The New York Times
January 17, 1984

TV: Adaptation of Philip Roth's 'Ghost Writer'
By John J. O'Connor

Public television's eminently worthy ''American Playhouse'' returns for a third season tonight with ''The Ghost Writer,'' an adaptation of what is arguably Philip Roth's best novel, the first in a trilogy that includes ''Zuckerman Unbound'' and ''The Anatomy Lesson.''  In ''The Ghost Writer,'' published in 1979, Mr. Roth found the virtually perfect balance for the themes that have long obsessed him, most notably the tension between being a loyal Jewish son, in terms of both family and community, and being an unfettered creative writer.

The time is the late 1950's. Nathan Zuckerman, a 23-year-old budding writer who bears some resemblance to the young Philip Roth, is arriving in a snow-covered New England picture-postcard setting, to visit the reclusive writer E. I. (Manny) Lonoff, his idol.  Born in Europe and raised in Palestine, Manny has been married for 35 years to Hope, scion of a prominent American family.  He has written ''short stories about wandering Jews unlike anything written before by any Jew who had wandered into America.''

Having sent Manny some of his own fledgling stories, Nathan is visiting the great man to ''submit myself for candidacy as nothing less than E. I. Lonoff's spiritual son, to petition for his moral sponsorship and to win, if I could, the magical protection of his advocacy and his love.''  This need on Nathan's part doesn't merely exist in a greedy void.  It seems that Nathan's own father, living in Newark, is terribly upset over his son's latest literary effort, a thinly disguised telling of a family squabble over money.  The father pointedly observes that Nathan has left nothing out, that is, nothing disgusting.  ''What will gentiles think when they read about this?'' he asks.  The father even goes to one of Newark's leading citizens, Judge Wapter, in an attempt to dissuade Nathan from publishing the story.

Back at Manny's house in the Berkshires, Nathan, who personally is much nicer and politer than his fiction, is discovering that his hero has flaws.  While Lonoff's writing suggests to Nathan the hallucinatory strains in Gogol filtered through the humane skepticism of Chekhov, the man's private life is considerably more mundane, if not slightly scandalous.  His wife, Hope, is clearly under an emotional strain and begs Manny to ''chuck me out.''  She can't endure another moment of his somewhat smug bravery.  ''I cannot bear,'' she cries, ''having a loyal dignified husband who has no illusions about himself.''

At the same time, there is a young woman, Amy Bellete, living in the house.  With a single glance, Nathan immediately falls in love with her, imagining her to be Manny's daughter.  Instead, he learns, she is one of his former students and perhaps his mistress, now being eased out of the Lonoff family picture.  One key section of both the book and the film has Nathan fantasizing that Amy is really Anne Frank, who cannot reveal that she is alive because she has become the equivalent of a Jewish saint.  If he could marry the strange young woman, he theorizes, his family could finally see that he was not really anti-Semitic.

Constantly shifting from one level to another, from the privately analytical to the artistically ambiguous, ''The Ghost Writer'' is a marvelously complex work.  The television adaptation, written by Tristram Powell (who is also the director) and Mr. Roth, succeeds to a remarkable degree in capturing that complexity.  There are, though, some glaring flaws.  Sam Wanamaker plays Lonoff with shrewd insight, but he is physically wrong for the role.  The novel's Lonoff possessed ''jowls and a belly and the white-fringed bald cranium.''  The reader could imagine someone between an Isaac Bashevis Singer and a mature Philip Roth.  Mr. Wanamaker gives us a handsome leading man, more in the style of Saul Bellow.

One other curious failing in this dramatization is the inability of Mr. Roth's special humor to emerge intact. In the novel, for instance, the arrogant pomposities of Judge Wapter and his unseen ''literary'' wife are howlingly funny.  The judge's letter of reprimand to Nathan is a short comic masterpiece, ending with 10 supposedly scholarly questions, the last being: ''Can you honestly say that there is anything in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?''  The television film, perhaps being a trifle too earnest, uses much of the same material but loses its wicked hilarity.

Mr. Roth himself is something of an enigma.  Like Lonoff, he can be reclusive for extended periods.  But then, suddenly, he can lend himself to gossipy public displays.  It is no secret, for instance, that he has been living with the actress Claire Bloom for several years.  And it is probably no surprise that Miss Bloom plays Hope in this version of ''The Ghost Story.''  This is not, however, a simple case of favoritism.  Miss Bloom, always an admirable actress, is in this case superb, her every gesture and vocal inflection adding up to an extraordinarily incisive portrait of a special lady.

The rest of the cast ranges from adequate - Paulette Smit's otherworldly Amy - to just about letter- perfect - Mark Linn-Baker's troubled but determined Nathan.  Among the smaller roles, MacIntyre Dixon is wonderfully affecting as Nathan's father, Victor.  Whatever its weak points, ''The Ghost Writer'' is significant television, towering above most of its competitors.  It was produced by Boston station WGBH-TV, the Malone / Gill Company and the British Broadcasting Corporation.