attack something this tough, but bro – why not France or the Netherlands?