When it was announced that Hulu would be adapting Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22, as a six-part miniseries, there was a great deal of speculation about whether they could actually do it justice. The miniseries, now available on Channel 4, comes close – but a lot gets lost in translation, and it feels like quite a different beast to the book it’s based on.
The novel, set during the Second World War, revolves around US airman Yossarian, who’s terrified that everyone is out to kill him, and desperately tries to get out of combat by having himself declared insane. But there’s a catch. Anyone who actually wants to get out of combat clearly isn’t insane, as their concerned for their own safety, and so he has to keep flying more missions, dropping bombs down on the areas of Italy still under Fascist control. Despite WWII often being painted as “the good war,” where we were fighting an enemy with whom there was no negotiating and who had to be fought, the book presents the whole of society as insane and morally bankrupt, savagely mocking and calling out virtually all forms of authority and convention.
Published back in 1961, the novel, like the Korean War-set sitcom M*A*S*H, might take place during an entirely different conflict, but was nevertheless hugely resonant in the context of the Vietnam War. It quickly became a cult classic, emblematic of 1960s counterculture. It’s since gone down as one of the greatest pieces of satire out there, thumbed through by students everywhere, and genuinely is one of those books that everyone ought to read. I’d say it should be on all the high school curriculums, but if there was ever a book that would be spoilt by having English teachers forcing it on you, it’s probably this one.
It’s remarkable, then, that there’s been relatively few attempts at adapting Catch-22 for the screen before. A film based on the book came out back in 1970, but it generally failed to get much attention. The film version of M*A*S*H, which came out the same year, did much better both at the box office and with critics, and so that version of Catch-22 was quickly forgotten about. A pilot for a TV version was made in 1973, starring Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian, but it never got picked up. The book has frequently been cited as among those dubbed “unfilmable,” and the big question with this would in fact be proven correct.
From the start, a lot about this adaptation seemed promising. It had quite a bit of money chucked at it, with some huge names attached. George Clooney not only appears in it, as General Scheisskopf, but was also both a producer and a director for the show, and it’s him the marketing has focused on most. Hugh Laurie, who’d previously appeared in that other iconic anti-war comedy, Blackadder Goes Forth, also appears, albeit for way too brief a time.
Most importantly though, it’s a miniseries, not a film, which was absolutely the right call. The novel is a huge, sprawling mess of a book, with each chapter devoted to a different character, and each of those chapters continually going off on a million different tangents. This, by all accounts, was one of the biggest issues with the 1970 film, as it tried to squeeze all this stuff into just 2 hours. The show’s greater runtime gives the material time to breathe, and to explore a lot more of the substance of the novel. In the current “golden age” of TV, where the medium can actually attract stars like Clooney, and which has become just as large scale and high quality as most movies, this seems a natural way to do it.
Even as a TV show, though, there are certain issues which would have hampered any adaptation, and the show loses a lot of the wit and style of the novel purely through being in a visual medium. There’s few other modern novels I can think of which so greatly hinge upon the way they’re written on the page. Almost all the best lines in Catch-22 come just from the narrator feeding you information on people’s backstories or thought processes. The show obviously does not have this narration, and as a result loses brilliant moments such as Yossarian surveying an officer’s mess and taking pride in contributing absolutely nothing to the building of it, or Dunbar trying to spend every moment as bored as possible in order to stretch out time and thus live longer, or the career-obsessed Colonel Cathcart being uninterested in wasting his time sleeping with beautiful women “unless there was something in it for him.”
It’s these kinds of lines which make Catch-22 what it is, and as a result the show feels a bit less memorable, and a lot less witty. In fact, the whole thing is just incredibly morbid and downbeat, as it viscerally recreates the horrors of the war. All of the darkest stuff in it, from the death of Snowden, to the innocent seeming Aarfy’s rape and murder of a girl, is all lifted directly from the book. But whereas the book completely blurs the line between comedy and horror, making you laugh at the insanity of it all, the show just feels a bit sombre. Death is something that’s ever present in both – but whereas in the book it’s treated in a much more brutal, perfunctory, matter of fact way, with people just disappearing into the sky, the show really amps up the stakes of each loss. Each episode ends on a death or something with equal weight, taking care beforehand to shine a light on the character who’s lost, with a swelling soundtrack that adds to the drama.
Another issue that comes with trying to adapt Catch-22 for television is that much of the book resembles less an actual plot, and more a bunch of disparate sketches focusing around numerous different characters. The story is told in a completely non-linear fashion, as each chapter zips backwards and forwards in time, explaining different characters backstories and thought processes as it goes. This is more than just a quirky storytelling choice by the author. This style of narrative, with the same jokes and plot points getting fresh context as they’re continually referenced and re-referenced, helps reinforce the sense of madness and illogic that defines the world of the novel. It feels a bit unhinged and anarchic just reading it, and trying to make sense of who everyone is, or if any of it is even going anywhere.
The show’s streamlining of this into a much more simple, chronological narrative causes it to lose much of this sensation. It also helps make it feel like much more of a conventional story, turning it from a work that perfectly encapsulates the madness both of war and of life in general, to simply a story about an airman experiencing PTSD. It feels much more akin to something like Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan than it does the original novel, and throughout the show you can get the sensation that you’ve seen it all before.
While the Germans shooting at him might be Yossarian’s most pressing problem, the novel isn’t just a condemnation of war. Written during the high point of McCarthyism, it constantly highlights the lunacy and illogic existing throughout the whole of society, continually launching scathing critiques of everything from religion, to bureaucracy, capitalism, poverty, marriage, inequality, and most of all, the fact that – whether we’re in a war zone or not – ultimately, we’re all going to die, and the vast majority of the things we hold as important can seem pretty meaningless in the face of this.
It’s these universal themes which have helped Catch-22 to retain its popularity. The show isn’t nearly as attentive to this aspect of the story however, and it does often seem as if it’s only really relevant as a story about warfare. Whereas the novel works to make everyone and everything appear nuts, the show makes it seem like things would be pretty peaceful if not for the continual air raids. There’s plenty of gorgeous shots of the Italian countryside, of beautiful villas and towns, and of the characters genuinely enjoying themselves in their time off, drinking in the sun or swimming by the beach – all of which just made me want to go holidaying in Italy as much as anything else.
As noted though, these issues stem entirely from the kind of work that is being adapted here, and the gulf between prose and visual media, rather than anything the show actually does wrong. While it feels like it loses a lot of what made Catch-22 popular in the first place, it’s hard to think the show could actually have done any better a job of adapting it, and for all of its faults, it’s still a genuinely immersive and engaging show, with a stellar cast and amazing production values.
The writers clearly have a lot of love for the source material, and the show recreates verbatim the surreal, illogical dialogue and exchanges that are used to justify what’s going on. Clooney is great, clearly having a lot of fun with lines like “You’re American Officers. No other men in the world can say that. Think about it.” It’s not surprising that this is something he wanted to tackle – it actually feels pretty similar in tone to a lot of the stuff he’s done previously, with the Coen Brothers and others. And the actor playing Yossarian, Christopher Abbott, is astounding. Apparently, he read through the book twice before filming in order to get a firm grasp of Yossarian’s outlook, and he absolutely sells the terror and the desperation of the character. His performance in the finale, where he finds some temporary sanctuary in an idyllic Italian villa, before finally completely breaking down upon being dragged back into combat, is just heart-breaking to watch.
The original material that the show adds is also pretty good, and some of it is actually among the funnier stuff in it. Scenes like Yossarian having to pretend to be a Rockefeller during one of Milo Minderbinder’s business deals, or deciding to just get all his missions done in one go, are brilliant. And although, when it comes to dialogue, it does feel a bit like they’ve just copied and pasted extracts from the novel, the adaptation does show a knack for knowing what material from the book would most suit this visual medium. One of the best moments of the whole thing comes in the third episode when Hugh Laurie’s character just casually strolls into a town that’s still held by the Germans, on his own. The expression on Laurie’s face when he waltzes into a room full of Nazis is brilliant, and it’s a shame he’s not in it any more after that.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the show is that the ending is completely different, with the novel actually closing on more of a positive, optimistic note. In the book, Yossarian does actually get out – or at least, he makes a run for it. But the show instead ends on him still in the cockpit of his plane, still carrying out missions, with his mind seemingly completely broken, a la One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest. It’s a pretty weird and much more downbeat ending that seems to imply there’s no fighting the system and that we might as well all just accept it. But I do quite like it, and I can see why this change happened. It’s much more in keeping with the sort of show this ended up being – a poignant, unflinching exploration of the horrors of war, rather than the surreal, scathing critique of the whole of society that the book is. It’s a bit of a more simple and conventional approach, but it does still work, for the most part.
Back in the 1990s, Joseph Heller was told in an interview that he’d never written anything as good as Catch-22 since, and replied “Who has?”. This feels like a good way of viewing the new adaptation. It’s not as good as the original novel – but then, what is?
Catch-22 is a unique, chaotic, mad book that’s rightfully gone down as a classic, and the show would probably never have entirely lived up to it for many fans. But it does as good a job of it as anyone could have expected, vividly recreating much of the source material with great care and style. It’s a good show, that does impress, particularly later on, and it’s clear throughout that some real talent has gone into it. It’s just a shame that half of what makes the novel great is missing.
Although a terrifically well made production, with some gorgeous cinematography and a fabulous cast, it can’t help but feel like a much more conventional work than the original book, with a lot that simply doesn’t work as well on screen as on paper.