what i watched
film fatales #56: exhibition (joanna hogg, 2013)

catch-22

Earlier, I wrote about Mike Nichols' 1970 film adaptation of Joseph Heller's Catch-22. I re-read the novel as I watched the new, six-part mini-series of the book.

Heller's novel, like the Nichols movie, holds up well (and, as was true at the time, the book is better than the movie). Heller combines the horrors of war with tongue-twisting word play designed to demonstrate the circular illogic of the military. Heller's Catch-22 is absurd, violent, and hilarious, often at the same time. While The Military is the ultimate villain, two characters in particular stand out for their essentially evil nature. Aarfy is a privileged social climber who doesn't care about anyone who can't help him get higher up the ladder. He commits the novel's most repugnant action (and gets away with it). Milo is a schemer who turns a job as mess officer into a huge capitalist enterprise. Milo bombs his own base, trades with the enemy, and acts in an amoral way while claiming he is just following the philosophy of capital.

In the mini-series, Milo does the same things that occur in the book, but somehow he comes across more as an innocent savant than a representative of capitalism run amok. Jon Voight's interpretation in the 1970 movie is better ... by the film's end, Milo is as much fascist as capitalist. As for Aarfy, he is creepy, but not really important enough to stand as the worst that men can do.

Women are treated with more respect in the mini-series than in either the novel or the earlier film. The sexism of Heller's book is fairly ordinary for its time, but it's hard to take now, when we should know better. The mini-series mostly solves this problem by making the marginal women characters of the novel even less important. There is less overt sexism, but the women aren't really given anything useful in its place.

Christopher Abbott is a fine Yossarian, but the better-known actors are a mixed bag. Giancarlo Giannini is OK as a jaded survivor, but George Clooney overplays his role and Hugh Laurie is barely there. Kyle Chandler comes off the best ... other than Abbott, he gives the best performance in the show.

Catch-22 is an acknowledged classic novel. If you have never read it, you should. If you read it long ago and liked it, a re-reading will be rewarding, although ultimately I'm not sure it is THE major novel of its era. Meanwhile, the mini-series is more good than bad, but it lacks the lunacy of the novel.

Comments

steve

I've watched only the first episode, which I found disappointing. The tone is all over the map, from Clooney's exaggerated awfulness (more like the Nichols film) to the relatively straightforward tension of the missions. The almost claustrophobic, meat grinder existential howling of Heller's writing just isn't there. It feels like they couldn't figure out how to convey Heller's very dark comedy most effectively. And I'm not into this Yossarian--bland, long-suffering, just meh. For all its faults, Nichols' version did have Alan Arkin, who can do pained absurdity really well.

So is it worth watching the rest?

Steven Rubio

I wouldn't bother ... one episode should be enough to tell you if you want to go on. There's plenty of better shows out there.

Tomás

What do you mean by “THE major novel of its reputation”?

Steven Rubio

I knew that sentence was klunky when I wrote it. I meant that it has a reputation that suggests it might be THE major novel of its generation, rather than A major novel, while I'm not convinced of that. Well, I have no idea what is THE major novel. Catch-22 finished 7th in a 1998 Modern Library poll of the best 20th century novels ... all of the top six were older, and only Lolita was even close to being in the Catch-22 "generation" (and I'm not a fan of that book). The only other "major" 1961 American novel that I remember reading is Stranger in a Strange Land. I read that even more times than I read Catch-22, although I am pretty sure it would look much worse than Heller's novel if I read it again now.

Tomás

I thought you might be saying that. I never got through it in high school and never tried again. I figure it’s one to read considering my work these days on war and the military. Maybe I’ll add it to my summer list!

Steven Rubio

I don't think it would ultimately be so highly regarded 60 years after the fact if it was only a military book. The world of the book easily translates to the world as a whole, and the absurdity of that world matches our own more than ever. The way that "catch-22" has become a phrase of great utilitarian value shows how it describes something beyond the military. Nonetheless, the last time I read it before this recent return was in 1970 ... if it was that great, I'd probably have dipped into it more frequently.

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