If you are a Philip Roth fan, as I am, then you know that Roth stitches his characters, themes, symbols, and actions into a very intricate and delicate coverlet that subtly allows the reader a glimpse into its fabric. His 2008 novel Indignation is no exception. The challenge for James Schamus, the director and screenplay writer of the new movie adaptation of Indignation, was to keep the film true to the book.
Marcus Messner (played by Logan Lerman) is the teenaged son of a kosher butcher in Newark, N.J. He has worked alongside the father he adores most of his adolescent life. But suddenly, his father is overtaken by an unreasonable, senseless fear of letting his only son go out into an unprotected world.
There are a number of parallels that arise out of the timeset of the novel: the era is the early 1950s — the Korean War has just begun, just a number of short years after the Second World War, and America has once again involved itself. America is not successful in its defence of South Korea and just as its fortunes start to fall off, Mr. Messner’s business and health start to wane. Marcus becomes the unintended victim of this decline.
Marcus runs headlong into conflict with authority (school, parents, fraternity, religion, the draft), fear (his own and his father’s), and the social and sexual mores of the time. Marcus is indignant about many things, but it is his own missteps and misconceptions that lead him away from his childhood safety net.
Death becomes the ultimate indignation, and Marcus dies young.
The film runs at a very low key pace, using close up camera work with classical music thrumming in the background. We are never far from Marcus’s face, played with a correct degree of bewildered innocence by Lerman. Marcus comes from the protected environment of a close-knit Jewish home and doesn’t know what to make of the Christian atmosphere in which he finds himself. He certainly doesn’t know what to do with Olivia Hutton (played by Sarah Gadon), the beautiful but damaged young girl who introduces him to oral sex.
In trying to find himself, Marcus leads himself farther and farther astray. As the narrator of the novel, Marcus takes the reader along on his journey. However, the film makes a serious error by focusing the start and finish of the film on Olivia and her journey.
Sarah Gadon as Olivia and Tracy Letts as Dean Caudwell are excellent. So are all the other character actors. If you are not familiar with the novel, then the film is a believable portrayal of life in a small college New England town in the 1950s. It works as a period piece. However, it does not work as a coming-of-age passage from one world to another — be it the world of culture or of war.
As a novel, Indignation is a wonderful piece of literature that makes a fascinating discussion for a book club or a class studying war or mid-’50s social life, and certainly it sparks a terrific conversation about a time that is so different from today. In the case of James Schamus’s film, see it before you read the novel, but read the novel for sure! It will amaze you.