As you know, I haven’t read The Human Stain, nor am I likely to. I’m one of those unfortunate folk who is allergic to most of the Major American Novelists who came of age in the Fifties. Bellow, Mailer, Updike, Roth: they all leave me cold. But my guess is that the makers of the film version have made a good-faith effort to preserve the essence of Philip Roth’s novel, and that this is part of the problem with the movie.
None of the characters, after all, are actual human beings–they’re all symbols made as flesh, the usual Rothian walking archetypes. And therein lies the chief obstacle to filming The Human Stain, which is that you can’t cast it. If you had to pick a movie star to play the part of an aging American classics professor who pretends to be Jewish but is really black, Sir Anthony Hopkins is obviously the last person on earth you’d choose. But…who would you choose? Who could you choose? You can write about a character like Coleman Silk, but you can’t put him on screen.
This fundamental implausibility–the inability to believe in the existence of any of the major characters as embodied by the cast–sinks the film before the first reel is over, in spite of the best efforts of a whole bunch of talented actors. They’re so good, in fact, that they almost make you believe what you’re seeing. The emotions seem real, but the dramatic framework that holds them in place is absurd. (If it were any more plausible, of course, you’d be forced to confront all those awful Portnoy-redux clich