Hopkins, Kidman Bring Roth Masterpiece to Life
Reviewed By: Avraham Azrieli
Avraham Azrieli writes books and screenplays. His website is: www.AzrieliBooks.com

This film takes on a daunting, herculean task: to adapt Philip Roth’s novel, The Human Stain, to the screen. To successfully adapt such a complex, emotional and tragic story, painful choices must be made by the screenwriter, the director, and everyone else down the line of production. This process of adaptation from page to screen requires wise choices, creating a tower of cards, with each card representing an artistic choice. A single bad choice, therefore, is like a weak card that brings the whole thing crashing down.

Adaptation choices start with the cutting of a painstakingly detailed story, as it appears on the many pages of a novel, to a quick, under-two-hours visual dramatization in a series of scenes. In other words, a plot must be created by cherry picking actions, conflicts, words, and images from the novel (or invented outside the source material when necessary). Then come the casting choices which, like settings and locations (but much worse) can make or break the spirit of the visual rendition and cripple the film before the camera even turns on. And then there are the performance choices, subtle but not less fateful, which actors and director make about the manner of the actual acting in each scene, both physical and vocal, aiming to maximize the effect of the cast’s combined talents.

From generalities to specifics, the adaptation of The Human Stains to the screen represents many painful choices.

First, the plot, adapted from the novel, is faithful overall to the written story. Those familiar with the novel will notice variations and omissions, which might be missed but do not diminish the overall effect of the story.

The main voice telling the story is that of Roth’s creation, the author Nathan Zukerman, played by Gary Sinise. From a storytelling respect, this works very well as the story goes back and forth in time, sometimes decades ago, to inject pieces of information needed for the viewer’s understanding of the events—past and present. Zukerman’s unique voice, oh so memorable and familiar to Roth’s readers, is here. Sinise’s acting, as always, is excellent and sharp. But the original sin here—casting—takes away much of what could have been. Zukerman is supposed to be aging and infirm, a likely contemporary of the main character, while Sinise is youthful, vibrant and barely 40. Thus, even Sinise’s considerable talent is not enough, and Zukerman’s presence at the core of the story is greatly diminished.

The leading character, Coleman Silk, is played by two actors.

The young Silk, played by Wentworth Miller, is well cast and perfectly acted. Not many actors could pass for a black young man pretending to be white and, moreover, make that terrible decision believable both in its reasoning and its practical implication in his life. Miller does it all extremely well, including scenes as a young boxer, a scholar, a lover, and a son. His pain and joy are both apparent, and he is a pleasure to watch. His mother, Mrs. Silk, is equally well played by Anna Deavere Smith, as is his father by Harry Lennix.

The old Professor Silk is played by Anthony Hopkins. While his acting is as wonderful as always, the casting choice here again delivers a painful blow to the adaptation credibility. The viewer would search in vain for that hint of African roots (or resemblance to his younger self played by Miller) in Mr. Hopkins’s appearance or behavior. And while he delivers an excellent performance both visually and vocally, the role unfortunately fails to deliver the emotional heat and hurtful jolts that Roth’s novel so successfully manages with words alone.

Nicole Kidman as Faunia Farley, the young woman who’s Silk’s last love, does an excellent job at bringing that complex and troubled character to life. While Kidman might be too beautiful and sophisticated to pass for a cleaning woman/dairy farm hand, her acting makes up for much of the discrepancy. Ed Harris, as her ex-husband, is wonderfully creepy and full of pain at the same time—a diamond in the rough, literally.

In summary, the film adaptation of The Human Stain is not the screen equivalent of the novel due to unfortunate casting decisions. Yet it is well worth watching, not only because of the wonderful cast of talented actors and the moments of screen magic that remain forever in our memories, but also due to its excellent storytelling quality in delivering a dramatic rendition of Roth’s unique novel and the human imperfections it so aptly explores.