Philip Roths conflicts intrigue Stain director

Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator of several Philip Roth novels, is commonly viewed as the author’s alter ego.

But Robert Benton, a huge Roth fan who directed the screen adaptation of “The Human Stain,” suggests that

its protagonist, Coleman Silk — a black professor passing as a Jew — reveals more of his creator’s

philosophical dilemmas.

“Coleman’s allowed to say a lot of things that Roth would say: ‘I’m not a part of a group. I don’t want to be a part of a group. I’m not a political person, Mom,'” says the soft-spoken Texan. “I think [Roth] took a step away from his Jewishness to talk about his Jewishness, to allow him a kind of freedom that he didn’t have to talk about himself in that sense.”

Benton cites a key passage from a lecture that Silk gives to his class:

“Mighty Achilles, the world’s most hypersensitive killing machine, because of his rage and losing the girl, turns his back on the very people who depend on him, the very people who need him the most,” Silk says.

“Now, I think that’s the story of Coleman Silk and I think that’s the tension that you find in a lot of Roth’s writing” Benton says while on a recent visit to San Francisco. “It’s his ambiguity about his responsibility to his community.”

“The Human Stain,” a beautifully mounted but restrained and distant film, is being screened around the Bay Area.

Benton calls Roth “the pre-eminent American novelist,” noting that he’s read almost everything by the author. His esteem predates “The Human Stain” by a long shot: When Benton was the art director for Esquire magazine in the 1960s, before he got into movies, he gave himself the assignment to illustrate an excerpt from Roth’s “Letting Go.”

For his part, Roth read and liked Nicholas Meyer’s script and agreed to meet with Nicole Kidman to discuss the woman on which her pivotal character was based.

“He was enormously helpful to her,” Benton relates, “but she wouldn’t tell me what he said, because that’s privileged information.”

Roth visited the set at Williams College and hobnobbed with the veteran director of “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Places in the Heart.” Over drinks, Benton apologized to Roth for the inclusion of a scene that

wasn’t in the novel.

Roth replied, “It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it with authority.”

That attitude no doubt made an impact on Benton, who made a major change to Zuckerman’s character. As played by Gary Sinise, Zuckerman is substantially younger in the film than in the books and, necessarily, has two ex-wives instead of four.

In Roth’s novels, Benton points out, “Zuckerman’s always at war with his father, in the same way that Coleman Silk is at war with his father. Zuckerman’s father says, ‘You think you’re such a hot shot, for being a writer. The song “Tzena Tzena Tzena” has done more for the Jews than you’ve done in any book you’ve written.'”

“Roth is deriding his father,” Benton muses, “but admitting that there is some irresolvable conflict in his own mind — which is what makes him a great writer.”

The low-key director pauses for a moment. “I may be dead wrong in my imagining but I think this is a man — I wouldn’t say he’s running away from his own origins, but I would say he’s in conflict with his own origins. In deep conflict.”

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.