Reviewed by Helen Meservey
Part of what makes Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth
such a successful storyteller is his employment of long, languorous
sentences that go on and ever on, imprinting the reader both
with a visual picture of his subject and a rich, textured context
that smacks of time and place.
Part of what makes a motion picture adaptation successful is
its ability to convey, vibrantly and credibly, the essence of
a story sketched out in words.
Peopled with personalities from the Hollywood A-list, Director
Robert Bentons The Human Stainnow playing at the
Nickelodeon in Santa Cruzboldy attempts to evoke the power
of Mr. Roths 2000 novel of the same name. Anthony Hopkins,
Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise all comply to make
the movie agreeable: it is entertaining just to watch good actors
at work. But even star power and faithfulness to good source
material are not enough to wring brilliance from mediocrity.
Set in the fictitious western Massachusetts college town of
Athena, The Human Stain examines the complicated psychology
of Coleman Silk (played by Mr. Hopkins), a respected classics
professor, as he weathers a sudden spate of scandals that threaten
to undo a lifetime of professional success and personal secrecy
(his secret is the axis of the story; it is not revealed in
this review). As his love interest, Ms. Kidman plays working-class
cleaning woman Faunia Farley, whose "miseries," Roth
writes in the book, "she kept concealed behind one of those
inexpressive bone faces that hide nothing and bespeak an immense
These are interesting, intriguing people, and it makes reasonable
sense to give them life on the screen. Filmmaker Benton (who
directed Twilight in 1998 and Kramer vs. Kramer in 1979) paints
the same broad brush strokes Roth effects with his pen, moving
nimbly back and forth through time and place. Secrets are revealed
in their making, then examined anew after the pressure of years
has weighed in. All in all, its an intelligent evaluation
of the effects time and all its might can have on a person who
is afraid to look back.
As a film, The Human Stain is true to the spirit of Philip Roths
story. But the nuance and artistry so evident in the books
prose is, as they say, lost in translation. Set in 1998, while
the nation was being regaled with the minutia of President Bill
Clintons relations with intern Monica Lewinsky, the story
in prose is free to examine the implications of privacy, secrecy,
power relationships and personal ambition. In film, thats
a lot of turf to covereven before characters are developed
and plots thickened.
Movies can easily get too ambitious and give short shrift to
something that in a book anchors the story to its milieu: Such
is the case in The Human Stain. It is never fair to flatly compare
a film to a book. They are different media and as such have
distinctly different impacts on our senses. What is fair, however,
is to consider whether a film does justice to a story told in
print. Justice being subjective, it might suffice to consider
The Human Stain more of a plea bargain than a fair trade.
For KUSP, this is Helen Meservey.