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NPR Arts & Life

New 'American Pastoral' Movie Is A '60s Tale Still Relevant Today

Ewan McGregor and Hannah Nordberg play a troubled father and daughter in <em>American Pastoral.</em>
Ewan McGregor and Hannah Nordberg play a troubled father and daughter in <em>American Pastoral.</em>

In Philip Roth's acclaimed novel American Pastoral, Miss New Jersey and Mr. Former High School Football star get married, have a beautiful daughter, a lovely house in the country, and a peaceful, blessed, life. But then the 1960's strike, and their little girl, outraged by the war in Vietnam, becomes a bomber.

The book has now been made into a movie, directed by Ewan McGregor — who also stars as Seymour "Swede" Levov. He tells NPR's Scott Simon that the first thing that drew him to the story was the troubled relationship between Swede and his daughter Merry. "I am the father of four girls, so I know very much what that relationship is like, and how powerful that relationship is."

Interview Highlights

On why American Pastoral is relevant now

There's lots in this story that, sadly, reflects things that are happening today. There's a sequence in the movie that explores the riots in Newark in '67, where the African American community were on the streets there, protesting against not being given equal pay, and brutality from the force, the police force, and there was no representation in the local council. And Merry, our daughter ... is politicized and radicalized and becomes a bomber, as you said, so that's obviously sadly still very current today too.

On making changes to the text

I think if Roth was writing about that period in American history, he was using the family as a lens to do so, if you like. And I tried to inject as much Philip Rothian-ness as I could into the film, by showing different sides to arguments, by not making things black and white but by always trying to understand the characters in the movie, trying to understand why Merry does what she does. Trying to understand [the mother] ... how it is that she survives the tragedy in their life in a way that the Swede doesn't.

On whether Merry's rebellion is personal or political

That's again one of the themes that he explores is that everybody's trying to figure out where they went wrong, and Roth presents lots and lots of ideas — assimilation, religion, the Swede is a Jewish man who marries an Irish-Catholic American girl, moves away from Newark into sort of rich, white, Republican America and, if you like, turns his back on not only his religion but maybe his class or social standing. But ultimately, maybe she does what she does, because that's what she does, you know?

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