Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 16, 2003 2:36 pm 
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Dutiful but misguided adaptation

The Human Stain is a novel by Philip Roth about a victim of supreme irony. Coleman Silk is an African American. He has passed for white -- and Jewish -- for most of his adult life. He’s been professor of classics, then dean of the small college he has slowly molded into a classy institution. Suddenly Political Correctness is his downfall. Not knowing they're black, he calls a couple of students who never showed up for his class "spooks," and in the furor that results over his innocent use of this word he's forced to retire. In the book his wife dies some time later from the shock of this. (With some loss of versimilitude, the movie has her die the very day the scandal breaks out.) His resignation combined with his wife's death leaves him alone and without status or work any more.

He is set adrift, and in his new life as a forgotten man Coleman has an affair with a trashy white woman far his junior – which leads to their death. Along the way the reader of Roth’s book learns all about who Silk was, but Silk himself tells no one except his new young love.

It’s an interesting novel, full of ideas roiling in the novelist’s head about such moral and political issues as Clinton’s impeachment (which Roth considers absurd), the excesses of political correctness on American campuses, the ironies of the racial and ethnic pecking order, feminism, academic infighting, and viagra-driven sex for aging males. The central theme is of a man in mid-century America who reconstructs himself and achieves distinction, then at the tail end of the Clinton era is brought down for nothing.

The problem with adapting this novel for the screen is that even on the page there are back-stories that require some fast footwork to shore up. There’s not a hope in hell of doing them justice in a couple of hours of scenes and dialogue.

Having just seen Meg Ryan in an “edgy” role, we’re now asked to accept the far-fetched casting of the very white Brit Anthony Hopkins as an American white Negro and the regal Nicole Kidman as a sluttish woman. Wentworth Brown, who plays Coleman Silk in the flashbacks, is wonderfully cast. He is a strong, charismatic young man who looks just like what he’s supposed to be: a person of African descent who could pass not only for white but also for Jewish. What he can’t pass as is Anthony Hopkins fifty years earlier. He also doesn’t look a bit like the actors who play his family either, excellent though they are.

You can argue that a black person who passes as white is a person who looks white, end of story. But we are also asked to connect Hopkins with Wentworth Brown. We’re asked to believe that he has passed for Jewish even with his Jewish wife. We’re asked to believe that he talks like an American. And we’re asked to believe that Nicole Kidman would take him as her lover. That’s a lot to swallow. One might accept him in bed with Nicole if he were thinner. For the rest: it’s no go.

Ms. Kidman’s character is a woman who was born to a wealthy family, but was sexually abused, ran away, and dropped to the level of little more than trailer trash. What such a woman would look and act like is hard to picture.

But it’s unlikely after working as a janitor for years and being in an abusive marriage that she’d still have Kidman’s radiant, glowing looks. Even Ms. Kidman’s messed up locks still have a wonderful gloss.

Ed Harris plays Ms. Kidman’s crazy Vietnam vet estranged husband. This is just a quick schtick for Harris. He does reasonably well in his scenes. But his back-story is slashed to nothing, eliminating some of the more fascinating sequences in the novel. Some writers have made fun of the one sequence in which Ms. Kidman’s character has a long conversation with a crow in a cage. Clearly it doesn’t work. For again, a whole sequence of passages in the novel about her character’s relationship to outcast birds has -- perforce -- been trimmed down. This complicated, fanciful aspect of her back-story -- almost completely lost -- would have been better cut completely, because it makes no sense as presented.

I’m not sure what Gary Sinese’s ethnicity is, but he doesn’t look like Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman to me. Sinese is a solid supporting actor, but it’s hard to see him as a brilliant, but temporarily dried up Jewish novelist. His friendship with the mature Coleman doesn’t click. The outsider bond can’t resonate using these actors.

It’s still a pleasure to watch Ms. Kidman slumming so gracefully, and the episodes about young Coleman and his family are very well done even if the casting is -- again -- off.

This is a dutiful but misguided adaptation. When they put it together, it wasn't that the filmmakers didn't understand the book. They just didn't realize that it wasn't suitable for a film adaptation. Not a literal one, anyway. Philip Roth’s novel is a mass of back-stories. You’d need a mini-series to do justice to them. Even the female colleague who sets out to ruin Coleman’s reputation after his verbal faux pas has a whole subplot devoted to her. Benton and company would have quite possibly done better to have thrown the novel away and started from scratch, using the basic theme. And a different cast.

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