Addition by subtraction is a common concept in, of all places, sports. Say, you have a team with a player who hugs the ball, is not a good team-mate, etc. Even if this guy is a good player at that sport, the team will probably improve when he’s gone, because everyone else — every other element of that team — will be able to shine brighter when the spotlight-grabber goes away.
That happens with Philip Roth’s classic novel American Pastoral, when one compares it with American Pastoral, the superior, if more spare, 2016 Ewan McGregor film written by John Romano.
The novel tells the story of Seymour Lvov, aka The Swede, a famous high-school athlete (hence the sports metaphor!) who marries his sweetheart Dawn, a miss New Jersey, and settles into a successful family and professional life. He has only one daughter, Merry, who turns out to be a spoiled little brat who, spoiler alert, wrecks The Swede’s life.
American Pastoral, the novel, is good but marred by Roth’s political correctness, much like the life of Coleman Silk, the protagonist of Roth’s Human Stain, is marred by the same issue. He always was a very political writer, starting off with Portnoy’s Complaint, which is all about America’s ethnic tensions, and ending up with The Plot Against America, which is a dark liberal fantasy along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale.
In American Pastoral, the novel, Merry becomes a communist terrorist who then joins a weird cult, defaces and prostitutes herself, rejects and blames her parents, and hurts them like nobody else can: but she has a point. In the novel, Merry’s fucked up life is a reflection of her parent’s bourgeois betrayals. This is how Wikipedia succintly puts it:
At a dinner party, Seymour discovers that his wife Dawn has been having an affair with Princeton-educated architect William Orcutt III, for whom she undergoes a facelift. Seymour then realizes that his wife is planning to leave him for Orcutt. It is revealed that Seymour himself previously had a short-term affair with Merry’s speech therapist, Sheila Salzman, and that she and her husband Shelly hid Merry in their home after the post office bombing. Seymour sadly concludes that everyone he knows may have a veneer of respectability, but each engages in subversive behavior and that he cannot understand the truth about anyone based upon the conduct they outwardly display. He is forced to see the truth about the chaos and discord rumbling beneath the “American pastoral”, which has brought about profound personal and societal changes he no longer can ignore. Simultaneously, the dinner party underscores the fact that no one ever truly understands the hearts of other people.
The wonderful thing about McEwan’s film is that all of this goes away. All of this claptrap about how society is cruel and we’re vessels of our parents’ follies is removed, all of these oft-repeated clichés are gone and we are left with a simple proposition: what if you raise a monster? What if your only kid, the one on which you put all your effort, all your sleepless nights, all of your hopes and dreams, all that money for good schools and tutors, becomes an independent human, separate from you, opposite from you, one that enjoys tearing you apart?
That’s the central conceit of McEwan’s film. In every other respect, it’s a very faithful adaption of the Old Boomer’s novel about how the hidden scars of the 1950s gave way to the betrayals of the 1960s and 1970s. But in the most fundamental sense, it’s an actual betrayal of Roth’s central premise.
In the book, guilt, the most central concern of all of modern literature, is diffuse: the Jewish writer comes to very Christian conclusion that we’re all sinners. In the movie, guilt is squarely on one party: Merry. McEwan, the director and actor playing The Swede, and Romano, the screenwriter, pose this question directly: why if you can’t spread the guilt, collectivize it? What if it’s all on one side?
The movie could have been called: American Pastoral, The Swede’s Version. In it, a lot of little inversions are conducted: The Swede, a good-looking, wealthy man, strives to stay faithful to his wife and rejects the sexual advances of his own daughter Merry, the speech-threapist and Rita Cohen, a friend of Merry. He’s just a hardworking American man trying to provide for his family, be fair with his employees (many of them black) and true to his wife. He doesn’t have a veneer of respectability: he is a respectable man.
The 1960s then roll along, and he’s smashed into pieces, with his very own daughter, a truly frightening character in the movie (and a mere vehicle for guilt-collectization in the book) acting as deus ex machina.
All that McEwan did to the book goes against its central political message. If America is not guilty, but Merry, the terrorist communist, is the one to blame for the problems, then, what’s the message? Just too dreadful to contemplate. No wonder that the movie critics in Rotten Tomatoes hate this subtle, brilliant, haunting film.
The site’s critical consensus reads, fairly enough: “American Pastoral finds debuting director Ewan McGregor’s reach exceeding its grasp with a well-intentioned Philip Roth adaptation that retains the form, but little of the function, of its source material.”
A prominent quote from the Toronto Star reviewer informs us that the movie “fails to illuminate the audience”: of course, only some kinds of illumination are allowed.