This article contains spoilers for The Plot Against America, and also spoilers for America in the 21st century.
The Plot Against America, HBO’s TV adaptation of the 2004 Philip Roth novel, came to a close on Monday night with a cliffhanger finale. The novel imagines a brief fascist interlude in American history, sparked when isolationist anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 presidential election, but showrunners and series creators David Simon and Ed Burns, who previously collaborated on The Corner, The Wire, and Generation Kill, left their ending open-ended. We spoke to Simon and Burns last week about adapting Philip Roth in the age of Donald Trump. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Slate: I want to first ask you how this series began. David, back in the spring of 2017, you said you were rereading this book because you were in talks to adapt it. When did you have the idea to look back at this novel, and when did you and Ed Burns talk about working on it together?
David Simon: Somebody actually approached me about adapting it for a miniseries in 2013, a fellow named Tom Rothman. And that was right after Obama’s second inaugural—I didn’t see the country as going in that direction, I didn’t see us being this vulnerable to demagoguery or xenophobia, or all the elements that were there in Roth’s novel. But he asked me to read it again. I did. I declined the project at that time, but that meant I reread the book. I read it almost a decade earlier when it came out. So I had it in my head.
So what happened was, I was in a meeting with HBO, and they were talking about what to adapt in the wake of Trump’s election, and I recommended the novel, because of the obvious parallels. But it wasn’t for me, it was just me trying to tell them, “You should get a hold of this novel, and somebody should do it.” I was actually meeting them about other projects. And they told me, accidentally, “Oh, Joe Roth just came in with it. He had the option.” So I heard “Joe Roth”—this is embarrassing—but I heard “Joe Roth,” and I immediately associated it with my earlier contact, Tom Rothman. So think about this, there’s Tom Rothman, there’s Joe Roth, there’s Philip Roth, the author of the book. I got confused.
So I got back to the office in Baltimore, and I called Joe Roth just to say, “You were right three years ago, I was wrong. And I put in a good word for you, I hope HBO makes it.” And he said, quite rightly, “This is the first time we’ve ever talked. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I said, “You’re the guy who used to run a studio and now you’re doing production.” And he said “Yeah, I used to run more than one.” Believe it or not, both Joe Roth and Tom Rothman both ran studios. So, too many Hebrews, too much confusion. So I hung up the phone thinking, I’ve just made an idiot of myself.
And Joe Roth called me back and said, “Do you want to write it? Do you want to go in on this?” And that was the first moment where I thought about getting involved. I really sort of backed into it. At that moment I went to Ed with the book and said, “I think this thing is going to get placed at HBO. Do you want to work on it?” So that was when it came to Ed and my shop. It was a ridiculously unintelligent way of getting involved in the project.
Well, it worked. As far as adapting it, the biggest change is that the novel is written as a memoir, from the perspective of a kid. You guys fleshed it out. You made characters like Evelyn and Alvin, who don’t appear that often in the text, into main characters. When did you decide that you were going to do this as a multithreaded story rather than a straight adaptation?
Ed Burns: Well, David and I thought it’s a story about a family, and we have to have tension on the family, so we’ve got the core of the four, and the tension was on either side pulling at the family, so that at the end, the family comes back, and the other two go. That was the kernel that allowed us to develop other characters and have some umbrella in which to do the story.
Were there any other characters who you thought about promoting to main character status? You could imagine the show following Walter Winchell more than you do, or Lindbergh himself.
Simon: No. That wouldn’t work. The two characters that we granted POV outside the nuclear family, one represents appeasement and one represents resistance: Evelyn and Alvin. And they’re part of the extended family, and they get you to everywhere you need to go. But it’s not really a novel about Lindbergh or Winchell or Henry Ford. These people glance into it. But it’s basically history as it’s experienced by this family. So walking away from the power of the novel, which was the Roth family, or in our case the Levin family, that would have undercut the entire process.
It was necessary for us to expand it beyond 10-year-old Philip as remembered by an older Philip, because he doesn’t have eyes on most of what happens—most of the action is stuff he’s hearing about or remembering secondhand. And it’s all strained through his point of view and through Philip Roth’s narration. The interior monologue of a character is not particularly reproducible as film, and that’s why so much of Roth has been hard for people to adapt. So we knew we were expanding beyond the 10-year-old and his point of view, but we were still keeping Roth’s premise: Here’s a parlor drama about how history affects one American family.
Well, one thing Roth can do that you can’t, though, is just go into third-person omniscient, just say, “And then these historical events happened, and now we’re going to come back to the Roth family.” In that sense, you kept it tighter, I think. You don’t see the third-person stuff unless a character is there or it’s in the newsreels.
Simon: Right. In the book, that was segregated from the experience of the family. It was just an omniscient recollection of American history that was interspersed with the characters. I think Ed very quickly identified the Newsreel Theatre, and by extension the radio broadcasts with Winchell, as being our method of doing that.
The Newsreel Theatre is a much bigger part of the show than it is the novel—I think it’s mentioned for the first time when Philip goes to see the von Ribbentrop newsreel. Ed, you seized on that as something you could use?
Burns: It’s more like, if you have a spoon, you keep stirring. I don’t know who brings up what. We both agreed that it was a great vehicle, as was the radio. One of the images I had at some point was when my father would yell at the television set, and the radio before that. So that intimacy is a good way of seeing things outside of the characters’ perspective.
What do you guys think about Walter Winchell, the historical figure? In our world, in which he does not run against Lindbergh, his life takes a different turn. Was it strange re-creating him at this moment when he is doing something heroic, before becoming a redbaiter?
Burns: We killed him off before he became senile, it’s all right.
Simon: Good career move, ethically.
I can’t imagine Winchell is one of your journalistic heroes.
Simon: Not mine, no. He was a little bit too much in the pocket of authoritarian figures. If you’ve read about how much he was spoon-fed by Hoover and other people like that to feed his radio show, this is not a journalist who has been independent.
Ed, you were a police officer for a long time, and this is a show in which the police are almost entirely sinister. Was that strange to write?
Burns: I think the police are always kind of sinister. Even today, it’s what they do: They’re defenders of the wealthy. They’ve lost quite a bit of the actual art of police work. The science might still be there, but the art of police work is lost. I don’t think of them as sinister, I just think of them as choosing a side I wouldn’t choose: choosing the side of the oligarchy and protecting property rather than individuals. I love writing stuff like that.
Simon: I would point out that in the piece, I think we experienced the police three times. They’re malevolent to Herman in Washington. They’re malevolent at the Winchell campaign appearance—they allowed that violence to occur, à la Charlottesville. And then later on, when they’re under the control of somebody who is antithetical to Lindbergh, they’re going to keep the peace at Winchell’s funeral in New York, because they’re reporting to La Guardia. So I think Ed has got it exactly right—they’re serving the interest of whoever tells them it’s their interest.
Roth has most of Newark’s high society show up by name in the novel: He lists all of the guests at the Bengelsdorf wedding, and they’re real people. You guys obviously didn’t have time or space for that, but you do have labor organizer John L. Lewis speaking at the 1940 Republican Convention, which doesn’t happen in the novel—he attends Walter Winchell’s funeral, but that’s that. Were there other political figures of the era you wanted to play “Who Goes Nazi” with? And what made you put Lewis there?
Simon: I’m a very big fan of John L. Lewis in most respects, but in fact, the far left of the labor movement was very much enticed by isolationism. For different reasons than the America Firsters or the German American Bund, but they were very much fellow travelers in that cause. They saw another world war. Rather than seeing it as an inevitable response to fascism, to what was happening in Europe, they saw it as primarily an economic front that would debase working people in every country. They thought that basically the workers would be fighting each other, and war profiteers would be the only beneficiaries. Lewis in particular made that argument. I just thought it was fair to acknowledge that in 1940, more people believed in isolationism than did not. So to create that moment in American history, I thought it was only fair to acknowledge that isolationism was present on both the right and the left.
At the von Ribbentrop state dinner, you give Henry Ford a line in which he links anti-Semitism and anti-black racism in a way the show doesn’t usually do. It doesn’t really have any black characters. Neither does the novel—they show up only to point out how rare black people were in Philip Roth’s childhood life. You must have had discussions about how the show would deal with race. What can you tell me about them?
Simon: I can tell you that we actually had a couple more scenes—Ed wrote a very good scene where Herman was checking in with one of his clients on a life insurance policy in a black neighborhood. It made it to the last version of the script. It did not get shot, primarily because we were running over time and because we were running out of money, and because it was a scene that was right on the bubble of what the piece needed to accomplish. In a perfect world where we had more than 58 minutes and 30 seconds and we didn’t have to trim $2 million out of the budget because we needed the money for CGI … I mean, you make these decisions. It would have been nice to have at least had some glancing moments.
But one thing you have to remember is that 1940 America is hyper-segregated. So while Herman may cross the tracks every now and then, the truth is white America could proceed as if it was operating on its own, and particularly in the North, racial barriers were fairly distinct. Not every piece can be about everything, but the piece exists as an allegory to what’s happening right now. The reason to do it is not to argue about anti-Semitism in 1940. The verdict on isolationism, and on Lindbergh and America First, is already in. No need to do the piece to reargue that. It’s allegorical to what’s happening to people with black and brown skin and immigrants and Muslims right now. And I would hope people would see that in some respects—what Roth did with Jewish Americans applies going forward.
There are moments in the show where you explicitly link The Plot Against America to what’s happening in the country now. You have Herman say, “There’s a lot of hate out there, and he knows how to tap into it.” You have people saying, “There’s no way Lindbergh can win.” And you restaged the election to be an all-night nail-biter like Trump’s election instead of a landslide like in the novel. Were you concerned about that balance, about how explicitly you wanted to draw those parallels?
Burns: Well, I think that if Hillary would have won the election, we probably wouldn’t be doing Plot Against America. I think what Roth was looking at historically was Jan. 30 of 1933, when Hitler was made chancellor. Within nine months, the entire country, from the oldest to the youngest, was under the thumb of the Nazis. That’s how quickly it went. To try to capture that as a warning—we’re seeing it play out now. It would behoove us to draw those parallels, because it is a warning. It’s much more pressing than I thought it would be, because Trump is pushing it further and further.
It’s interesting to me that for Roth to imagine America going fascist, he had to find a hero and a celebrity, somebody who could have embodied those ideals but also had genuine accomplishments. Do you think he gave the American people too much credit?
Simon: Yeah. Roth himself said exactly this, the one time I had the opportunity to meet him. He said, “You have to acknowledge that it’s not a perfect parallel to Trump.” Because Lindbergh was a genuine hero—he was, in fact, one of the greatest heroes of that generation. So he arrives on the scene, not as somebody who is a real estate magnate and failed casino operator and reality show host. He arrives as somebody who had done something extraordinary and had a level of expertise in something as adventurous as aviation. It’s something Roth remembered from his own childhood. And I can tell you my father, who grew up in Jersey City, when he was 7, his father took him on a tube train to New York to see Lindbergh come down Broadway with the ticker tape parade. My father’s earliest memories. And then within 12, 13 years of that, my father is at NYU as a student, and Lindbergh has become anathema if you’re a Jewish American kid.
The truth is Roth credited the actual Lindbergh as having the potential to arrive on the political scene as a neophyte, a demagogue, and to capture the spirit of the country, and to run wild with it. And he didn’t imagine it out of whole cloth. It was true: The Republicans asked Lindbergh to take the nomination, and Lindbergh, for personal reasons, declined. They went to him, and they ended up with Wendell Willkie. So he’s operating in reality. When it came time for this to actually manifest itself, we didn’t even require the hero.
Your ending is different from Roth’s in a number of ways. The first is that Roth treats Lindbergh’s disappearance as pretty much a total mystery. You give Alvin a role, perhaps, in what happens to him. When did you decide to flesh that out?
Simon: Having read the book, I always felt that the disappearance of the plane without explanation was a little bit too much of a deus ex machina for a miniseries. Roth did about as well as you could do with that bit of coincidence: He set it up nicely by having earlier references to Lindbergh’s earlier crashes and the fact that he was missing once as an Air Mail pilot for a number of days before he was found. He gives you the opportunity to contemplate how random things could be with early aviation. But I think people sitting through six hours and wanting an explanation, I think you needed to service that. Ed and I were on another project, that we’re still actually playing around with in some respects, and Ed had talked a great deal about Julius Caesar being a politically relevant motif.
And [Alvin was] the only person within the POV of this family that could give us any insight into the issue of resistance. When do you reach a point at which your instruments of political reform are no longer viable? And if you choose to act out, if you choose to use violence, if you choose to use subterfuge, what does that mean morally, and is it justifiable? Which is everything that’s in the Shakespeare play basically—it’s Brutus and Cassius. It’s what gets set in motion, the cause and possibilities inherent in going outside the system. It just seemed to add a layer, if we could do it. And then it was a struggle to figure out what we could do, what we couldn’t do.
When you say “what you could do, what you couldn’t do,” what do you mean?
Burns: We’re talking about a 1927 plane. To take it out of the sky, all you have to do is triangulate it. It’d be very simple. It wouldn’t be a major thing to get rid of the plane. And theoretically, once you got rid of the plane, once you got it down, you could easily carve it up and truck it away, the body as well. So we didn’t go into that detail, but we stuck to what was being developed by both the Germans and the British as far as technology was concerned.
So the stuff with Alvin knowing electronics and being tapped for intelligence work and all of that, that comes in because you are working toward that ending?
Simon: We layered it all the way back to Simkowitz’s garage. But I will say that I brought this up with Roth, that I thought it was the one place where we were going to have to do a little bit more business at the end, having taken people this whole way, instead of just snapping back to normal American history. We were going to require more than mere coincidence. And I asked him if he had any ideas. This was early in the process—we didn’t have scripts written yet. And I confess I was not going to sit there as a TV hack and tell a lion of American literature that I had an idea about how to change his novel. So instead I just threw it open to him and said, “Do you have any ideas about this?” While I was sitting there in his apartment, he reread those pages about Lindbergh’s plane disappearing, and reread them again, he went back a second time. It felt like a total of four hours, waiting in silence, while he reread this. It was probably more like four minutes. Finally, he closed the book, and he looked at me, and he said, “Well, it’s your problem now.” And I left his apartment that day thinking we had permission to try. I didn’t know that he was ailing, and I didn’t know that it would be my last meeting. And I thought, at some point, I’m going to have to send him the scripts. It wouldn’t be honest of me to say that I had any sanction to do it. But he did at least give us permission to play with the notion.
That’s another thing structurally: Roth, because he’s doing a memoir, presents Lindbergh’s rise as an interlude in American history. You guys end on a cliffhanger. When did you decide on that and why?
Simon: The idea of ending on election night actually belongs to [former HBO miniseries president] Kary Antholis. And once he said it, I thought he was really onto something. Kary thought, “This will be airing early in the election cycle of 2020, and it will speak directly to the reasons why HBO and you guys are doing this, and what’s at stake.” And the more he argued for that, the more I realized he had a very good point.
So why are you doing this, and what’s at stake?
Simon: Ed, this is all you.
Burns: What’s at stake? It’s our democracy. Since the 1930s, when Roosevelt began the New Deal, a group started to form that expanded and expanded and expanded, and now basically is one of the most powerful forces in this country. That’s the Christian nationalists. They’ve now joined with the neoliberals in an effort to take us into a fascist state, or as they call it, a biblically centered state. And Trump has been one of the vehicles that they use to do everything they’ve wanted to do. Democracy is precious, and it’s something that has to be attended to, like an orchid. And we haven’t attended to it. And because we haven’t attended to it, we’re watching it slip away. So what Roth was saying is that it is precious.
The Weimar Republic Constitution was the most advanced constitution of its time, and it disappeared in nine months. We can set that clock now. I mean, the Republicans are talking about not funding the U.S. Postal Service. If you don’t have a postal service, you can’t do mail. If you come out too early and you have a resurgence of the virus—all sorts of things are in play right now. And because most of the Democrats are attached to the same Wall Street money that the Republicans are, democracy doesn’t seem to be a very high priority anymore. Lip service yes, but not realistically. I think what Roth was saying to us is “Pay attention, you assholes.”
Simon: I’ll just add this. My father, to quote him again—we were having trouble with coming up with a line for the one-sheet. And we tried a bunch of stuff, some of it was a little bit too much on the money, some of it was a little bit too abstract. And the one that eventually we went with is something that my father used to say at every Passover Seder, and it goes with what Ed is saying. On this liberation-themed holiday, my father used to say that democracy, and freedom, by extension, can never be completely won. Every day is a quotidian struggle. Every day you have to kill a few snakes. Every day you have to fight to try to extend the premise of freedom to a few more people, to those cohorts that are the most beleaguered. You’re never going to finish the job. There’s never a moment where you dust off your hands and say, “Well, there it is. That’s our republic. It’s perfected.” It’s struggle. It’s the hardest form of government there is, is to attempt self-governance, and it’s utterly imperfect. But freedom can be lost and lost quickly, and all you have to do is stop fighting for it. You have to stop working, you have to stop killing snakes. He said it every year to us. And I don’t think I ever understood the complexity of what he was trying to say, until I lived through these last three years.