Philip Roth on screen

Philip Roth continues to be one of the most astonishing writers of our age, proving year in and year out that he “still has it in him”, by writing consistently interesting – and frequently popular – novels, even as he has just passed 76 years old.

I have always felt a strong affinity with Roth, ever since I read his first short novel (novella, really), Goodbye Columbus, first published in 1959.  I loved that book – set, as it was, in the suburbs of New Jersey (where I also grew up) and charting the bittersweet romantic adventures of a lower middle class Jewish guy and his upper middle class Radcliffe girlfriend.  In my junior (year 11) or senior (year 12) of high school, I wrote a major paper for English class about Roth’s then first four novels: Goodbye, Columbus, Letting Go (1962), When She Was Good (1967) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).  I recall my English teacher at the time arguing with me that he was not a major writer, but I successfully argued back that he would indeed be one.  So I got to write the paper.

I was right, of course.

I have not read all of Roth’s books, but well more than half, and he continues to astonish me. I  am still haunted by his book The Plot Against America, truly one of the best “alternative histories” ever written.

He and I have a few things in common:  like growing up Jewish in New Jersey, and both of our fathers working for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. A nd here’s another one – my former yoga teacher’s father taught English at Weequahic High School in Newark, New Jersey … to Philip Roth.  Just two degrees of separation there.

Considering Roth’s amazing output of books (twenty-five novels, two memoirs, two books about writing, and apparently two more in the works – The Humbling due out later this year (2009) and The Nemesis due in 2010 (see Wikipedia’s Philip Roth Bibliography) – it’s interesting that relatively few have been adapted to the screen as films:

Goodbye Columbus, made in 1969 (with the action transferred out of New Jersey to New York and the suburbs north of New York City), starring Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw – and a candidate for one of my favourite films of all time.  The best portrayal of American Jewish middleclass life circa the late 1960s (when the film is set, a good ten-plus years after the book was set, which was in the late 1950s).

Portnoy’s Complaint, made in 1972, again with Richard Benjamin, and a definite contender for one of the worst films of all time.

The Ghost Writer, a TV adaptation made in 1984 which I have not seen.

The Human Stain, made in 2003 starring Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk, the African-American pretending to be Jewish (see my March 2004 review of this film), and Nicole Kidman as his illiterate girlfriend.

Elegy (based on Roth’s book The Dying Animal), which has just been released in Australia in April, starring Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz (see my separate posting on Elegy).

American Pastoral, apparently set for release later this year (2009), directed by the Australian Phillip Noyce (Rabbit Proof Fence, Patriot Games and Newsfront, which surely is one of the best Australian films ever made) and rumoured (BUT NOT confirmed) to be starring Jennifer Connelly, Evan Rachel Wood and Paul Bettany.

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One Response to Philip Roth on screen

  1. […] author Philip Roth’s novels have had a mixed result when adapted to the screen (see my post about this topic):  Goodbye Columbus became the most successful Jewish-theme films of the 1960s (and remains […]

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