Roger Ebert says that when a movie's based on a book he never reads the book first, because most people who see the movie won't have read the book either, and the movie, like every work of art, ultimately has to stand on its own two feet. This is a perfectly persuasive argument, and it has the added benefit of excusing Ebert from reading every second-rate beach novel of the last 30 years. But when the book the movie's based on is by, say, Philip Roth, who really should save a space on his mantel for the Nobel Prize -- well, then attention must be paid. I read the first half of The Human Stain, Roth's 2000 novel about the secrets and lies we Americans tell one another to get through the average day, and I would have read further, but I didn't want the book to overpower the movie.
Too late. Having now seen the movie, which stars Anthony Hopkins as a classics professor who gets hauled up on charges of racial insensitivity and Nicole Kidman as a heavily damaged (yet beautiful) young woman who, in the form of great sex, nurses him back to health, I can't get Roth's voice out of my head. It's one of the most recognizable voices in all of American literature, of course -- hyperintelligent, hypersensitive and, as often as not, seething with anger. But the movie, for all its emotional outbursts, seems less angry than sad, even mournful. As usual, Roth had something he needed to get off his chest in The Human Stain. It's set in the summer of 1998, when all anybody wanted to talk about was Monica Lewinsky's dress and President Clinton's cigar. And not only did that strike Roth as trivial, it smelled to him like yet another outbreak of good ol' American Puritanism -- The Scarlet Letter embroidered with semen.
But what if we were able to cover up our deep dark secret so that nobody knows about it? That's the starting point for The Human Stain, which explores the American creed of self-invention in light of the racial and sexual politics of the 1990s. (Warning: I'm about to give away an important plot point. At least, it would be an important plot point if the movie had much of a plot.) For it turns out that Coleman Silk (Hopkins), the first Jewish professor to be named dean of Athena College, isn't Jewish after all; he's African American, so light-skinned that he's never had any trouble passing. In a less beholden adaptation, this revelation would be given the full Sixth Sense treatment. But director Robert Benton and scriptwriter Nicholas Meyer are trying very hard, in their own hapless way, to be faithful to Roth's novel. Which is why every single line of dialogue is delivered as if it were laden with meaning.
As always, Hopkins is enjoyable to watch, although there's an element of autopilot to the performance. And Kidman manages to come up with a kind of sultry quiver to convey the push/pull seductiveness of Faunia Farley, a woman who's had so much pain come her way that sex is now as close as she can get to love. Gary Sinise makes an appearance as Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's longtime alter ego -- the writer who tries to make sense out of Coleman's story. And if Sinise seems a little young to play Zuckerman, Kidman seems too fine-boned to play the battered Faunia and Hopkins seems way too white to play a black man passing as Jewish. But miscasting isn't what's holding the movie back. Benton and Meyer haven't wrestled Roth's unruly novel to the ground -- captured what Roth called "the pointless meaningfulness of life."