I saw Isabel Coixet's Elegy, a Nicholas-Meyer-scripted adaptation of Philip Roth's short novel The Dying Animal, several months ago, and was more than a little impressed with it in spite of the fact that, while in many ways faithful to its source, it wasn't particularly Rothian. But the film, which opens in limited release this Friday, was nevertheless frank, funny, moving, and possessed a consistent but non-ostentatious intelligence that's extremely refreshing given our current cinematic situation. Both Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz gave performances that could creditably be called "brave," and I say that as someone who generally believes that characterization never truly applies.
But back to the Roth factor. In his review of the film today, New York magazine critic David Edelstein says that "the film is so far is spirit from its source...that I'm tempted to say we should abandon altogether the idea of adapting Roth." I can't say he's entirely off base here. In fact the paucity of Roth film adaptations—only four of his more than twenty novels, being Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy's Complaint, The Human Stain, and The Dying Animal, have made it to the big screen—testifies to the difficulty his work presents in this area. I'd say of those four Elegy is the best film in a walk. Goodbye Columbus is not without charm, but that's pretty much it; Ernest Lehman's attempt at Portnoy's Complaint rightly ranks as one of film's most ridiculous disasters; and The Human Stain has too much of an air of the Distinguished Film about it, not that Elegy is entirely immune from that peculiar taint either.If Elegy has any value at all, it's because Coixet does depart from Roth's spirit. That is, she's taken a Roth text and made an Isabel Coixet film out of it. Roth is a scrupulous chronicler of that most unscrupulous of states, desire; he discomfits us with his pinpoint portrayals of the urges and the agonies that attend it. Coixet, as shown in works such as My Life Without Me and The Secret Life of Words, is scrupulous too, but she's more of an overt humanist than Roth. She's hardly a sentimentalist, but she's of a gentler sensibility, and she tries to see the point of view of all her characters in a way that Roth, who's all about the subjectivity of his protagonists, doesn't necessarily feel obliged to.
In his review, Edelstein muses, "I'd like to see Charlie Kaufman take a stab" at Roth, and I can see his point there, too—Kaufman's a master of the brutal but sometimes self-deluding obsessive examination of self (I doubt that if Portnoy's Complaint had not existed, Kaufman would not have, either), with a gift for mordant/side-splitting humor to match. But this got me woolgathering about who might be the ideal cinematic channeler of Roth. Who, possibly, could tackle his most careeningly scabrous vision, 1995's Sabbath's Theater? No one, by which I mean, no one filmmaker. It would require some unholy hybrid of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, John Cassavettes, and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
A profile of Kingsley, also in the current New York points up another issue. According to Coixet, Roth requested that one of the central episodes of the book—the episode of "the bite," wherein protagonist David Kepesh treats erotic fixation Consuela like a blow-up doll, and she instinctively uses her teeth on him—"to be very graphic in the film." Coixet recalls saying to Roth, "Look, I’m from Barcelona—I have no problem with blow jobs—but people don’t want to see Penélope biting his penis!" Roth eventually demured. Without necessarily intending to, Coixet brings up a rather more crucial problem apropos book-to-film adaptations: movie stars. Reading the sequence in the book, one is free to imagine Kepesh and Consuela as one will. The force of this scene registers via your own subjectivity, maybe. But in film, what you're seeing is Penelope biting Ben's penis, just as the internet was flooded, several months ago, with shots of Penelope's breasts in this movie. That's a big part of what compromises Robert Benton's, yes, scrupulous treatment of Roth's The Human Stain—you never actually see the characters, no matter how hard the actors try. Rather, you see movie stars Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman trying really hard. Kingsely and Cruz don't have to strain so much, as they're playing characters not quite so far removed from our images of them than what Hopkins and Kidman were going for. By keeping the actions of Kingsley and Cruz's characters reasonably within the boundaries of "good" taste, Coixet relinquishes Roth's unsparing vision, but buys a level of audience acceptance.
Is that a cop-out? Maybe so. Elegy does in fact forsake Roth's rawness from the title change on down. But, especially given the anti-adult bent of so many films these days, it provides ample enough rewards in exchange for it.