Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Plot Against America: Adapting a Novel for Television

Morgan Spector, Azhy Robertson, and Zoe Kazan in HBO's The Plot Against America. (Photo:Michele K. Short/HBO)

It's about: What if the magnetic forces at work in our country were just given a little push in one direction. What if a certain kind of intolerance was just given a slight nod from powers on high?
Zoe Kazan, actor on the HBO series, The Plot Against America
History is a nightmare from which none of us can wake.”
– James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

This review contains spoilers.

In Anti Social, a riveting account of the alt-right online trollers who elevate the persuasive narrative above any semblance of accuracy, evidence or fairness, Andrew Marantz interjects the wisdom of the philosopher, Richard Rorty, who contends that history is not preordained but is contingent and depends on the way people bend its arc. I thought about Rorty and Marantz’s far-right profiles as I reread The Plot Against America by Philip Roth and watched the six-part gripping HBO mostly-faithful television adaptation by creator David Simon and his collaborator Ed Burns, widely known for their productions among others of The Wire and Treme. I found the gradual slide into fascism in America more convincing in The Plot than I did when I first read it in 2004 – likely because of the current American political climate – and that the Simon’s and Burns’s rendition offers innovations that enhance the relevance of the novel by creatively blurring the distinction between the early 1940s setting and our time.

Roth at one point in the novel explicitly asserts that the unspooling of history is not predetermined. It occurs when the narrator, (who toggles between the young seven-year old Philip and the older Roth retrospectively recalling this time sixty years later) recognizes the difference between the history taught in school “harmless and inevitable” and history as it is lived through, “the relentless unforeseen.” Given that premise, the 1940 re-election of Franklin Roosevelt was never assured, and the Republican nomination and election of a political neophyte, the America First isolationist and anti-Semitic admirer of Hitler, Charles Lindbergh, was a plausible possibility.

The worst of the Depression was over and the electorate might have preferred a relatively young robust bona fide aviation hero, perhaps the greatest hero of his generation, over an aging, frail spent President who had already served two terms while no previous President had sought the office for a third time. Isolationist sentiment exercised a strong appeal for Americans disillusioned by the propagation of fabricated atrocity stories that prompted so many Americans to support the Great War, by the belief that the subsequent sacrifice of so many soldiers had not been worth the price and that European wars were “none of our business.” Moreover, anti-Semitic sentiment increased during the 1930s and, according to one poll, 53 percent believed that Jews were different and should be restricted.

Author Philip Roth (1933-2018), pictured here in 1993. (Photo: Joe Tabbacca)

Lindbergh never offered himself as a candidate but he was approached by right-wing Republicans and he refused. But what if he had accepted the invitation? He would certainly have easily defeated the establishment candidate, Wendell Willkie, an internationalist, who was easily defeated in the general election by Roosevelt. It does not take much for Roth to rejigger history and to imagine Lindbergh winning the 1940 Presidential election on an anti-war, tacitly anti-Semitic platform, and quickly establishing an “understanding” with Hitler in Iceland.

Unlike Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 It Can’t Happen Here, which at times veers toward the author transplanting conditions from Nazi Germany into America, one of the great strengths of The Plot is that Roth’s depiction of the gradual devolution of the country into fascism and the fracture of an American Jewish family feels rooted in the American experience. For instance, when the Roth family (Levin in the television series) travels from their Jewish enclave in Newark N.J. to Washington D.C. for a holiday visit to see the historic sites, they experience hostile reactions and discrimination, expertly dramatized in the television series where much of the dialogue is lifted from the novel. The father, Herman, an insurance salesman, who is outspoken in his opposition to the Lindbergh presidency, becomes the target of an anti-Semitic slur from random strangers on two separate occasions when he is reproached as a “loud-mouthed Jew.” The family is denied entrance at a hotel, one that it had previously booked and paid for.

It is debatable whether the family would have faced this kind of garden-variety prejudice in the real world of Roosevelt’s America, or that the election of Lindbergh would have emboldened ordinary Americans to openly express sentiments that might have been more guarded in the real world of that time. Regardless, it is this permission to utter ‘politically incorrect’ attitudes in Lindbergh’s America that renders parallels with Trump’s America, not that the current incumbent resembles Lindbergh except that each incites fear and loathing against a minority (or minorities – Muslims, Latinos, Asians) – cohort. After the first chapter which details the campaign and election of Lindbergh, he becomes a shadowy distant figure who largely vanishes from the text (and, apart from one brief anodyne radio speech, the television series); no one would say that about the celebrity demagogue after the 2016 election.

The anti-Semitism in The Plot becomes more official and overt with the creation of the Office of American Absorption (OAA). Roth’s portrayal of the Lindbergh creation and its insidious policies is persuasive. Under its auspices, the accommodationist, Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who becomes the leading mouthpiece and ‘useful idiot’ for the administration, institutes the smarmily named “Just Folks” program that encourages Jewish teenagers to spend a summer in the American heartland among Christian families. Its purpose may seem benign but as it turns out it is more an American version of the Hitler Youth movement which alienates the participants from their families.

John Turturro as Rabbi Bengelsdorf in The Plot Against America. (Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO)

The Roth (Levin) family’s oldest son, Sandy, eagerly travels to a tobacco farm in Kentucky despite the objections of both of his parents. If Sandy is a representative sample, the program may be considered a stellar success. After he returns from what he believes was a wonderful experience, Sandy becomes the poster boy for assimilationist Jews like Bengelsdorf who has been co-opted to promote Lindbergh’s goal, the erosion of the Jewish communal identity. Shielded at that time from the malevolent presence of the Ku Klux Klan stationed in Kentucky, he is brimming with enthusiasm for Lindbergh. He dismisses his parents as “ghetto Jews” for their opposition to the program and their contempt and hatred for the President. He despises their endorsement of Walter Winchell, the gossip columnist and radio journalist, who becomes the leading public opposition voice to Lindbergh.

If Sandy perceives Winchell to be a loud, offensive rabble-rouser, his parents are desperate for a spokesman to act on their behalf. They have received notification from the sinister “Homestead 42” program requiring their involuntary relocation to the “real America” in Kentucky, supposedly to help them better assimilate. (Given that Lindbergh in real life lamented the large number of Jews in New York and added in his diary, “A few Jews add strength and character to a country, but too many create chaos. And we are getting too many" further lends plausibility to Roth’s depiction of a repressive Lindbergh America.)

If the prospect of forced displacement were not enough to unsettle Herman and Bess, a FBI agent is hovering about harassing family members with questions about what others are saying that could be construed as disloyal to the President. The agent is especially interested in Philip and Sandy’s older cousin, Alvin (Antony Boyle). After joining the Canadian army, Alvin loses a leg in the war, and on returning home finds that he has trouble holding on to a job since he is regarded as anti-American and politically suspect, likely a Communist, because he fought against the Nazis.

Zoe Kazan in The Plot Against America. (Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO)

Roth balances the larger historical material with the family drama and its relationship with their community. In the first chapter, readers will learn much about the history; Roth even quotes from Lindbergh’s diaries to provide further evidence of the aviator’s anti-Semitism and support for the Third Reich. By contrast, Simon and Burns wisely focus on the micro level while utilizing the Newsreel Theatre for Herman (Morgan Spector) and his sons to watch and the Winchell radio broadcasts – that become increasingly ubiquitous – to inform the family of the larger picture that is happening in Europe and America.

Simon also shrewdly departs from Roth by abandoning Philip’s limited narrative perspective and substituting a multiple viewpoint. Simon presents Philip (Azhy Robertson) as a wide-eyed boy who observes much, is deeply affected by the emotional stresses in his home and to what happens to his next door friend, Seldon Wishnow (Jacob Laval). The two leading female characters, Bess, (Zoe Kazan) Herman’s wife, and her sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) are perhaps the chief beneficiaries of this change. For most of the novel, Bess’s role is minimized and Evelyn is little more than a cipher but Simon develops them, especially Bess, to be fully rounded characters.

 Apart from a couple of wonderfully touching scenes between Bess and Herman, she is a quiet grounded presence exuding fear and anxiety, whether it is from her husband’s public angry outbursts or the attitudes of the outside Gentile communities. As a result, she feels a strong maternal need to protect her children, even urging her husband to immigrate to Canada. (A number of the family’s Jewish friends flee to Canada feeling that they would be welcomed there. In the real world, the Canadian government was intensely anti-Semitic. I wonder whether Roth was aware of that reality or that his portrayal of a generous Canada is part of his alternative history.)

Anne and Charles Lindbergh. (Photo: Hulton Archive)

Bess generally avoids political discussion because she, more than any other character, seems the most aware of the nightmare ahead for Jews. But when Evelyn, engaged to Bengelsdorf (John Tururro) and an administrator of the Just Folks program, obtains permission to invite Sandy (Caleb Malis), without the approval his parents, to a presidential dinner honouring the German Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop, Bess is furious. Her anger is less about politics than her sister’s personal intrusion into her family. It is a forceful scene, absent from the novel in which Bess finds her voice, which she will continue to use to protect her family. She privately attempts to convince Bengelsdorf to reverse the decision to reallocate the family to Kentucky. She challenges her husband about his political engagement after he attends a Winchell Presidential rally when the police standby and offer no protection for the candidate’s supporters when thugs physically assault them. She further provides a calm reassuring voice over the telephone to Philip’s friend, Seldon, who is frightened and alone in a small community in Kentucky. As Herman retreats more into the background, his faith in America’s better nature fading, recognizing that he has become “the other,” she becomes the backbone of her family. Kazan is riveting throughout, especially in a scene when she confronts her sister with pungently personal and political salvos late in the final episode.

In the novel, Evelyn is a minor character who does not even appear until the second half when Roth presents her one-dimensionally and unsympathetically, an opportunist only interested in exercising power through her attachment to Bengelsdorf. Simon and Ryder turn her into a more nuanced character: lonely, desperate to be loved, flirtatious but genuinely attracted to the charismatic Rabbi. She shares his deluded belief that Lindbergh is a good man who will protect the Jews and that she is providing in the “Just Folks” program a positive service that will benefit, among others, her nephew, Sandy. Ryder’s range broadens as she becomes increasingly confused, frightened, even terrified as violence spikes against Jews and threatens her well-being. Yet she also seems oblivious to how her complicity with an administration, that has encouraged a war crime, puts her sister’s family at risk.

In the final wrenching episode, Simon introduces both dramatic and politically-charged departures from the novel, one that may say more about the present moment than Roth’s alternative history. Like the novel, the sixth episode, chronicles the fallout of the Winchell assassination. While in the novel, the mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, offers a broadcasted eloquent eulogy to Winchell, Simon uses the occasion to show three members of the Levin family attending the funeral as an expression of their own solidarity and for their slain spokesman.

Winona Ryder and Caleb Malis in The Plot Against America. (Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO)

As violence erupts in their community, Bess and Philip cower in their apartment as gunshots are heard while Herman and Sandy drive to Kentucky to pick up Seldon, the most tragic figure in both the novel and the series. In the novel, Herman summarizes to Bess what happened when they return while Simon adds frisson by dramatizing the trip in a sequence brimming with tension that reveals an American expression of the German Kristallnacht: the burning of cities and Jewish businesses and a close-up of the demonic and frightening presence of the KKK and their handiwork. But the trip also reveals the gradual awakening of Sandy to the malevolent reality posed by Lindbergh and his sensitivity at a crucial moment to Seldon. It finally ends with a moment of humour that enables a relaxation of the tension arising from the trip as well as a mutual understanding between father and son. The Kentucky trip is one of the most memorable tableaux in the series.

By the end, Roth has tweaked history back to Roosevelt being re-elected for a third term, Pearl Harbor is postponed a year, and the Americans fight and help win the war. Because the series was made in 2020, Simon offers his own more ambiguous and I think more satisfying ending with unmistakable echoes of the present. He accepts Roth’s deus ex machina in the form of the President’s wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s radio broadcast after her husband’s disappearance condemning the anti-Semitic riots and calling for a special Presidential election.

Simon’s inspired choice to include on the soundtrack Frank Sinatra’s, “That’s America for Me,” while the camera pans the citizens as they line up to vote, is a moving montage redolent of a reassuring return to a democratic ritual. But this upbeat mood is counterbalanced with Sinatra’s crooning turning ironical by a menacing tableau: voter suppression, election rigging, the theft and burning of ballots, and an ending that presents the election results as a cliffhanger. Simon is perhaps hinting that the final results will not be known until November 2020. The vignette consists of only a couple of minutes but it remains firmly etched in my mind.

In 2004 Roth wrote that he did not intend his novel to be a “roman clef to the present moment in America.” By contrast, Simon is under no such stricture. He has stated that he would not have dramatized the novel had Clinton been elected in 2016 and that the fascist interlude in the 1940s could serve as a precursor to Trump’s America. The fascists have been displaced by the alt right who are rabid supporters of an increasingly authoritarian President who has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to fan the flames of hatred. As Herman says in the final episode, “There’s a lot of hate out there and he knows how to tap into it.” He is of course referring to Lindbergh but we know that Simon has someone else in mind.

Photo: Keith Penner
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

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