Philip Roth: An Unadaptable Author (Voice and Argument in Adaptation)

by Mark Wallace

Today’s Guardian does a hatchet job on Ewan McGregor’s (director and lead actor) adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and along the way makes some points about the “calamitous history” of Roth adaptations. One problem they point up is the tendency to use voice over, apparently because adapters are unwilling to lose the Rothian voice. I suppose it indicates that voice is a far bigger element of Roth’s success than plot, and that voice tends to be less amenable to screen adaptation than plot. But such a failure is in itself interesting in the light it casts on the author adapted, in that an experience of the work shorn of the author’s voice can give us insights into the limitations of said author.  Roth, apparently, is less a great novelist than a great voice. But maybe the power of the voice is what lies behind everything, from novelists and poets to politicians and leaders. One is reminded, perhaps, of various passages concerning Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

The man presented himself as a voice. Not of course that I did not connect him with some sort of action. Hadn’t I been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he had collected, bartered, swindled, or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together? That was not the point. The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.


A voice! a voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart. Oh, he struggled! he struggled! The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now—images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression. My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas—these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments. The shade of the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham, whose fate it was to be buried presently in the mould of primeval earth. But both the diabolic love and the unearthly hate of the mysteries it had penetrated fought for the possession of that soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power.

The idea of voice is one that has received attention in adaptation scholarship, although it is also one that can easily lend itself to evaluative fidelity criticism (“the film has the same plot, but, I don’t know, it just fails to capture Roth’s voice…). Can an adaptation have a voice of its own, or is it only a ventriloquist’s dummy? Andrew Davies is an interesting case study: an auteur of adaptations, an adapter whose voice is known. He is the only adapter who has been honoured with a scholarly monograph (that I can think of): Andrew Davies (Manchester UP, 2005) by Sarah Cardwell (one chapter of which is freely available on her page). Cardwell finds in Davies’ adaptations a particular voice of sympathetic irony (115), irrespective of who the source author is. She also considers that his best adaptations are, for the most part, those of authors who have a strong voice, not because he captures that voice in its singularity, but because he engages in a conversation with them, and, as he put it himself, “sometimes I’ll have a little quarrel with the authors” (ibid.). Thus, these works become multivocal, or, to use a word that Cardwell somewhat surprisingly doesn’t use, heteroglossic.

So, perhaps the problem with Roth adaptations is that the argument doesn’t take place. It’s easy when dealing with a reputedly great writer to take their words as holy writ. It takes confidence to approach adaptation more as a conversation or even a “little argument”. A paradigmatic example of the argumentative adaptation that I have been studying (and will be publishing on in the near future) is the 2007 BBC series of Oliver Twist, written by Sarah Phelps, which deals with issues of anti-semitism, class bias, and gender politics in Dickens’ novel. I’m not for a second suggesting that this series is a model (in fact, I’m not even sure I like it very much), but it is certainly a very different approach from the reverential one we often associate with the adaptation of works of literature.