THE BACK PAGES

Can the satire and turn up the love

How to translate a 490-page Richler masterwork into four hours of TV: very economically

Brian Bethune October 1 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Can the satire and turn up the love

How to translate a 490-page Richler masterwork into four hours of TV: very economically

Brian Bethune October 1 2007

Can the satire and turn up the love

tv

How to translate a 490-page Richler masterwork into four hours of TV: very economically

BRIAN BETHUNE

Satire is what closes on Saturday night, American playwright and critic George S. Kaufman famously noted. Perhaps that’s why the creators of the CBC miniseries version of St. Urbain’s Horseman opted to make it into a pretty good romantic melodrama instead. Mordecai Richler’s caustic 1971 novel tells the tale of London-based Jake Hersh, a 37-year-old Jewish Canadian, successful film director and loving husband, presently on trial for a heinous sexual offence he didn’t commit, namely the anal rape of a minor. There’s more than a little scope for coruscating satire here, and Horseman, which went on to win the Governor General’s award, certainly delivers on everything from Jewish guilt to Gentile hypocrisy.

But the novel is celebrated for much more than high-gloss entertainment. Richler, who once declared himself so rooted in Montreal’s Jewish immigrant neighbourhood of St. Urbain Street “that I have elected myself to get it right,” here gets it so right that, in the judgment of many critics, he also defines something of what it means to be Canadian in the process. Another large theme is the way Jake’s mid-life crisis is as much social as personal, triggered by feelings that his generation is “always the wrong age”—too old for the great struggles against Nazism or for Israel, too young for the sixties youth rebellion. (“Our contribution,” mocks Jake’s closest friend, “is that we took ‘f-k’ out of the oral tradition and wrote it plain.”) Jake’s cousin, Joey, the horseman of the title, personifies both themes: he’s either a petty crook one step ahead of the law or he’s off doing something heroically useful, like hunting Josef Mengele in Paraguay. And finally there’s the borderline obscene humour and Rchler’s various comic set pieces—

especially the very funny Sunday softball game on Hampstead Heath—which were originally published as short stories.

The miniseries pays tribute to the first theme, ignores the second, and pretty much excises the satire and sexual obscenities. The last was probably a wise decision on the part of the filmmakers. Much of Rchler’s razorsharp social commentary does stand up; like all the finest practitioners of his genre he foresaw hypocrisies yet to come. Jake fantasizes that he will convince the judge he is a modish but essentially harmless chap by inventing the Clinton defence two decades before Bill: “I did smoke hashish, but I never inhaled.” But other parts—like the giggling “fairies” watching the ball game—not so much. Nor is the rough language cutting-edge any longer, not in an era in which former prime ministers use the f-word in their memoirs.

But mostly the non-narrative elements had to go because the novel is a 490-page behemoth and the miniseries is a four-hour midget. In a CBC interview, screenwriter Joe Weisenfeld described how he cut to the chase: “The fundamental theme of the book is the salvational power of love. Jake is saved by the power of his love for [his wife] Nancy. Absent that, and Jake is doomed to failure and misery.” That’s arguable, but there’s no disput-

ing the success of a production that focuses

on the fragile but never destroyed trust between husband and wife by stripping out everything extraneous. (Almost everything; without the novel’s luxury of direct entry to Jake’s nasty mind, Weisenfeld has to allow Jake to utter some of Rchler’s cruel, if funny, remarks, even when the effect is jarring.)

The acting is a match for the smoothness of the adaptation. The leads, the similarly named David Julian Hirsh as Jake Hersh (a surreal touch, given that confusion between the two J. Hershes, Joey and Jake, is a recurrent plot point) and Selina Giles as Nancy, are fine. Michael Rley is note-perfect as the greasy Harry Stein, playing him as an Austin Powers who has very much lost his mojo. Elliott Gould, who would have made a fine Jake in his M.A.S.H. days, essentially offers an extended cameo as the St. Urbain neighbourhood fixer, Uncle Abe. Steering a very fine line between Jewish-mother stereotype (“Ma, I have something to tell you.” “You have a tumor?”) and a sharply etched portrait of a bitter, proud woman, Andrea Martin is impressive in Horseman’s hardest role. (The character of Mrs. Hersh is widely assumed to be based on Rchler’s own mother, Leah Rosenberg, and to have sparked a lifelong rift between them.)

Far from being what Rchler used to mock as “world famous in Canada,” the CBC’s Horseman may lack in comparison with the novel’s thematic richness, but it makes up

for it in storytelling power. M