James Schamus on the Difficulty of Adapting Philip Roth

James Schamus and Logan Lerman on the set of ‘Indignation’/Image © Roadside Attractions

As a writer, producer, and studio chief these last twenty-five years, James Schamus has consistently championed independent, challenging, literary storytelling. When he ran the specialty distributor Focus Features, he shepherded idiosyncratic visions such as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Lost in Translation,” and as a screenwriter and producer he’s collaborated frequently with Oscar-winning filmmaker Ang Lee (“The Wedding Banquet,” “The Ice Storm”). An Oscar nominee for co-writing “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) and producing “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), Schamus finally steps behind the camera himself for an adaptation of Philip Roth’s bitterly somber 2008 novel, Indignation, that will land in theaters Friday, July 29.

Set in 1951, “Indignation” follows a serious, studious Jewish boy named Marcus as he leaves his home and family in Newark to spend his sophomore year at a conservative Midwestern college. There, he faces a fraught sexual awakening with a mentally unstable young woman and intellectual conflict with the school’s rigid dean as the Korean War roils and threatens in the background. On the near horizon, Schamus is producing a fact-based drama about the famous 1975 “Thrilla in Manila” fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, which he’s hoping will start filming next year, and he’s writing an adaptation of Reza Aslan’s provocative 2013 book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. With his directing debut about to open, Schamus spoke with Signature about the surprising literary connections he discovered while making the movie and just how tricky it is to translate a supple powerhouse like Roth to the screen.

SIGNATURE: Why this novel? What struck you most about this story, personally and as a storyteller?

JAMES SCHAMUS: These choices are often made arbitrarily, and therefore from a deep reservoir of anxiety and insecurity. And then you get to engage a process to work that out in an objective way that kind of removes it from you and gives it to other people – as a movie, in this case. This is a very late Roth novel, and he’s writing it in the shadow of what he knows will be his retirement, going back to a time before Philip Roth was Philip Roth and imagining a different version of himself, and that touched me very deeply. Even the title of the novel, Indignation, said that he also was bringing to bear on this a deeply political consciousness that was very contemporary and very current, and that it’s not just the work of an older writer going back to his youth but of somebody who’s deeply engaged with where the world is now and thought that this was a good way to engage with it.

SIG: Why do you believe Roth used that title? What is the indignation that he wanted to illustrate? What was he most angry about?

JS: I can’t reverse engineer his thinking. For me, the word is so intriguing. And even in your question – indignation is not anger, although for Americans it’s hard for us to know what the difference is between being angry and being indignant. When you think about the word indignant, it builds in a whole other, almost biblical, context, which is: Your dignity has somehow been taken away from you, and you’re owning that experience by being in-dignant. But in owning it, you’re fighting to get it back. So all those issues of shame and embarrassment – but also the assertion of a right to be seen wholly as a person – indignation really elicits. Remember, just at the time Roth is writing this book, we’re going into the Occupy movement here in the States, and the rise of a new kind of militaristic and jingoistic and sexist world that we’re now experiencing with this election even more. Another of my heroes is Stephane Hessel. He was a resistance fighter and a Holocaust survivor and a jurist, and he also worked on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the U.N. after World War II. In his nineties, he wrote a passionate pamphlet called Indignez-vous!, which means, “Indignify yourself.” It was a cri de coeur about the state of the world and of the impending financial crisis, and it had such an impact in Europe that the Occupy movement in Spain was called the Indignados. So Occupy over there was the Indignation Movement!

SIG: Part of the definition of the word has to do with fairness, too, when something is unfair on a moral level.

JS: Yeah. And the crazy thing about that is – and this is where you really see it with Logan [Lerman]’s performance [as Marcus] – when somebody stomps their feet and says, “It’s not fair!” their adulthood often immediately gets stripped away from them. Pointing out something that’s not fair shouldn’t turn you immediately into a child. In America, it tends to. There’s something vaguely ridiculous about pointing out that something’s not fair in our culture. It’s like, Oh, how childlike of you!

SIG: The centerpiece face-off between Marcus and the Dean is one of the longest scenes in a movie that I’ve ever seen, though it’s never boring. Why was it important to run that debate at length?

JS: It just felt necessary. It is the fulcrum of the entire movie. It’s an extremely narrative scene, even though it looks like a couple of dudes arguing about religion. In fact, Marcus is dying in that scene – literally dying. His body is actually turning on him and killing him as he’s talking; he’s speaking from a position of death. And that gives him the power and the courage to literally rise up against this authority. But it’s so perversely Rothian, because what I love about the antagonist in that scene is that he is actually on the side of truth. There’s nothing Dean Caudwell says that isn’t true. It’s actually our hero who’s lying.

SIG: Did you have any other influences in mind while telling this story – other writers, artists, or ideas?

JS: One of the things that struck me as I was working on the script and then preparing the movie – it shocked me because it was so obvious, so right in front of me all this time – was that one writer of Roth’s generation I realized was very important to this process. He was a couple of years older than Roth, another Jewish kid who lived up the road in New Jersey by the name of Allen Ginsberg. You never put Roth and Ginsberg together, but why shouldn’t you? In fact, Allen Ginsberg’s aunt was Roth’s high school English teacher in Newark! The thing that triggered it for me was that the thematics of Indignation made me realize that Roth was going back and touching “Howl” and that Ginsbergian moment of objection to the American Imperium. And then the issue of the mental health of a parent made me think of my favorite Ginsberg poem, which is “Kaddish.” The Kaddish reading in the temple at the beginning of the movie, which is not in the book, is a kind of homage to Ginsberg.

The other writer – and it’s crazy again that we don’t think about this – was just one year older than Roth and was starting college the same year that the character of Olivia [in Indignation] started college at Mount Holyoke. Down the road at Smith, Sylvia Plath was a freshman. Her unexpurgated journals were published just a couple years before Roth was writing this. I was reading all this Plath, and there’s a passage that she writes just three months before she dies – she was really reading Roth, I think Letting Go – she wrote in her journal, “Some day I hope I can write as well as Philip Roth.” So that clicked for me. And then when I was working with Sarah Gadon to prepare the part, it’s not that Olivia is based on Sylvia Plath, but the hair [style], and when she is writing her letter to Marcus, the sans serif handwriting is exactly how Sylvia Plath wrote. Sarah learned how to write exactly the way Sylvia did. Those connections, the Plath and Ginsberg, made my read of the novel so different, because when you think of Roth, you tend to immediately go, Oh, Mailer, Cheever, Updike – that posse.

SIG: Did your thoughts on what the book is about change throughout the process of adapting the story?

JS: No. The difficulty of adapting Roth is that at the end of the book I felt that kind of elegiac and tragic feeling that you get when you finish a great work. But with Roth you often get it in the course of negotiating the gap between an astringent or removed voice that’s narrating on the one hand, and then the actual narrated events of the characters. There’s this weird disjunction that creates this space for him to play and work. You don’t have those tools in cinema, so I really had to stick to the characters. I hope at the end of the day I achieve in the movie the same kind of effect, but I really did have to strip away one of the great identifying markers of what makes Philip Roth Philip Roth. There’s not that particularly satirical or bird’s-eye approach to the work. It’s almost impossible to have that in movies and still get that kind of emotion.