I am beginning to think that Roth is like Pynchon in the sense that very few filmmakers should be adapting his work, especially first-time filmmakers. With Indignation, which was one of the last few novels from Philip Roth, we find Marcus Messner, a New Jersey-raised scholar, embarking on his journey to a small Lutheran school by the name of Winesburg College. Quickly he falls for the charming, yet troubled Olivia Hutton (played by Sarah Gadon) that quickly leads down a road of pain.
It’s not so much that Roth’s work is inscrutable to adapt, it’s more that no one really seems to be able to make Roth’s uber-specific understanding of the English language adapt fashionably on the screen. Roth writes long sequences of conversation, often times only taking place in a single location. With Indignation, it’s clear that James Schamus has no idea how to bring Roth’s dialogue-heavy work onto the screen. Very few novelists come close to Roth’s ability to establish their central characters from the start. With Indignation, I was shocked by how unsuccessfully the characters were built up here. Schamus just drops these characters in front of us with no apparent reason for us as an audience to care about this relationship. So many of Roth’s subtleties as a writer come across as a heavy-handed display of buffoonery as the ending ultimately takes the film in another direction; leaving us with an entirely new message.
More or less, Indignation is this year’s Brooklyn, just much, much worse. Both are incredibly slight period piece that ultimately leave no lasting impression. The main difference between the two is that Brooklyn wasn’t continuously agonizing to watch. As someone who adores the work of Philip Roth, watching James Schamus completely tear apart Roth’s work is truly painful, especially as someone who holds it as highly as Pope Francis does The Bible.