Hollywood’s Inscrutable Philip Roth Infatuation

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Hollywood has a slew of Philip Roth adaptations in the pipeline. Why do they keep trying when his films keep flopping?

Philip Roth has been retired for two years, and hasn’t published a novel for four, but he’s still one of Hollywood’s hottest writers.

Roth’s next-to-last novel, The Humbling, is set to appear in movie theaters this January, with Al Pacino in the lead role. American Pastoral, considered by many to be his masterpiece, is also in the works, with Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, and Dakota Fanning slated to star. And now James Schamus, a producer, screenwriter and longtime collaborator with Ang Lee, has announced that he will make his directorial debut with an adaptation of Roth’s novel Indignation.


Hollywood’s recent passion for bringing Roth to the big screen is particularly intriguing — if not puzzling — given that his work hasn’t done particularly well at the box office. His work first appeared on film before he was famous, in the Roger Corman B-movie flick Battle of Blood Island of 1960 (adapted from the Roth short story, “Expect the Vandals”), and he had his only unequivocal box-office success with the 1969 adaptation of Goodbye, Columbus.

Since then, Hollywood has made movies of Portnoy’s Complaint, The Human Stain and The Dying Animal, all of them critical and commercial flops. It’s gotten so bad that The Atlantic’s Adam Chandler wrote a jeremiad on the subject in June entitled, Stop Making Film Adaptations of Philip Roth Novels.

Yet Tinseltown just won’t stop. So why is Hollywood so obsessed with a writer whose fictional mastery is strongly rooted in interior monologues and metafictional narrative play — qualities that don’t exactly translate well into movies? Perhaps because he’s a big name? Because a prize-winning novelist sounds like Oscar bait? Because the money men haven’t actually read the books? Who knows?

All that seems clear for now is that Hollywood will keep on trying, and Roth will keep on letting them. Their past flops haven’t tarnished his reputation or his bank account. He’s got no cause for complaint.

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