Philip Roth is one of the most distinctive American authors, and as such many big-screen adapters have tried and failed to fully capture his deeply personal, idiosyncratic touch.
It’s an imposing challenge and one that James Schamus, the writer-director of the Roth adaptation “Indignation,” out Friday, didn’t take lightly.
“The challenge is notoriously clear,” says Schamus, 56, a frequent collaborator of Ang Lee’s and the former head of Focus Features, making his directorial debut. “On the one hand there is the Roth voice and there is the Roth persona and there is Roth as author, as figure.
“And there’s the Roth-ian character. ... They’re all different but they’re all the same. Roth plays with the gaps between those things and creates in those spaces really profound work that allows for a kind of honesty and integrity that can seem brutal but I think has enormous empathy.”
To account for the difficulty of capturing that rich, first-person perspective, Schamus chose to focus his efforts on elements more easily translated to the cinema in his presentation of the story about a young Jewish man from Newark named Marcus (Logan Lerman) and his experience falling in love with fellow student Olivia (Sarah Gadon) and facing anti-Semitic currents while at a bourgeois Ohio college during the early 1950s.
“I made a very strong decision to stick with the characters and stick with the emotions, and not attempt necessarily to recreate that kind of Roth-ian irony,” Schamus says. “But rather to deliver Roth’s world and his people, and attempt to create the same effect, but really in a different voice.”
If the praise of Lerman and Gadon, his stars, is any indication, Schamus appears to have achieved his lofty and difficult goal.
“He exhibits the most incredible amount of respect for the audience and their ability to think and be autonomous,” Gadon says.