Wolfe, Roth and the Movies

In just a week, we’ve lost two literary giants, Tom Wolfe at the age of 88 and Philip Roth, 85 years old. Born in different places (Wolfe in Richmond, Roth in Newark), both passed away in New York City, the metropolis where they enjoyed the prime of their careers as writers. Wolfe became an observer of the world, the inventor of New Journalism, while Roth constantly observed his own life and borrowed from it. None of them shied away from politics; Wolfe was always more of a conservative while Roth supported liberal ideals in his writing. Roth may have put himself front and center in his books, but Wolfe used himself in other ways – appearing on talkshows (as in the clip above) and making a white suit his trademark.

I found Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” and Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” to be hugely satisfying novels, especially the latter. But considering what kind of blog this is, it’s only natural for me to think of the movies inspired by their works.

The first movie to be based on something Wolfe wrote was The Last American Hero (1973), starring Jeff Bridges, which was inspired by articles. Wolfe subsequently wrote two books that became very high-profile Hollywood projects. Both of them ended up as commercial flops. The first one, Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983), was nevertheless one of the finest films of that year, a riveting, Oscar-nominated account of the early U.S. space program that took Wolfe’s prose and gave it visual power. The opposite happened in the case of The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Brian De Palma’s heavily derided adaptation where all the satire in Wolfe’s book just looked cheap. Considering what a legendary flop it became, no wonder that Hollywood has avoided Wolfe’s books after that.

Roth’s novels have yet to be turned into equally high-profile movie projects, but there have been efforts that come close (with major stars in the leads), and some of the films are very good. My favorite is Isabel Coixet’s Elegy (2008), adapted from the novel “The Dying Animal”, about a critic in his 60s who can’t seem to grow up. The script was written by Nicholas Meyer who also wrote The Human Stain (2003), another fine, moving Roth adaptation. Richard Benjamin starred in the first two Roth films, Goodbye, Columbus (1969) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1972). In later years, we’ve seen Barry Levinson’s The Humbling (2014), James Schamus’s Indignation (2016) and American Pastoral (2016), a crime-drama starring Ewan McGregor. 

Maybe there’s more to come. But at least we’ll have The Right Stuff and Elegy

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