Film: Seeing Is Disbelieving

I’ve seen any number of first-rate movies made out of novels I’ve never read. To Have and Have Not, In a Lonely Place, The Night of the Hunter, Vertigo, True Grit—all are important to me in their varied ways, and I’m sure the books on which they were based are worth reading, too. (Well, maybe not To Have and Have Not.) So why haven’t I checked out the originals? Because the films are so satisfying in their own right that I feel no need to know their sources. From time to time I’ve made a point of doing so and have usually been disappointed—James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, for instance, aren’t nearly as effective on the page as on the screen.

Conversely, I almost always recoil with anticipated horror from movies based on great novels that I know and love, for the perfectly good reason that they aren’t necessary. I don’t need to see what the characters in The Portrait of a Lady or The Age of Innocence look like: I already know. As I’ve said before in this space, a great work of art is complete in and of itself, and can only be effectively translated into a different medium by being subjected to a radical imaginative transformation, the ultimate object of which is the creation of a new artwork that can be fully experienced and appreciated without reference to its source. Anything short of that is a waste of time.

Somewhere in between these extremes lie those films based on “important” novels that aren’t any good. I suspect Philip Roth’s The Human Stain belongs in this category, but I don’t know because I haven’t read it and don’t plan to. I’m one of those unfortunate folk who is allergic to most of the Major American Novelists who came of age in the Fifties. Roth, Bellow, Mailer, Updike—all leave me cold as last month’s fish. My guess, however, is that Robert Benton and Nicholas Meyer, the director and screenwriter of The Human Stain, have made a good-faith effort to preserve the essence of Philip Roth’s novel—and that this is why the movie doesn’t work.

Both film and novel center on the passion (as Roth would doubtless put it) of Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), an aging professor of classics who commits the unforgivable sin of thoughtlessly using the word “spook” (i.e., ghost) in one of his classes, thus inspiring a half-witted student to file a complaint charging him with racial insensitivity. The irony is that Silk is himself a light-skinned black who, not wanting to be defined by his color, has spent his whole adult life “passing” as white and (wait for it) Jewish. Hauled up on charges before a star-chamber faculty committee, Silk resigns rather than defend himself by revealing the secret of his birth. With his life in ruins, he embarks on a torrid affair with a lady janitor (Nicole Kidman), an earth-mother type whose sexual ministrations put him back in touch with reality—albeit only briefly [spoiler alert!] for her racist redneck ex-husband (Ed Harris) promptly murders the happy couple.

Does any of this perhaps strike you as the teeniest bit implausible? Granted, Roth based Silk on the real-life example of the literary critic Anatole Broyard, but Broyard was content merely to pass for white (and by most accounts didn’t do it very convincingly, either). Therein lies the chief obstacle to filming The Human Stain, which is that you can’t cast it. The characters, after all, are not human beings: They’re symbols made as flesh, the usual Rothian walking archetypes. If you had to pick a movie star to play an aging American classics professor who successfully pretends to be Jewish but is really black, Sir Anthony Hopkins is obviously the last person on earth you’d choose. But whom would you choose? Whom could you choose? You can write about a character like Coleman Silk, but you can’t put him on screen without running the risk of causing your viewers to giggle.

The self-evident incapacity of any intelligent adult to believe in the existence of any of the major characters in The Human Stain sinks the film before the first reel is over, despite the best efforts of a gaggle of gifted actors. (Silk’s pillorying on trumped-up charges of racism, alas, is all too plausible, as anyone even casually conversant with the annals of academic PC knows well.) They’re so good, in fact, that they almost make you believe what you’re seeing. The emotions look real, but the dramatic framework that holds them in place is absurd. If it were any more believable, of course, you’d be forced to confront all those awful Portnoy-redux clichés head-on. I mean, must we sit through yet another chthonic paean to the spiritual significance of interclass fornication? Haven’t we had our fill of that hooey? I know I have and Philip Roth hasn’t, which is why I don’t read his novels anymore.

As for Nicole Kidman, all I can say is that somebody in the makeup department worked overtime to give her dishpan hands. I’m told there are those who believe her to be underrated as an actress, but I don’t think she’s any good at all, with or without clothing.

Not all film versions of good books are supererogatory. You’ve probably read more than enough about Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, so I’ll be brief: It’s all wrong and all right.

Considered solely as a visual translation of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, Master and Commander is simplified in the extreme, with Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), the Irish Catholic surgeon-spy-philosopher, shriveled into a sidekick so unmemorable that his name might as well have been changed to Smith. As a cinematic spectacle, though, it’s astonishingly good, one of the most exciting war movies ever made. Russell Crowe is dead-center perfect as Captain Jack Aubrey, and O’Brian himself would surely have been pleased to know that the moral gravity of his novels has made it to the screen intact. Not only does Master and Commander forthrightly celebrate the martial virtues, but it does so from an unabashedly Christian (if not explicitly Catholic) perspective. Glory be!

To be sure, Master and Commander is no substitute for the books on which it is based, but what movie is? If you already know the Aubrey-Maturin saga, you’ll be stunned by the evocative precision with which Weir has made it manifest on screen. If you don’t, you’ll be thrilled by the vaulting excitement of this spectacular film version. You can even take the kids, so long as they’re old enough to handle the violence of the shipboard battles, which are quite graphic (but never gratuitously so). Once they’ve seen it, my bet is that they’ll want to read the novels—and if you haven’t, feel free to join them.

Terry Teachout

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Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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