Philip Roth’s “Indignation” Now a Film: An Interview With Director James Schamus

By Lisa Grunberger (with research support by Robert G. Margolis)

“Nobody has anything to worry about from a book.” — Philip Roth, in a conversation about his novel “Indignation”

“Take care, philosophers and friends, of knowledge, and beware of martyrdom!” — Friedrich Nietzsche in “Beyond Good and Evil”

Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

I said to screenwriter and director James Schamus, as we began to discuss his directorial debut, a theatrical film version of Philip Roth’s novel Indignation: “The movie deserves the disclaimer: ‘No words by Philip Roth were harmed during the making of this movie.'”

I was thinking about the inimitable juxtaposition and balance of words in “Indignation,” yes, but also of Philip Roth’s statement, “The novelist’s obsession, moment by moment, is with language: finding the right next word.” And when a novel, an integrally woven texture of right next words — sonorously, emotionally, intellectually fused in the heat of the “novelist’s obsession” — is to be retold, visualized too, as a theatrical film, what happens to the novel’s right words? Found once by the novelist, are they then found again, differently the same, samely different, by the screenwriter, the director, the actors?

James Schamus, the screenwriter, known for his collaborations with director Ang Lee, thinks about this too. In a sense, his work, his profession as a screenwriter, is to think about this exactly — word by word — to think about and find “the right next word” as obsessively as the writer does. A distinction made by the wording of the credit in the movie’s trailer suggests this as well. The movie is “based on the novel by Philip Roth,” and not adapted, but “written for the screen and directed by James Schamus.” For Schamus, writing and directing are, so to speak, two sides of the same right word, sought and found.

For this reason, the novel “Indignation” has become a twice-told tale with twice-found right words. “Indignation,” the movie, joins what Schamus referred to in our conversation as “the long lineage of great movies that actually foreground the text.”

Logan Lerman as Marcus Messner  Photo Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa

Logan Lerman as Marcus Messner
Photo Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa

1950, the Korean War begun, exemplary son and student Marcus Messner, a nineteen-year-old (third generation) Jew from Newark, New Jersey, his father a shokhet (butcher) and owner of a certified kosher butchery, which the parents run together, Marcus, the first person in his family to go to college, “at the outset of his mature life,” as he calls the time of which he narrates, “exiles” himself — an inescapable necessity, he convinces himself — from his neighborhood, his family, his friends, his teachers, so as to “get as far away from” his father because his father is driving them both crazy with obsessive worry about the safety and security of Marcus’ person and future, “which any little thing could destroy, the tiniest thing.”

After attending Robert Treat College in Newark, New Jersey, for a year, Marcus departs, in indignation, to attend Winesburg College, “a small liberal arts and engineering college in the farm country of north-central Ohio.” This departure, maybe intended as a kind of lekh lekha — a going forth — is not experienced as such. Immediately the question and predicament of Marcus’ life becomes, to paraphrase from Tehillim (Psalms), how shall he sing his song in a strange land? He cannot. He shall not. For all his certainty seeming to the contrary, Marcus knows neither who he really is nor “where” he really is. Being the Jew he was, and would still be in Newark, does not work at Winesburg College. For that young Jewish man, all that awaits him at Winesburg, though it is not referenced, is a kind of prolonged Kafkaesque trial, against which his philosophy, his reason, his resistance, the power and persistence of his indignation, render him defenseless and make him, what his oracular father obsessively feared he would be: doomed.

Indignation — the emotion, almost a philosophical position — is, to the book’s story, to Marcus’ story, to the historical time of the story, and therefore to the movie’s story, what rage is to “The Iliad” and to Achilles, what oracularly manipulated ignorance is to “Oedipus Rex” and to Oedipus. Oedipus does not have a “complex,” yet still he cannot save himself from Oedipus. Achilles’ rage must be requited and fulfilled:

Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

The Iliad

“Indignation — Muse, sing the indignation of Max and Esther Messner’s son Marcus.” Philip Roth, most probably, did not intend any comparison or association between his story and its characters and The Iliad. Yet, for a reader who discerns in “Indignation” the epic lineaments of Marcus’ predicament and tragedy, such associations are there to be extrapolated. The character Dean Caudwell is Winesburg College’s “lord of men,” and Marcus Messner, its “brilliant Achilles.” Much of the story of “Indignation,” both novel and film, is about how and “when the two” — Caudwell and Messner — “first broke and clashed.”

James Schamus had to make a choice of indignations — a choice and a balance between the novel’s total story and what, from that story, his movie needed to tell for its story to be satisfyingly complete and sufficient unto itself. He finds the key to this choice and balance in the will of Dean Caudwell and the will of Marcus Messner, at once profoundly antagonistic and strangely in accord, moving toward their end. And, unlike Abraham in the Torah, Winesburg College’s “lord of men” will sacrifice his children as and when he deems it necessary.

Photo Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa

Photo Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa

One scene, which is as central to and prominent in the narrative of the film as it is in the book, is the first meeting — turned interrogation and confrontation — between Marcus and Dean Caudwell. This meeting, with its sequels, is an agon, wrestling as it does, as its antagonists do, over what, initially for Marcus are “the tiniest things,” but which are, in actuality, matters of life and death.

Of Marcus, we should not say simplistically that his adolescent pride goes before his fall. Rather, it is his whole as yet unavoidably immature, though well-reasoned, ethic of resistance, individuality, non-conformity, “enlightened” ideal of rational truth, and that entire complex of suffering “for truth’s sake” and “defending oneself” that Nietzsche exposes in his “Beyond Good and Evil.” “Character is destiny,” Heraclitus said. But, mixing in Chekhov, it might be better to say, of Marcus, of Dean Caudwell, of the other main characters in “Indignation,” that character is a loaded gun that must go off. Death is always happy to take the credit for the consequences.

The movie “Indignation” allows the novel “Indignation” to speak its own language, allows the novel’s words to continue to do their work of character-making and storytelling. “The status of the word in cinema,” Schamus observed during our conversation, “is structurally quite low. In a sense, working on ‘Indignation’ — and in a Jewish context, of course, was the opportunity to foreground, not the text per se, but the fact that 90% of our visuals in our world are made up of people talking to each other.”

James Schamus, Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon  Photo Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa

James Schamus, Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon
Photo Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa

Philip Roth’s words, “written for the screen” by James Schamus, are entrusted to talented actors, including Logan Lerman (Marcus Messner), Linda Emond (Esther Messner), Danny Burstein (Max Messner), Tracy Letts (Dean Caudwell) and Sarah Gadon (Olivia Hutton). These are the “people talking to each other” in 90% of the film. And they talk to each other with a musical integrity analogous to how the different instruments of a string quartet or an orchestral ensemble talk to each other. The actors’ individual performances, and the ensemble of their performances, in their interpretation and realization of Philip Roth’s words and story, are comparable, say, to a great string quartet performing and interpreting Beethoven’s Late Quartets.

James Schamus directs and visually choreographs his movie with the precision and attention, the visceral immediacy, usually required of a stage play. The director’s vision and the vision of Christopher Blauvelt, the film’s cinematographer, beautifully coincide and adeptly collaborate. As much as, if not more than, objects, sets and locations, it is light and color, their weave as image projected on a screen, which compose the physical environment in which words are spoken, actors act, characters are realized. In this regard, cinematographer Blauvelt’s palette of light and colors functions as does a painter’s, Modigliani, say, or Monet, or Cezanne: that is, with portraits, to sensually house the human figure, or to emanate and reverberate interiority, like Rothko’s palette does as well.

Intelligence. Lucidity. Style. James Schamus’ movie “Indignation” — the main story in Philip Roth’s novel cinematically translated from within its own words — shares these attributes of the original, as well as the original’s sense of agon and its evocation of epic tragedy precipitated by “the tiniest thing.”


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