“I gotta say, Dean, I’m not feeling the desk lamp. It’s a little mid-century modern for the rest of the space.”
In 2013, James Schamus was given, as he puts it, “the privilege and the luxury of being fired from my studio job in late middle age.” (The job was CEO of Focus Features.) “So I suddenly found myself unemployed, and you know, these things are opportunities. It was a privilege to be able to take that opportunity” and climb into the director’s chair for his own adaptation of Philip Roth’s late-period novel Indignation.
“Indignation,” for what it’s worth, was the favorite word of Roth’s protagonist in his savagely funny early work Portnoy’s Complaint, and the parallels between the two stories are clear: broken father, powerful mother, brilliant but angry Jewish boy, sexually adventurous but damaged Gentile girl, the alienation that comes from leaving your own tribe but also rejecting a Christianized world bent on assimilation, etc. This movie plays like a quieter version of that book: melancholy musing in place of enraged howls, modest tragedy in place of grand farce, but the same passionate intensity in each.
Matthew Lickona: Adapting Philp Roth’s novels for the screen has proven to be a tricky business for a number of people. Talk about the challenges involved and how you overcame them.
James Schamus: Well, that assumed that I did overcome them, so thank you. Look, I’m a Jewish American of a certain age who therefore came across Philip Roth and read him at too early an age developmentally, and I’ve been warped accordingly for the rest of my life. I’ve always been a fan, but I’ve never thought of him as particularly adaptable, mainly because he’s got such a strong voice. And voice is one of those things that doesn’t translate from page to screen; only characters and actions translate. The gift of Indignation, this very late work, was it was more fable-like and more elegiac. I fell immediately in love with the characters, and I could imagine their transposition to screen surviving the loss of the intimacy of Roth’s voice.
ML: The confrontation between young Marcus Messner and the Dean is in many ways the centerpiece of the film. It’s astonishing, the way it keeps rolling along, the tension rising and falling, the tone bouncing between conversation and confrontation.
JS: That scene is, in many ways, cribbed right from the book, and when I first started adapting it, I didn’t pay much attention to how epic it was. It was only as I was revising the script that I noticed how insane the prospect of making a film with that scene at its center would be. So in some ways I took it for granted as the only way to survive it — just as you sometimes dive into the wave. But I knew there were underlying structures that were latent inside that would help us create an experience that would keep the audience completely off its feet but also completely involved. That’s the key.
For example: one of the characters in that scene is literally dying before your eyes — his appendix is bursting. And that is, in a sense, speaking through him: he’s finding this strength and passion in what could be the last breaths he ever takes. And he’s unaware of it. And there’s also that gift of Roth: Dean Caudwell is our supposed bad guy; he’s clearly Marcus’s nemesis. But on the other hand, everything the Dean says is true. Roth is, I think, telling us a lot about the limits of truth as a human value, and that adds tremendously to the dramatic tension of the scene.
ML: While we’re on the subject, Roth is also getting at the limits of intelligence.
JS: Yes, well, desire certainly messes up the master narrative for many of us, young people in particular. That was another gift from Roth: here is a protagonist who I truly love — and I was blessed to have Logan Lerman play Messner because he’s just instantly lovable — but who is also, honestly, clueless as to most of what’s going on around him, even though he’s very smart. He’s particularly clueless as to what the woman he’s falling in love with has actually gone through, what her experiences are, what her life has been like. He can’t read it; he doesn’t have the language of experience.
ML: Even when she tells him where her scar comes from, he can’t register its significance. It takes his mother to read the signs for him.
JS: Exactly. And that scene is my own personal favorite: the great tragedy of that moment when his mother sees Olivia. In my mind, it’s probably the first time in Olivia’s life that another human being has looked at her and seen exactly what she’s going through: the terror and horror of it. And yet it’s exactly in that moment that that person has to be more or less her enemy, even if her heart is breaking.
ML: Lerman had his work cut out for him in that scene where he talks to his mother about Olivia, because in order for the deal they make to be struck, he has to be utterly horrified by the prospect of his mother’s divorce. It has to be unthinkable for him, and he has to convey that unthinkability to an audience for whom divorce is more commonplace. How do you make a film that is set so thoroughly in the past from feeling like a relic of the past?
Longtime screenwriter and producer James Schamus adapts longtime novelist Philip Roth’s novel of love and death and Midwestern collegiate life, and turns what might have been an exercise in mordant mid-century nostalgia into something vital and resonant (as opposed to the trendier, emptier “relevant”). Something that lives and breathes and feels and fights: you don’t have to care about Bertrand Russell’s essay on <em>Why I Am Not a Christian</em> to sympathize with Jewish undergrad Marcus Messner (a fierce yet cuddly Logan Lerman). You just have to know what it feels like to be flailing away at a system that seems thoroughly comfortable with its failure to understand the subtlety and significance of the particular, the internal dramas that shape our lives and set our destinies. (It’s not that Winesburg College is Evil; it’s just that it’s so thoroughly Other.) That includes its view of romantic love, a thing that moves from external to internal with frightening ease (no pun intended). Messner’s affair with a troubled but generous co-ed sets him against not only his chosen institution, but also the one he inherited, and what seems like a simple act of affection sends our hero headlong into the mouth of fate, and ultimately, his eternal reward.
JS: Part of it is to embrace the challenge of it, the fact that an audience, in order to enjoy this film, does have to be kind of an ideal audience. I’m not giving you a neck massage and then taking you for a nice chocolate dessert and shaking you up a martini and tucking you into bed. The movie does ask you some intense questions; it wants you to grapple with issues of mortality and what it means to fall in love and what it means to die and what it means to live with the memory of people who are no longer with you. So it’s not exactly a walk in the park. On the other hand, it does seem to be oddly entertaining for those who plug into it. We’re all supposed to be so obsessed with our cell phones and our texts and our Pokemon Go’s, but I haven’t found that to be the case. I think when you actually put in front of people characters who really are engaged emotionally with these kinds of deep issues, you can resonate.
ML: That sounds like it ties into your gleeful comfort in the notion that cinema is dead.
JS: Yeah, like I say, the fact that it’s dead doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist — like many of the characters in the movies you love.