Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon in Indignation.
Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon in Indignation.

Marcus’s Well-Being: Indignation

by / Aug. 10, 2016 12am EST

Even if the opening credits of Indignation didn’t say “Based on the novel by Phillip Roth,” you’d likely guess it. His 2008 novel was inspired by his own college years in the early 1950s, “inspired” of course being a word that allows for liberal interplay between fact and fiction. Young Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) has a lot in common with Roth, from the Newark birth to the outspoken atheism. But he also differs from him in significant ways, for instance by being dead.

That’s a detail you might miss in this respectful film adaptation that marks the directing debut of James Schamus, previously best known as the head of Focus Films and the partner of Ang Lee. As is often done in filming a novel with a first-person narrator, Schamus gives the character occasional voice-overs to guide the action. But because Marcus is a most serious and intelligent young man, it’s easy to pass that pertinent admission off as a passing flight of literary fancy.

So let me clarify: This is a story narrated by a dead man, which explains how he attained that condition. If I have reminded you of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., I did not mean to do so and apologize; put it out of your mind.

The year is 1951, and as Marcus prepares to leave home for college he seems surrounded more by death than by life. Several of his friends have died in the Korean conflict. A scholarship and a history of “straight A’s” should keep him safe from military service, but his father (Danny Burstein) worries about him, obsessively so. Life looks to him like an endless series of paths that will lead a young man to destruction. Getting away from his father’s fretting is why Marcus has chosen to attend a college in Winesburg, Ohio, far away and rural.

Throwing himself into his studies, Marcus resists the temptations of young life, such as they were in 1951. That limitation is a point driven home to those with no firsthand memory of the time when he asks a girl out on a date and the evening ends with him receiving a sexual favor. Marcus couldn’t be more surprised if she had pulled off a rubber mask and revealed herself to be a three-headed alien from the planet Zorg.

Is this the beginning of Marcus’ downfall? Not exactly, though the girl, Olivia (Sarah Gadon), proves to be more of a handful than a boy of his inexperience can cope with. But it does bring out his character, and he doesn’t necessarily like what he finds.

Schamus rounds off some of the more extreme parts of Roth’s story. He might have been well advised to temper the author’s dialogue: It’s often cuttingly precise, but that’s not always as effective when spoken as when it’s read. (Though a lengthy scene in which Marcus is grilled by the school’s dean of men, played by Tracy Letts, is a little masterpiece in and of itself.) The surprising ending recasts the story in a different, darker light than you may otherwise have seen it. Roth’s work hasn’t generally translated well to film, but this adaptation raises hope that more filmmakers will tackle him.

Opens Friday at the Dipson Eastern Hills.