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The Human Stain
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 Benton’s The Human Stain—now playing at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz—boldy attempts to evoke the power of Mr. Roth’s 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 loneliness."

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, it’s 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 Roth’s story. But the nuance and artistry so evident in the book’s prose is, as they say, lost in translation. Set in 1998, while the nation was being regaled with the minutia of President Bill Clinton’s 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, that’s a lot of turf to cover—even 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.