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Can it happen here?

HBO tackles Philip Roth’s dystopian novel

Brian Kates accepts the 2015 American Cinema Editors award for “Bessie.” (Brian Kates)
Brian Kates accepts the 2015 American Cinema Editors award for “Bessie.” (Brian Kates)

While it’s not always true that a good novel can be turned into a good movie, certainly it helps when the novel is substantive, relevant, and has tremendous dramatic possibilities. It also helps when the director is someone like David Simon — the author, journalist, television writer, and producer best known for his work on “The Wire.”

Fortunately, Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” — now being screened by HBO in a six-part television series — has both those elements.

It’s not surprising, then, that Brian Kates, who was born and raised in Teaneck, heard about the project and wanted to be part of it.

“I worked on ‘Treme,’ another Simon HBO series, as an editor, and I knew him and his team,” Mr. Kates, the son of Jackie and Michael Kates, said. When I heard they were adapting ‘Plot,’ I was very interested. I was proactive and contacted them.” He had not yet read the book, but because he’d minored in Judaic studies at NYU — he’d majored in film — and he has a strong desire to be part of the renaissance in Jewish film-making, he knew this was something he had to do.

The novel is an alternative history, a what-if? story. In this case, what if Charles Lindbergh, a known anti-Semite, had won the presidency in 1940? The book includes real speeches that make real allegations, such as one Lindbergh delivered (though not in a presidential campaign — that never happened) suggesting that the Jews were trying to force the country into war with Germany. “The Des Moines speech in episode 1 is a real speech,” Mr. Kates said. Without spoiling the series for people who still are watching the early episodes and have not yet read the novel, let’s just say that a series of anti-Semitic incidents follow, as seen mostly through the eyes of a working-class Jewish family.

Mr. Kates is a film editor, with responsibility for three episodes. The other three were edited by Joe Hobeck.

Is the story realistic? Certainly, Mr. Kates said, classic anti-Semitism persists, and the habit of othering minorities — today those minorities tend to be immigrants and people of color — remains a very real problem. Indeed, the story is meant to speak for these other minorities, he said, noting that today they face the same accusations as were leveled against incoming Ashkenazi Jews in the interwar period, where they were associated with “poverty, disease, and depravity. Jews were scapegoated as a ‘foreign element,’ as both Communists and capitalists attaching to any ideology to destabilize society.”

But Philip Roth saw even deeper: “Even though the deportation of American Jews in the show under the program ‘Homestead 42’ reminds us of deportations during the Holocaust — which led to genocide — the novel suggests another explanation. It was to break up Jewish voting blocs by spreading out the Democratic voters. It’s basically a radical form of gerrymandering. When put that way, the policy seems absolutely believable, because restrictions on voting rights occur now.”

Mr. Kates said that he is fascinated by the juxtaposition of fact and fiction. At NYU, “I took a good class, an introduction to the Holocaust, taught by Prof. David Engel. It made a big impression on me, especially because he told a story about Chaim Rumkowski, head of the Judenrat in the Lodz ghetto in Poland. He was one of the most morally complicated figures in recent Jewish history. He was in charge of creating the lists. He treated the ghetto as a factory, believing that if it was productive, it would survive.

“He was wrong.

“When I read the novel, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf”  — John Turturro plays him in the series — “seemed to me like the American equivalent. He doesn’t go as far as Rumkowski, but he’s a collaborator who begins to move Jews in a way that could be tagging them in preparation for mistreatment. It’s brilliant. It’s fiction, but it portrays a prototypical character from actual Jewish history.”

No character in the story is perfect, he said, not even the father, Herman, who is “the voice of reason and a wonderful protector of his family. But he endangers his family too, because he won’t shut up. It’s hard for him to negotiate his sense of integrity with what’s appropriate to air his grievances. He puts his family at risk.” And if his wife, Bess, is extremely patient, perhaps she is a bit too patient, he said.

Interestingly, Bess is the character with whom Mr. Kates identifies most closely. “I felt closest to Bess. I aspire to her ability to juggle many difficult things at once and not fall down.” And if scrubbing a floor is the way she deals with a crisis, he said, that may provide a model for those of us who are cleaning more than usual during the current covid crisis.

Herman’s nephew Alvin is an extremely flawed character, who quarrels constantly with his uncle. But if everyone’s approach is different, “we wanted this to be a microcosm of the whole panoply of ways Jewish families can respond to Nazism,” Mr. Kates said. Drawing another historical parallel, he likened Alvin to Herschell Grynszpan, who assassinated German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in November 1938. The Nazis used it as a pretext to launch Kristallnacht. If Rumkowski was the face of collaboration, Mr. Kates said, then Grynszpan was the prototypical rebel.

The importance of family and loyalty are both stressed in the series, even if both have their limits. So too is the sense that times have changed from the days when all the families on one street considered themselves part of an extended family. “It’s a culturally specific detail, and we wanted to show that,” Mr. Kates said.

Asked how text editing differs from film editing, Mr. Kates explained that it differs a great deal. With a written text — a newspaper, let’s say — the highest priority is to reproduce a speaker’s own words accurately. But “I try to be in the mindset of the audience and to remember what they know and how they feel in every moment. Then I adjust,” to be as close as possible to the author’s conception. “A lot of it is emotional more than logical. You have to remember what information has to be planted and, when necessary, to withhold information. You shouldn’t be ahead of the audience.”

It has to do with empathy, he said, “and you can train yourself to be patient. So much of the job is slowing down and really looking at the footage, no matter how daunting. You have to treat each moment of film as a moment of potential meaning. That helps develop empathy, validating the potential importance of each moment.”

It’s also about creating structure, he continued. “There’s an intellectual thrill in creating a shape. It’s sometimes familiar, sometimes jagged. Both can be fulfilling.” If that means, for example, creating new scenarios to round out a character, then so be it. Or it may be pausing to show a particularly lovely train station in Newark, or omitting certain government meetings, or limiting scenes of grief. Sometimes, a part of a scene may work, but it will work better if it were inserted somewhere else.

“The Plot Against America” is on HBO at 9 p.m. on Monday nights. It is directed by Minkie Spiro and Thomas Schlamme. The screenplay writers are David Simon, Ed Burns, and Reena Rexrode.

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