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Hack Job

The surgical steps Alfred Hitchcock Presents took to adapt Philip Roth for television

Josh Lambert
September 12, 2008

Filmmakers had been adapting Philip Roth’s work long before Isabel Coixet transformed The Dying Animal into Elegy. When Roth was just twenty-two, his story “The Contest for Aaron Gold,” published first in the Fall 1955 issue of Epoch and then in that year’s Best American Short Stories, was presented on television by Alfred Hitchcock. Roth has disallowed the story’s republication in the half-century since, and the filmed version can be viewed only at UCLA’s archives (or, for the less scrupulous, in a bootleg version), so very few of even Roth’s most committed fans have read or seen it. Roth’s only other short story to be filmed, “Expect the Vandals,” is equally obscure; but at least its bizarre movie version can be added to your Netflix queue.

Set at a Jewish summer camp called Camp Lakeside, “Aaron Gold” features a ceramics instructor, Werner Samuelson, who’s not your typical counselor. He’s in America because “the Germans had chased him from his studio in Southern Austria” in 1940, and has accepted a job that means “nine weeks with a hundred screaming boys” only because his ceramics shop in Philadelphia verges on bankruptcy. When Lionel Steinberg, the camp director, offers Werner a job, he calculates that “with six hundred dollars”—his summer salary—“and a little luck, he could give the shop one last try.”

The imbecility of the kids grates on Werner even more than he had expected; the one exception is eight-year-old Aaron Gold, “bony, underfed, and a little tired looking” with “thin yellow hair like tinsel.” While most boys roll clay into pancakes or baseballs, Aaron sculpts an armored knight. So taken is he with ceramics, and with the pleasures of solitary labor, that he skips swimming lessons with Lefty Schulberg, an ex-pro basketballer and the camp’s official meathead, in contradiction to the Lakeside philosophy: Lionel reminds Werner that “if there’s one thing we don’t want here, it’s one-sided kids”—every camper must attend swimming class and finish a sculpture to display on visiting day. “Parents want something for their money.”

Aaron sculpts slowly, though, and as the parents’ arrival looms, all he’s constructed is a “headless-armless knight.” Under pressure from Lionel, Werner completes the knight himself and fixes up a title card, “A KNIGHT FIGHTING A DRAGON, by Aaron Gold.” Aaron’s displeased: “You ruined him,” he bawls, and runs off into the forest. Werner, defeated by the struggle between Aaron’s artistic temperament and Steinberg’s demands, packs his suitcase, forfeiting the six hundred dollars and probably dooming his shop.

Exiled from his home alongside an entire generation of European Jewish artists and scientists, Werner has every reason to sacrifice his ideals in pursuit of a paycheck. And he does try to play by Steinberg’s rules, if only briefly. He’d rather starve, he decides, than continue to stand between a young talent and his development. If Roth’s story has a moral, it could be expressed in the exasperated tones of an aspiring artist rejecting the suggestion that he apply to law school: “No way am I going to sell out!” It’s not surprising that Roth wrote “Aaron Gold” just after college.

What’s incredible about the Alfred Hitchcock Presents adaptation of “The Contest for Aaron Gold,” first broadcast in the show’s sixth season, is how much screenwriter William Fay and director Norman Lloyd could preserve of Roth’s story of Jewish suffering and art while appending a perfectly Hitchcockian finish.

Of course, a couple of significant edits were necessary. Whereas Werner is an Austrian refugee, the show’s protagonist, Bernie Samuelson, was played by a young, resolutely American Sydney Pollack. The actor and future director was in his mid-twenties when he took the role, while Werner must be at least in his late thirties, as he was an established potter in Austria fully fourteen years earlier. And the TV show never mentions Europe or the Germans.

Featuring a survivor of Hitler’s Europe would not have been unprecedented on a show like Hitchcock’s in 1960: As Jeffrey Shandler pointed out in While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust, the short plays exhibited on popular “drama anthology series” like Philco Television Playhouse, Matinee Theatre, and Playhouse 90 throughout the 1950s occasionally incorporated refugee characters, with examples including Paddy Chayefsky’s “Holiday Song” and Thelma Nurenberg’s “The Refugee.” Fay and Lloyd just couldn’t figure out what the weightiness of a refugee’s struggles had to do with summer camp, so they cut out Samuelson’s traumatic past, though the omission makes his job anxiety seem excessive.

Furthermore, barring the unconvincing possibility that Fay, Lloyd, and Hitchcock somehow missed this crucial detail from the source material, the trio wrote in an extraordinarily gruesome joke, albeit an inside one for readers familiar with the written story, in the episode’s frame. Introducing “Aaron Gold,” Hitchcock mentions that he has locked his ceramics instructor in a kiln. In the episode’s conclusion he pours out a small pile of ashes—his instructor’s remains—into a vase he’s fired.

Aside from those tweaks, the episode remains quite faithful to the original: Much of the dialogue is reproduced verbatim, and the tension builds identically, as the ceramics instructor finds himself trapped between Aaron’s excellent but slow artistry and the camp director’s insistence that the sculpture be done in time for visiting day. In this case, the statue isn’t headless; rather, it has only one arm. Bernie, like Werner, finishes Aaron’s work, and the boy, witnessing the result, flees into the woods crying. The episode doesn’t conclude with Samuelson packing his bags, but with an inevitable, unexpected twist (spoiler alert). As the audience wonders why Aaron would be so distraught by his instructor’s well-meaning assistance, Aaron’s father walks into the studio; like the incomplete knight, he has only one arm.

This minor revision transforms the Aaron in Roth’s story—a young artist dedicated to learning his craft no matter how long it takes—into an unimaginative realist. Roth’s story tells us a little something about art and commerce, while Hitchcock merely gives us the shivers.

The Hitchcock version of “The Contest for Aaron Gold,” in other words, dramatizes the original’s precise point—at least if we read it as a commentary on its own afterlife. Roth’s story, like the sculpture, was the product of a precocious talent; Fay, a veteran magazine hack, appended the minor missing piece that would turn a sincere literary work into slick commercial fiction. Like Werner, Fay was not disloyal to his source material; he conserved the tension, the setting, and the razor-sharp dialogue and, like Werner, he never denied credit to the author. Yet he did what was necessary to transform “The Contest for Aaron Gold” into something salable to Hitchcock’s audience and sponsors. The result aired on October 18, 1960, eight months after Roth received the National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus, and it’s possible that in watching it, the young author may have felt a little like Aaron, staring at his “ruined” knight.

With one difference: By the time Hitchcock’s “Aaron Gold” debuted, Roth, still in his mid-twenties, was already more cynical than little Aaron, or even Werner, about the demands of commerce on art. He wouldn’t run for the woods; he’d already walked away long before.

In 1957 and 1958, Roth wrote biting appraisals in The New Republic of two flashy adaptations of classic Ernest Hemingway novels. He lampooned The Sun Also Rises (1957), starring Ava Gardner and Tyrone Power, by reviewing it in the form of a Hemingway parody (“Until they get to Spain it is a bad conversation piece. It is very slow until Spain”). A few months later he dismissed David O. Selznick’s A Farewell to Arms (1957) as “a spiritless, silly, and . . . embarrassing movie,” noting that Hemingway’s novelistic achievements would be “impossible . . . for a camera to convey.” Long before producers started banging on his door, before Richard Benjamin became Neil Klugman and Portnoy’s Complaint fetched $350,000 for its film rights, Roth had concluded that movies were irrelevant to his literary work, a notion made explicit years later when he told a producer, who had asked him what sort of involvement he wanted to have in the film adaptation of The Human Stain, that all he cared about was that the check cleared.

Uncannily, Robert Benton, the director of The Human Stain, echoed Roth’s relatively unknown story, published five decades earlier, when he remarked to a reporter that “a novel is like a piece of sculpture . . . You can only reproduce parts of it using the parts of it that are the most meaningful.”

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.