News broke today that Philip Noyce’s long-gestating film adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is moving forward with Ewan McGregor set in the lead role as Swede Levov, a blond Newark Jew with All-American looks whose life is upended by his daughter’s involvement in the turbulent anti-war movement of the ‘60s. While it’s less implausible for the Scottish McGregor to play Swede than it would be for him to play many of Roth’s protagonists, given his deliberately incongruous look, this still continues a strange trend of McGregor landing lead roles in adaptations of major American works of literature.
Yes, McGregor can do an okay American accent, although his practiced twang has never really come off as authentic (it was best-deployed in Down With Love, where the entire tone is so arch that it doesn’t matter that McGregor sounds a little fake). But his best performances—Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Velvet Goldmine, Moulin Rouge, Young Adam, The Ghost Writer—were as characters hailing from the UK.
Why, then, was McGregor cast as a lead character (named Chip, no less!) in the HBO adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (for which a pilot was shot but never aired)? The same year, McGregor was third-billed among the deep ensemble of August: Osage County, a film whose flaws ran far deeper than his performance—but still, he stuck out very awkwardly. American Pastoral is less of an ensemble project and will put an even greater burden on his shoulders. Swede’s internal crisis in the novel is very much about his identity and his effort to attain a picture-perfect American life.
McGregor may well be up to the task, but if I were his agent, I’d be pointing him in a different direction. Or maybe I’m just worried about this project in general. Noyce is a solid director who has put out several underrated thrillers (Dead Calm, Clear and Present Danger, Salt) and a couple very worthy dramas (The Quiet American, Rabbit-Proof Fence), but adapting Pastoral seems like a hugely daunting challenge. It doesn’t help that the screenwriter is John Romano, whose biggest credits are The Lincoln Lawyer and Nights in Rodanthe. Then again, every Philip Roth adaptation in recent memory (The Human Stain; Elegy) have flopped hard enough that expectations might be sufficiently lowered.