From Page To Screen: Adapting Pulitzer Prize-winning Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral

“This is a father daughter movie. It’s about being human, about being a parent, and having a family with issues. Those themes aren’t period. They’re timeless.”

Ewan McGregor makes his directorial debut and stars in the outstanding American Pastoral, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Philip Roth’s novel, following an all American family across several decades, as their idyllic existence is shattered by social and political turmoil that will change the fabric of American culture forever.


In a post-war era booming with optimism and innocence, the legendary high-school athlete Seymour “the Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor) marries an alluring Miss New Jersey (Jennifer Connelly) , inherits his father’s multi-million dollar glove factory, and starts a life of civic and domestic bliss, raising his beloved daughter Merry in a big country house in the serene, upscale neighborhood of Old Rimrock, New Jersey.

By all appearances, the Swede is a pillar of his community, a paragon of the “greatest generation” – admired as a self-reliant businessman, charitable boss and devoted family man, and gifted with an unerring belief in all the promises of the American Dream.

In the 1960s—amid the unrest fueled by the unpopular Vietnam War—an angry, and increasingly radical, 16 year old Merry (Dakota Fanning)becomes the lead suspect in an astonishing act of deadly violence in the Levov’s halcyon rural town, upending her father and his vision of the world.

Determined to come to grips with what has happened to his loved ones, the Swede goes on a quest not only to find Merry – now on the run as a fugitive from justice – but to restore the Levov family and his own heart.

American Pastoral is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that chronicles the profound changes in the last half-century of American life, by Philip Roth.

Phillip Roth

Philip Roth

The adaptation focuses in on the Swede’s search for his daughter and the resonant themes of uncertainty, shifting fates, family and loss, that took the filmmakers nearly thirteen years to bring to the screen.

Lakeshore Entertainment producer Gary Lucchesi reflects on what drove him to stay on course throughout the long but steadfast creative process: “I have always wanted to make a father daughter story. I read the script, I cried, and I knew I had to make the movie one way or another,” he recalls. “I saw in it the story of a man who has an uncompromising love for his daughter through thick and thin. I love dramas about human beings that you can relate to and experiences that you can imagine. That’s what really turns me on as a filmmaker. Every now and then, you get a chance to do something like this that you covet—so you give it everything you have.”

Producer Tom Rosenberg was equally moved by this portrait of a seemingly picture-perfect American family, led by a decent man, yet teetering on a foundation that is cracking perilously beneath their feet.

“Swede spends his entire life trying to get Merry back and I don’t think he ever gives up. Nothing could stop him,” he says. The production itself had to have a sense of resilience. “This was a tough one to get made,” Rosenberg concludes, “but it was worth it.”

The Adaptation

John Romano

John Romano

Screenwriter John Romano, who holds a Ph.D. in Literature and has taught English at Columbia University, was drawn to a story that not only spans one of the most dizzying periods of transition in American life—from the postWWII positivity and conformity of the late 1940s through the uncorked turmoil and disruption of the 1970s—but also moves between huge historical events and their entwining with the most private family moments.

“I knew the book well and thought it was the best book about the sixties written from the perspective of the Vietnam War revolution on the home front,” recalls Romano.

“Roth was looking at the family and the psychological roots of youth revolt,” stated Romano. “His focus, and thus our focus, is on the human experience.”

Romano also knew he faced a gauntlet in trying to balance his urge to be faithful to Roth’s distinctive language and observatory powers with the narrative drive of cinematic storytelling. I approached the adaptation with a literary understanding of the novel and felt it was important to be faithful,” he says, “because Roth is brilliantly meandering in his writing, but a movie needs to grab you by the throat and keep going. There are some structural changes but I felt it was important to be as faithful as possible to what Roth created.” Romano also highlighted the characters and the relationships in his adaptation. “This is a father daughter movie. It’s about being human, about being a parent, and having a family with issues. Those themes aren’t period. They’re timeless.”



Ewan McGregor – the two-time Golden Globe nominee known for his wide-ranging roles in films spanning from the innovative and edgy Trainspotting, Velvet Goldmine and Moulin Rouge to the acclaimed dramas Ghost Writer and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen — was attached to play the central character of the Swede in American Pastoral long before signing on to direct the film.

Ultimately, it was his love of the material that led to his decision to take a leap into his feature film directorial debut. “I was very moved by the script and I was completely taken by the Swede and the study of father daughter relationships,” he says.

“He’s a man who believes very much in living his life the right way. He’s a product of the postwar era and he absolutely embodies the idea that there was once a seemingly attainable American Dream. In a sense, the Swede is the American Dream and his daughter Merry is the ‘60s.”

McGregor knew this was a rare opportunity. “I’ve always wanted to direct, but I didn’t want to just direct for the sake of it,” explains McGregor. “I wanted to have a story that I was compelled to tell.” Recalls Gary Lucchesi: “It wasn’t as crazy as Ewan thought it was because we had already gotten to know him and we knew his passion for the project and also had really come to see him as an artist. Tom and I sat down with Ewan and had long conversations with him, and at a certain point we realized this was the director we were going to bet on. It was one of the best decisions we made.”

Adds Rosenberg: “He was meticulous, dogged and he put everything he had behind it. I’m very big on preparation, but he exceeded anything that I could imagine, so that was impressive. He also brought a great rapport with the actors. He had their total confidence and knew how to deal with their various personalities very well.”

Screenwriter John Romano says of his collaboration with McGregor, “Ewan understood Roth’s novel so well that when we began to collaborate, he pushed me even more towards the meaning of what Roth had written. The best example I can give is that the movie begins with a line that wasn’t there until Ewan became the director.”

Jennifer Connelly adds: “He’s a joy to be around and to work with. He’s so kind and generous and had a really nice way of communicating with everyone. He made a lot of time for his actors, we had a great rehearsal and very constructive rehearsal period.”

As he was prepping production, McGregor was also working to get under the skin of the film’s multifaceted and unravelling lead character. The role of Swede Levov is a particularly demanding one, beginning with the challenge posed by spanning a man’s entire adult life, from youth to old age.

In addition, McGregor faced another daunting task: bringing out the symbolic side of Roth’s iconic American athlete, industrialist and father, while also making the Swede distinctly real and human. For though the Swede never stops trying to be the upstanding man of American myths, the trajectory of his life plummets him in the opposite direction. “Throughout his life, Swede always does what people would like him to do, what’s expected of him. He never loses his moral beliefs in right and wrong. But in a way, it’s his downfall,” concludes McGregor. “Dawn, his wife, goes on to have another life. But the Swede is always looking to keep things together, to make things right again.”