“There has always been the tyranny of the word over the image: anything that’s written has got to be better. Most people feel it’s more genuine if you express yourself in words than pictures.” —Martin Scorsese.
Works of literary fiction and nonfiction have been the source material for filmmakers since the dawn of cinema. Marty Scorsese’s lifelong dedication to the “picture business,” as he likes to call it, has certainly not precluded his ample use of narrative originally born in literary circles. If re-imagined on film in the hands of Scorsese, James Ivory and others of their caliber, the genre enriches our appreciation of great literature, the limitless potential of cinema, and our understanding of history and the human condition.
Two recent HBO literary adaptations, The Plot Against America and I Know This Much Is True, based on critically acclaimed novels by Philip Roth and Wally Lamb, respectively, tackle the daunting task of turning Roth and Lamb’s complex family period dramas into limited six-part TV series. Both adaptations feature topnotch production teams and outstanding casts. Both series explore fundamental and fearsome family challenges that merit our attention. However, while Roth’s novel worked as a riveting, six-hour attention-grabber, Lamb’s novel may have been better served within a shorter time slot.
Episode One of I Know This Much Is True debuts on HBO tonight, Sunday, May 10, 2020, 9:00 -10:00 p.m. ET/PT. Premiere Episodes 2-6 follow on successive Sundays, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. The Plot Against America premiered on HBO in March and April 2020. Check listings for repeat air dates for both limited series in the days and weeks ahead. The series are available thereafter on HBO On Demand and streaming via HBO Max.
Based on Wally Lamb’s New York Times Best Seller, the entire six-part TV adaptation of I Know This Much Is True was directed and written by Derek Cianfrance, who also serves with Wally Lamb and others as Executive Producer.
Five of the series’ six episodes chart an unrelentingly grim family saga played out by twin brothers damned by mental illness and the mystery surrounding their illegitimacy and their immigrant grandfather’s legacy. I Know This Much Is True focuses on the identical twin Tempesta brothers, Thomas and Dominick, born six minutes apart on December 31, 1949 and January 1, 1950, respectively, to an unwed Italian-American mother in a fictional small town in Connecticut. Their newsworthy birth dates, straddling “the first and second halves of the 20th century,” held the promise of great things, but instead jump-started a lifetime of roadblocks facing firstborn Thomas, as he crumbles from emotionally challenged child to paranoid schizophrenic adult, and his brother and self-described caretaker, Dominick.
Their story is told from Dominick’s point of view. His life has been upended at every turn as he struggles to defend and protect his brother at school, at home against their domineering stepdad, at college, and as they enter middle age.
As Thomas unravels, Dominick’s attempts to remedy the fallout from his brother’s shocking instability backfire and lead them both down a painful path of no return. Consumed by rage, bitterness and self-blame, Dominick treads on shaky ground as he continues to mourn the death of his daughter and breakup of his marriage to the love of his life. Hovering over all of this Sturm und Drang is the mystery of the twins’ biological father, a man who their beloved mother refuses to identify, even on her deathbed.
Writer/director Derek Cianfrance weaves as many expository threads from the original 912-page novel as he can into this six-hour series. Needless to say, this is a rocky road to travel. Aside from flashbacks highlighting pivotal, politically time-lined incidents in the boys’ 1950’s childhood and 1960’s college years, Cianfrance jumps even further back into the family’s past to explore the detritus left behind by their arrogant Sicilian grandfather.
This series certainly won’t lift your sagging spirits during the pandemic and could stand some fine-tuning; but the outstanding performances by its notable cast are well worth your time and commitment. Mark Ruffalo is extraordinary in the dual lead roles of identical twin brothers Dominick and Thomas Tempesta Birdsey. Rosie O’Donnell and Archie Panjabi are refreshingly empathetic and catalytic as the brothers’ social worker and psychiatrist, respectively. And Kathryn Hahn shines as Dominick’s subdued, tender hearted ex-wife Dessa. Also memorable is John Procaccino as the brothers’ stepfather, Ray Birdsey, whose brutish parenting skills soften with age and infirmity to reveal his surprising devotion and deep affection for his stepsons.
I Know This Much Is True will not make you smile or inspire you to do cartwheels on your front lawn. But it should make you think about your own family and its generational impact, for better or worse, on your current emotional and physical well-being. Words like communication, secrets and, above all, love, hope and forgiveness, and the complex threads that bind them are all important themes here if you chose to see them.
Episode One of I Know This Much Is True debuts on HBO tonight, Sunday, May 10, 2020, 9:00 -10:00 p.m. ET/PT. Premiere Episodes 2-6 follow on successive Sundays, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. Check listings for repeat air dates in the days and weeks ahead. The series is available thereafter on HBO On Demand and streaming via HBO Max.–Judith Trojan