It’s about a Coleman Silk, a New England college professor who loses his job over an unintentional racial slur against a black student who files a complaint. The twist is that the professor himself is African American, but has slipped across the racial divide and has passed as white and Jewish for his entire career.
In the novel Roth moves the narrative back and forth through time with tremendous ease. The film reflects this style. Seamlessly interwoven are moments in the Silk’s life–his first love, his first realization that he can pass for white, his estrangement from his siblings and mother. The main plot traces his love affair with a much younger woman who is being stalked by her ex-husband.
The tragic elements of the tale were beautifully portrayed in the film. There were stunning performances by Anthony Hopkins, who plays the Dean, Nicole Kidman, his young lover, and Ed Harris as her crazy ex-husband suffering PTSD from Vietnam.
In adaptations a lot of material has to be cut. Novels are complex, often sprawling, and films need to have clear, efficient plot development and risk losing an audience if they are much longer than an hour and a half to two hours.
This film, at about 100 minutes, leaves out a great deal. So it’s worth reading the book, especially for Roth’s humor. He’s at his virtuoso best in a scene, nearly over-the-top, where the manic Vietnam vet is attempting to overcome his post-traumatic stress by having dinner at a Chinese restaurant. It’s simultaneously hilarious, shocking, and tragic.
By all means, see the movie. Then go home and read the book.