Isaac Bashevis Singer on Screen

The big screen likes I.B. Singer--but he didn't always like it.

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The narrator of Enemies the novel, on the other hand, kicks open the door to Broder's battered consciousness. He was, the book reports, "without belief in himself or the human race; a fatalistic hedonist who lived in pre-suicidal gloom. Religions lied. Philosophy was bankrupt from the beginning. The idle promises of progress were no more than a spit in the face of the martyrs of all generations. If time is a form of perception, or a category of reason, the past is as present as today: Cain continues to murder Abel. Nebuchadnezzar is still slaughtering the sons of Zedekiah and putting out Zedekiah's eyes. The pogrom in Kesheniev never ceases. Jews are forever being burned in Auschwitz. Those without courage to make an end to their existence have only one other way out: to deaden their consciousness, choke their memory, extinguish the last vestige of hope."

But if the movie fails to supply an abundance of philosophy, religion, and history, it makes up for this lack with visual immediacy and narrative propulsion. Instead of digressive paragraphs about how Broder was haunted by images of the Nazis, the movie shows him watching a man on the subway get a shoe-shine and then, in a flash of paranoia, he hallucinates that the man is cold-eyed Nazi officer.

The biggest difference between the film and the book, however, is in the casting and presentation of the characters. Singer did a fine job in defining the character of Masha, a Holocaust survivor and a woman of great erotic energy.

"She wasn't tall, but her slenderness and the way she held her head gave the impression that she was," he writes. "Her hair was dark with a reddish cast. Herman liked to say that it was fire and pitch. Her complexion was dazzlingly white, her eyes light blue with flecks of green, her nose thin, her chin pointed. She had high cheekbones and hollow cheeks. A cigarette dangled between her full lips. Her face reflected the strength of those who have survived peril."

This is nicely descriptive writing, and a good précis of actress Lena Olin's body, but it fails to move one as immediately and viscerally as Mazursky's various shots--including the unclothed Olin. 

Singer Speaks

So will the adaptations of Singer's stories help keep his legacy alive? Probably. (In the United States, film and television watchers seriously outnumber readers.) Singer's work has produced two handfuls of big- and small-screen productions, including television adaptations of his story "The Cafeteria" and director Menachem Golan's The Magician of Lublin.

But perhaps the film that proved most faithful to the spirit of Singer was the 1986 documentary, Isaac in America: A Journey with Isaac Bashevis Singer. In this work of non-fiction, which was nominated for an Academy Award, Singer speaks for himself--at least until actor Judd Hirsh reads Singer's "A Day in Coney Island," against images of Singer on the move. According to reviewer Janet Maslin this was one of the films few missteps: "This part of the film seems forced and obvious compared with the plainer, more spontaneous footage in which Mr. Singer simply talks."  

Which is to say: in film, even non-fiction film, it's usually best to let the writer lead the way.  

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Ken Gordon

Ken Gordon is the editor of His personal website is