While Donald Trump’s election may have helped Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America become more relevant, it wasn’t the president that got David Simon involved with his forthcoming miniseries adaptation of the book.
Instead, the writer, speaking at the 2019 New Yorker Festival on Saturday, revealed how a case of mistaken identity — and similar-sounding names — was what caused him to board the project.
A year after Obama was reelected, producer Tim Rothman called Simon and said he wanted to make miniseries of the book. Simon said, “You’re nuts. The country’s going the other way. … It’s a nice artifact, but why would anyone make this now?” So he passed. But after Trump’s upset election in 2016, Simon was having lunch with his bosses at HBO and encouraged them to acquire the novel for someone, not necessarily him, to adapt. They said Joe Roth, not to be confused with Tim Rothman (but Simon was), had recently come in with Plot, but they didn’t buy it, citing The Man in the High Castle and The Handmaid’s Tale as existing adaptations in the works that explored similar issues. Simon said he told HBO they were making a mistake, and he called Roth to encourage him to fight for HBO to acquire the novel. But he was recalling the past meeting he’d had with Rothman, and Simon said Roth interjected to correct him and note that the two had actually never met.
Nevertheless, Roth called back 20 minutes later to ask Simon to write his adaptation, which he ended up doing with his longtime collaborator Ed Burns (The Wire, Generation Kill).
“I only brought it up to help the sale for someone else,” Simon said. “I backed into it by not remembering Tim Rothman is not Joe Roth is not Philip Roth. Too many Jews with ‘r’s.”
The six-episode miniseries at Simon’s longtime home HBO, which was announced shortly after the midterm elections in 2018 and will premiere in 2020, imagines an alternate American history, told through the eyes of a working-class Jewish family in New Jersey, in which aviator hero and xenophobic populist Charles Lindbergh becomes president and turns the U.S. toward fascism.
While the book is something people have turned to in the Trump era, Simon said Philip Roth, whom he met with after Trump was elected and he started working on the project, cautioned him about the similarities between Trump and Lindbergh.
“They’re the same in terms of the demagogic underpinnings of their power, what they promise in the most simplistic terms possible, and how susceptible people are to those kinds of promises…and also in the demonization of the other,” Simon recalled. “He said, ‘Never confuse Trump for Lindbergh.’ He was trying to help me. [Lindbergh] was an astounding hero and an astonishing American icon after the flight. … He had the power that Trump as a reality show host and failed casino owner did not have. And yet Trump was able to market what he did have. He wanted me to be wary of making him Trumpist.”
“Imagine if Trump were not as flawed a creature as he is,” Simon said. “Imagine the damage that could be done if this guy had the charisma and capacity of even a Lindbergh. It’s scary.”
During his meeting with Philip Roth, Simon said the author had some things he wanted to say about where the miniseries could go wrong or right, and Simon wanted to get “at least tacit permission” to play around with the novel in a couple of places.
First, he wanted to expand the point of view beyond just Philip Roth (the narrator) to members of his family, which Roth was fine with. But Simon also felt that the last 25 pages of the book didn’t deliver the way he thought the end of a miniseries needed.
After complimenting the writer and saying that for people sitting in front of a TV that ending might not work, he asked Roth what he would suggest. The author reread the last three or four pages of his book in a few minutes of “agonizing silence” before closing it and telling Simon, “It’s your problem now.”
“If he was alive today, he might be reading the last script and going, ‘Asshole,’ but he’s not, so I’m taking it to the bank,” Simon said.
Simon participated in the panel about adaptations, moderated by New Yorker features director Daniel Zalewski, with Pachinko writer-producer Soo Hugh and playwright Matthew Lopez, whose latest work, Inheritance, is an adaptation of Howards End.