DIRECTED BY: Grant Heslov, Ellen Kuras, George Clooney
FEATURING: Christopher Abbott, Kyle Chandler, Daniel David Stewart, Grant Heslov, George Clooney
PLOT: In the Italian theater of World War II, terrified American bombardier Yossarian seeks any way he can find out of the Air Force, but his commander continues to find an excuse to raise the number of required missions every time he gets close to being discharged.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you adapt Joseph Heller’s absurd novel literally, you might make the List, but you’ll never get George Clooney to sign on to the project. If you make it literal and not absurd, you can get it on Hulu for six commerical-funded episodes, but it will never make our List. It’s a Catch-366!
COMMENTS: A recommendation on an off-topic sports forum described Hulu’s 2019 version of “Catch-22” as “like M*A*S*H*, but darker.” That nails it for anyone not familiar with the original source material. The M*A*S*H* book/movie/TV series franchise, while witty, was an ersatz, popularized Catch-22, where the existential absurdity of war as a grand metaphor was pre-digetsed into a parade of wisecracks and hijinks, counterculture pacifist slogans, and simplified bureaucratic satire for the anti-Vietnam crowd. Funny, still, but no longer profoundly so.
It would be tempting to assume that every reader is intimately familiar with both Joseph Heller’s novel and Mike Nichols‘ (canonically weird!) 1970 movie adaptation, and spill a lot of digital ink in listing and critiquing each plot detour the new adaptation takes. But that would be of little interest to the casual reader. Nevertheless, even for those unfamiliar with the source material, discussion of the changes the writers made will give insight into their mindset and the tone they were going for—and give a sense of what may be missing that made the original so revolutionary. In the extra features (available to watch on Hulu alongside the episodes), the writers are forthcoming in explaining that they wanted to simplify the story to aid viewers’ comprehension. The most crucial change is that they take Heller’s disorienting, jumping-about-in-time narrative and rewrite it so it occurs chronologically, “so that the characters can have actual emotional journeys from beginning to end,” to bypass Heller’s “dense, kaleidoscopic chaos.” They also sanitize Heller’s relentless, repetitive, circular wordplay, scripting most exchanges as realistic, natural-sounding dialogue. In other words, they felt duty-bound to conventionalize everything.
These decisions makes the tale easier to follow, sure, but at what cost? Heller’s “chaos” was a deliberate thematic choice, reflecting his attitude to both his protagonist and the world, and toying with it inevitably changes the story. Sometimes it does so in minor ways: it seems to me that Major Major is a funnier character before his backstory is revealed (the movie didn’t even bother to go into Major’s personal history, and the character worked just fine). A poignant reveal about the “dead man” in Yossarian’s tent is destroyed by telling the tale front-to-back. On a more serious note, a rape that was only implied in the novel and movie becomes an unnecessarily graphic and unpleasant scene in episode 5, a giant misstep in tone; then, the outrageous aftermath of the atrocity (one of the great ironic moments of the novel and film) is played so realistically that it barely registers on the black comedy scale. (The victim is also different, which is the first indicator that Heller’s ending has been scrapped.) The rejiggering of the plot does allow for a greatly expanded (and funny) role for George Clooney as Scheisskopf, the boys’ original parade-obsessed flight instructor, who is now more bully than fool, and as vindictive as incompetent. The book’s finale is completely changed; to be fair, the ending they came up with makes for a great image that comes across better onscreen than it would have on the page. It’s also more in the spirit of Heller’s hilarious nihilism than much else in the film.
It would have been hard for this series to match the movie’s classic cast: Orson Welles, Jon Voight, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Charles Grodin. Clooney supplies the lone star power here, with veteran character actors filling out the officer brigade, while fresh faces do well as the hapless cannon fodder. As Yossarian, Christopher Abbott lacks the befuddled outrage of Alan Arkin, but he grows on you. Arkin’s Yossarian was a principled coward, a holy fool who made self-preservation his preeminent moral value. Abbott’s yellow streak is both darker and more pragmatic; the characterization is more believable, but less meaningful.
The series looks good, with a color palette that might be described as “Mediterranean sepia.” The soundtrack is nostalgic contemporary swing that often has an ironic tinge.
Paradoxically, a realist take on an unreal novel is, in its way, brave and unexpected. While those of us who are fans of Heller’s masterpiece may struggle to hold back our resentment, newcomers for whom this is their first exposure to the book (and/or movie) will dig it just fine, and will have better things to look forward to from Catch-22 in the future.
“Catch-22” can be viewed free by Hulu subscribers, or downloaded digitally from Amazon and other streaming outlets.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Like Heller’s protagonist John Yossarian when faced with the insanity of war, [the creators] respond to the crazy ambition of Heller’s novel by choosing not to engage… Adapting a classic treatment of the irrationality of the military mind, they work assiduously to ensure that everything makes sense.”–Mike Hale, The New York Times (contemporaneous)