August 11, 2002

A Rare Screen Test for Philip Roth



THE conventional wisdom about Philip Roth is that he's something of a recluse, holed up in his Connecticut home where, in the last decade, he has produced masterpiece after masterpiece with a dedication that makes just about every other writer seem like a slacker. But over Memorial Day weekend, Mr. Roth was lured to the campus of Williams College in a bucolic corner of the Berkshires to watch Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman and Gary Sinise recreate his 2000 novel, "The Human Stain."

When Mr. Roth arrived, the crew was filming a concert scene with Mr. Hopkins and Ms. Kidman. "They did that moment again and again," Mr. Roth said, bemused by the technical tedium of another art form. But, he said, he was genuinely impressed by Hollywood's translation of his vision. As the actors waited for their next shot, Mr. Roth chatted with Ms. Kidman. She bit her nails nervously while he assessed her performance. "I hate to say this in front of Nicole," he began, glancing at her as he paused for effect, "but what she did was terrific. You could see what was happening inside her head when all she did was go to touch this guy and then decide against it."

"The Human Stain" is the story of an aging classics professor named Coleman Silk who is forced to retire when he's accused of being a racist. The novel explores how Silk's life unravels, and why he kept his true identity secret for 50 years. He's actually a black man, not white and Jewish as everyone believes. Mr. Hopkins plays Silk while Ms. Kidman is his lover, Faunia Farley, an apparently illiterate cleaning woman who has a secret of her own. Mr. Sinise is Nathan Zuckerman, the writer (and Roth alter ego) who uncovers Silk's real background. Ed Harris plays Faunia's ex-husband, Les, a disturbed Vietnam veteran.

Although Mr. Roth is one of America's greatest living novelists, his work has never been easy to translate to film. His characters are complex, often unlikable, and much of the action is recounted through interior monologues hardly guarantees of box office success. In fact, the last time a Roth novel made it to the big screen was 1972, when Richard Benjamin, as the title character, rather sleazily redefined "Portnoy's Complaint." (A few years earlier, Ali MacGraw lured Mr. Benjamin more successfully in "Goodbye, Columbus.") Over the next three decades, only one Roth novel, "The Ghost Writer," was dramatized, and then only on television.

But Mr. Roth's low profile on screen may be about to change. In addition to "The Human Stain," which is scheduled for release early next year, two other recent Roth novels "The Dying Animal" and his Pulitzer Prize-winning "American Pastoral" have been optioned for movies.

As the first in what could be a Roth revival, "The Human Stain" has the burden of demonstrating that there is an audience for this kind of thought-provoking work and that's far from certain. Even Mr. Roth was surprised when the veteran producer Tom Rosenberg, chairman of Lakeshore Entertainment, first approached him about making "The Human Stain" into a movie. But, said Mr. Roth, watching his book spring to life on his first visit to the set, "once Tom started to talk about it, I wasn't surprised anymore. He seemed to know what he was doing."

In Williamstown, Mr. Roth seemed pleased to see his characters materialize in front of the cameras and quite content to let the moviemakers do it their way. As he and Ms. Kidman talked about plans for dinner that night, he said he had no one in mind for Faunia when he agreed to the movie. Ms. Kidman interrupted: "You can be honest. You can tell me." Mr. Roth shook his head: "I don't see enough movies. I don't know enough."

Ms. Kidman conceded that she was an unlikely choice to play a college janitor. After she got the role, she met with Mr. Roth in New York. "He actually gave me a lot of confidence," she said. "It was just spending time with him, hearing things, observations, ideas. You absorb it and you're not quite sure how it's going to manifest itself."

Mr. Rosenberg was also inspired by Mr. Roth. When he first read "The Human Stain," he said, "I had to make it." "It just got in me," he added. "It's the great American novel." He said he was attracted by the novel's intertwining themes and story lines, which explore the relationship between social expectations and personal identity. "I knew that I could have in the screenplay some of the greatest parts ever written and I knew that I could get some of the greatest actors," he said. "To me, it all just clicked." But, he added, "everybody thought I was nuts."

To acquire the rights, he flew to Connecticut to have lunch at a restaurant of Mr. Roth's choosing near his home in Litchfield. "He was very specific," Mr. Rosenberg said. "You could tell this is where he had lunch every day." Mr. Rosenberg had the sense that Mr. Roth always sat at the same table, maybe even always ordered the same meal. This was clearly a man used to having things his way. Mr. Rosenberg promised Mr. Roth that he would be true to the story. Then he respectfully asked Mr. Roth what kind of involvement he would like to have in the project. Mr. Roth replied that he understood the realities of the situation. "You'll have only one problem with me," Mr. Roth told him. "If the check doesn't clear."

Fortunately, the check cleared. But there were a few other obstacles. The biggest was the screenplay. Lakeshore's president, Gary Lucchesi, thought it could easily take three or four years to get the script right. The trick was getting a writer who wasn't afraid of tackling Roth. Mr. Lucchesi suggested Nicholas Meyer, who had been his client when he was an agent.

Mr. Meyer, who was nominated for an Oscar for the 1976 screen adaptation of his novel "The Seven Percent Solution," said that he was a huge Roth fan and was immediately interested. But he struggled to find the key to making the novel work cinematically. "I was bowled over by the book," Mr. Meyer said by telephone from his home in Los Angeles. "I thought it was his best book in years. I thought, `It's a grown-up, provocative, challenging piece of work, and I haven't got a clue how to do it.' "

For weeks, Mr. Meyer tried unsuccessfully to find a way into the story. Finally he confessed his failure to his wife. She told him just to admit that he couldn't do it, and move on.

Mr. Meyer decided to follow her advice. "It was a big weight off my shoulders," he said. Then, a day or so before he was scheduled to meet with the producers and tell them he was off the project, he suddenly had an inspiration. "I was sitting there in the bathtub, staring at my toes getting wrinkled, and I was not thinking about this at all I promise you when suddenly, out of nowhere, like tumblers clicking successively into place on a safe: Act I, Act II, Act III. Don't know why, don't know where it came from." Mr. Meyer and the producers struck a deal and in Mr. Meyer's view, everything from that point on was just a matter of filling in the blanks.

Not so for Mr. Rosenberg and Mr. Lucchesi. Although they had put their faith in Mr. Meyer, they weren't sure that he could pull it off. It took Mr. Meyer three months to write it all down. Then he sent Mr. Rosenberg the finished screenplay. "The day I got it," Mr. Rosenberg recalled, "I couldn't open up the envelope. I couldn't open it until the next day. I was really afraid. I was so nervous." Finally he worked up his courage. By about Page 34, he knew. "That was a very happy day," he said.

For Mr. Meyer, the key was dividing the action into three specific time frames. In the first part, he presents Coleman Silk as a failed academic, the victim of political correctness run amok. This action ends with Silk telling his lawyer that he never wants to see his "lily white face" again. That's bewildering to the lawyer, since Silk is presumed to be white. The next act reveals Silk's real past and puts his comment in context. The third act is Silk's crisis after his disgrace.

Readers of the book will also find a couple of major changes in how the characters are developed. Delphine Roux, a fellow professor and Coleman Silk's major nemesis, becomes a minor part of the story. "I thought it was the weakest element in the book," said Mr. Meyer, "and more balls than I could keep up in the air." Another big change was to make Zuckerman a young man, not, as in the book, the same age as Silk. This was an early decision by the producers. "It sets up the conflict between them," Mr. Rosenberg said. "This is Coleman's last hurrah. Zuckerman has no idea what that really means."

To prepare for Zuckerman, Mr. Sinise said he read earlier Roth novels in which the same character is a much younger man. "By the time this book comes out," said Mr. Sinise, "Zuckerman's been divorced four times. He's just a guy who is struggling with his own demons and has chosen to isolate, hibernate himself from life and withdraw. Coleman kind of blows into his life and changes all that."

Mr. Hopkins said the only research he did was to read the book itself. And that was enough, because the character resonated with him. "He hates political correctness and so do I," Mr. Hopkins said. "He makes his choice and pushes away from the harbor of his own life and he is prepared to take the consequences."

Silk's drive to recreate himself also struck a chord with Mr. Hopkins, who a few years ago moved from Britain to California and became an American citizen. "Many people reinvent themselves in their lives," he said. "I reinvented my own life. I didn't want to be bound up by patriotism or nationality."

The man who has to weave together all these unruly thematic strands is Robert Benton, the director who won Oscars for "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Places in the Heart." "I thought we needed a real dramatist to direct the film," Mr. Lucchesi said. "Benton's best films are dramas." Mr. Lucchesi added that Mr. Benton, who is nearly 70, "also had some perspective to understand Coleman."

On the set in Williamstown, Mr. Benton seemed an unassuming, almost grandfatherly figure. But he was clearly in charge of what he described as an "interpretation" of Roth's work. "A novel is like a piece of sculpture," he said a few days before filming ended. "You can't reproduce it. You can only reproduce parts of it using the parts of it that are the most meaningful and seem to be what the novel stands for." Mr. Benton said he read the novel before he was recruited for the project and was so moved by it that he even thought of acquiring the rights himself. But he said he believed that the film he had made like any adaptation "must float above the book, be independent of the book." If he succeeds, Mr. Roth could attract an audience that even Portnoy wouldn't complain about.

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