How do I know that I am, at heart, a middlebrow critic? Well, partly because I have yet to join my fellow critic Scott in his celebration of the Jackass franchise. But also because I really liked James Schamus’s cinematic adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel Indignation, a film that New Yorker film critic Richard Brody referred to as “cramped and simplistic” in comparison to the “terrifying and visionary” book.
Why was the delightfully highbrow Brody (the title for his piece on the recent Ghostbusters remake calls that film “bland, mechanical, and totally worth seeing) displeased? He makes a detailed case, but the thesis is right there at the end:
- Roth seems to have written his novel with a sense of infinite possibility and infinite curiosity. His telling of the story is itself the discovery of a singular way to tell it. Schamus has filmed the story with a sense of constraint. The writer-director didn’t just reduce and simplify the novel in order to squeeze it into movie form; he sterilized it. Everything that makes the novel live has been killed to make it into a movie, as if the cinema were some lesser medium that would be broken by the attempt to confine a living thing, a thing as spirited and active as the novel “Indignation.” Of course, the breaking of familiar forms in the interest of artistic freedom — the inward, spiritual type of freedom that becomes political when the work of art instills it in readers, viewers, or listeners — is exactly the point. It’s what Roth does, it’s what Beethoven did — and it’s what Schamus, making an utterly familiar and easy film, doesn’t do.
Short version: Roth was in full Roth mode when he wrote Indignation, and Schamus made an ordinary story out of it. (Do go and read the long version, though; it’s very well done.) The thing is, Schamus knows this. When we chatted, he freely discussed how he thought the characters could survive without Roth’s tremendous voice and…