Television

Hulu Doesn't Grasp Catch-22's Deep Anger

Joseph Heller's opus is drained of power in this tepid adaptation.

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Catch-22. Available now on Hulu.

When Joseph Heller's epically rebellious novel Catch-22 was published in 1961, the film rights sold almost immediately.  Yet it took nine years before it was turned into a movie. Part of the delay was no doubt due to the book's themes. It was scathingly anti-war, anti-authority, anti-corporate, anti-bureaucracy, anti-practically every foundational belief of 1950s America.  And it shockingly vented its rage and contempt through the milieu of World War II, the unambiguously Good War against Hitler and Tojo, a war in which millions of American families had a blood stake.

But there was another problem with bringing Catch-22 to the screen: its circular and repetitive narrative, seemingly random and fraught with free association, but actually one of the most intricately constructed works in all of American fiction. Catch-22 is not a conventional novel and it doesn't adapt well to conventional filmmaking.

But don't take my word for it. Watch Hulu's new six-hour miniseries version of Catch-22, a textbook exercise in straightforward television production, and then hunt around for the anarchically scripted 1970 Mike Nichols film.  The Nichols film still gleams with the diamond-hard fury of the book and echoes with its mad laughter. The tepid Hulu series has neither. Next to the movie, the Hulu series looks like a pallid corpse drained by a vampire.

Like Heller's novel, the series is centered around Yossarian (Christopher Abbott, notable for being hounded off the set of HBO's Girls after a run-in with its loon producer Lena Dunham), a young American crewman in a B-25 bomber flying missions off the Italian island of Pianosa late in World War II.

Yossarian hates the totalitarianism of military life, but he loathes the fact it's trying to kill him, sending him out every day on another aerial mission against mortality. Arguments about Hitler do not impress him. "The enemy," he tells one of his flyboy friends, "is anybody who's gonna get you killed, no matter which side he's on."

Yossarian tries nearly every dirty trick in the book—from faking illness to sabotaging his own plane to falsifying intelligence maps to get particularly deadly missions canceled—to get out of flying, always unsuccessfully.  Against his better judgment, he even tries a clean one: Completing the number of bombing runs necessary to get rotated out of combat.

But his commander, Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights) blocks Yossarian by continually raising the number, from 25 to 30 and eventually all the way to 60, in an attempt to get himself promoted to general at the expense of his own men's lives.

That drives Yossarian crazy, which seems to open another escape route: Surely crazy men can't be sent into combat. No, agrees Doc Daneeka (Grant Heslov, a character actor who's also one of the show's executive producers). But there's a catch: the infamous Catch-22 of the title.

"Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy," Daneeka explains. "A concern for one's own safety, in the face of danger real and immediate, is the process of a rational mind."So Yossarian is crazy and can't fly combat missions until he asks to be grounded, at which time he becomes sane and has to.

That reasoning itself is circular and crazy, which makes it the very essence of Catch-22 : The gap between madness and sanity, the lunacy of others thinking they are entitled to run your life and the lunacy of letting them do so, the craziness of men killing one another over lines on a map.

And this is an essence that the producers and directors of Hulu's production (including George Clooney, who also has an acting role) repeatedly fail to grasp, most fundamentally in their belief that Catch-22 can be told chronologically rather than in the scattershot way Yossarian sees it.

But their incomprehension of the book's cracked, absurdist core is a recurring problem that ultimately undoes the production altogether. Over and over, they leave out characters and scenes from the book that are indispensable to Catch-22's message, that the authorities governing life are cruel and irrational.

Or worse yet, the elements are present but warped completely out of significance:

  • Clooney's character Lt. Scheisskopf is turned from a martinet maniacally obsessed with making his air crews march to a vengeful cuckold who's punishing Yossarian for banging his wife.
  • The soldier in white, a gravely wounded flyer lying silently in the base hospital, encased head to toe in a plaster cast, makes an appearance. What is missing is the masterfully metaphoric scene in which the two bottles hooked to his body—one dripping fluid into a vein in his arm, one draining urine from his groin—are simply switched by the nurses.
  • The bitter bedroom quarrel between the atheists Yossarian and Lt. Scheisskopf's wife in which they berate one another over the nature of the God they mutually disbelieve ("The God I don't believe in is a good God, not the mean and stupid yokel you make him out to be," insists Mrs. Scheisskopf) is played as if they're joking, not arguing furiously in a way that underlines the contagious irrationality of religion.

So much is missing or misconstrued in Hulu's Catch-22 that it's tempting to evaluate the show in terms of what it lacks rather than what it includes.

The latter includes most of Yossarian's screwball buddies, including the idealist Clevinger (as Heller wrote of him, "The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with."); the naïve but earnest rich kid Nately (who imagines he can marry a Roman whore and take her home to the family mansion in Connecticut), and the hotshot pilot McWatt, who tries to explain to Yossarian that fretting about death is useless because "it's all a numbers game. When your number's up, your number's up."

Some of the supporting performances are very good even when poorly written, particularly Graham Patrick Martin (Two and a Half Men) as Orr, the pilot whose luck is so bad that it's almost as if he's practicing being shot down, and stage actor Daniel David Stewart as Milo, the oily, avaricious mess officer who personifies state capitalism.

But Abbott's Yossarian is much less successful, too calculating and without the fractured streak that made Heller's character so indelible. And Abbott becomes even less convincing after the first couple of episodes, which employ great chunks of Heller's dialogue. As Heller's prose fades away, so does Yossarian and, for that matter, the rest of the show, which doesn't really end so much as fizzle away to uncertainty and inconclusion.

My suggestion is that if you're interested in watching a screen version of Catch-22, hunt around for a streaming version of the Nichols film, which stands up surprisingly well nearly 50 years later. Or take the opposite route and watch the 1973 pilot for a CBS comedy starring Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian, an attempt to rip off M*A*S*H that mercifully died a quick death. It's a reminder that war may be hell, but 1970s sitcoms are even worse.

This review has been updated to correct the name of the actor portraying Orr.

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  1. This review made me want to reread the book.

    1. The book is garbage.

      1. You disappoint me.

      2. One of my favorite books, hilarious with very deep messages about war and beauracracy.

        1. Sparky really is the worst sometimes.
          Catch-22 is one of the 4 or 5 books I re-read every several years.

  2. shame when remakes made of things not requiring remaking.

  3. Catch-22 is not SJW-compliant, and hence cannot be done properly by mainstream outlets these days.

    1. I saw the Nichols film, never read the book. It’s gotten to the point where any old movie or bit of odd culture I look at, I’m forced to wonder, “Could that be done today?”.

      I don’t remember anything in the Nichols film that would be a problem… but of course, that’s also the problem. Because I can’t remember or identify it doesn’t mean that someone else will.

      1. The film was OK, but left out too much of the best stuff from the book.
        It’s not the best book to adapt to film or TV. So much of the book’s greatness is in the writing style.

      2. “…any old movie or bit of odd culture I look at, I’m forced to wonder, “Could that be done today?”.”

        It’s possible that “Catch-22” might be able to be made in today’s overly PC environment. On the other hand I cannot think of any Mel Brook’s movies being remade. There is no way that “Blazing Saddles”, “Young Frankenstein” or “History of the World Part 1” (as examples) can be done without affecting a great number of snowflakes who really just don’t have a sense of humor.

    2. That was the biggest issue in making this, from what I understand–most of the sharp edges were dulled in order to accommodate woke sensibilities. A great example of how Progressivism is the new Fundamentalism with the Mass Media Left.

      1. >>>most of the sharp edges were dulled

        so, catch-21

      2. Even if you believe that “woke sensibilities” are desirable things for people to hold, insisting that works of fiction must always reflect those sensibilities badly misses the point.

  4. who imagines he can marry a Roman whore and take her home to the family mansion in Connecticut

    I don’t care WHAT Sophia Loren’s occupation was before I met her, I’m so taking her home to meet the family.

  5. Clooney’s character Lt. Scheisskopf is turned from a martinet maniacally obsessed with making his air crews march to a vengeful cuckold who’s punishing Yossarian for banging his wife.

    Time after time, these Hollywood producers reveal more about the degeneracy and neuroticism of their own personal lives than they do about the material they’re trying to portray.

  6. Setting it in WWII would seem
    to make it a criticism of the pinnacle of progressive war socialism. Doing whatever the collective requires is likely to be following stupid and irrational directives.

    1. It’s really more an observation that what you describe is inevitably the reality of modern war. War between nation states is inherently a pretty socialist enterprise. Catch-22 is built into how modern militaries have to operate.

      1. Perhaps, but the Left has great nostalgia for the social cohesion of the WWII era which was largely due the regimentation and conformity to orders that was the hallmark of total war.

        1. That is true. The right seems to be pretty keen on war socialism too, though. Which is sort of the point I’m making. I don’t think the nostalgia for the Great War is a particularly partisan thing. It’s loved by statists of all stripes.
          I’m sort of thinking as I go here, so challenge me if you think I’m off, but total war sort of has to be a socialist enterprise. The state needs to be able to do whatever it has to to win.

          1. total war sort of has to be a socialist enterprise

            Agreed. If there’s a ‘libertarian’ or ‘individualist’ approach to war, it died with the Romans.

          2. Also agree that the nostalgia for the National Unity of WWII is very much a bi-partisan thing, at least it was back when the NeoCons were still Republican.

  7. The problem is it’s a Hulu production. Hulu is basically a DVR service for broadcast and basic cable TV – IIRC, Disney and Comcast own a big chunk of Hulu – and it’s not going to compete with its own owners by offering cutting-edge on-demand content the way the other disruptive cord-cutting services are.

    And now that ATT owns HBO, kiss must-see TV like Game of Thrones goodbye, too. It’s quite apropos you mention the schlocky ’70’s CBS series – you’re going to get more of that shit once the media mergers are done.

    1. HBO sucks

      Evidence: Wyatt Cenac Problem Areas

      I rest my case

      1. I had to google that – Wyatt Cenac is one of The Daily Show/I> crowd that stopped being cutting edge about 15 years ago, but that’s what you’re going to be getting now out of the new and improved HBO. Retreads.

  8. Gimme eat. Give everybody eat.

  9. I was drafted during the ‘Nam war. I loved “Catch 22”. I was angry at the world governments, particularly the US Empire. I found Yossarian easy to identify with. He was the only sane person in an insane world. It took me decades to identify the source of the insanity, the seemly “catch 22” in life. It is a mass delusion that is shared by most of humanity, a universal superstition that coercive violence is noble or necessary, but unavoidable, our fate, e.g., the plot in “Planet of the Apes”. This seemed obviously wrong to me from childhood. It took me a half century to accept the horror that this is the base assumption of worldwide societies. All glorify war and warriors as heroes; history celebrates this.
    I find this superstition, like all superstitions, irrational, indefensible, and “The Most Dangerous Superstition”. It is defended by mindless slogans like “the law is the law”, “you can’t beat city hall”, and “the only absolutes are death and taxes” as if these are self-evident.
    It is self-evident that common sense is not common, in fact, quite rare. People don’t engage in deep thought, don’t seek root meanings, don’t ask anti-social (unpopular) questions, even in their own minds. They let others tell them what is, what to think. They “go along to get along” and don’t question common contradictions.

  10. The problem is it’s a Hulu production. Hulu is basically a DVR service for broadcast and basic cable TV – IIRC, Disney and Comcast own a big chunk of Hulu – and it’s not going to compete with its own owners by offering cutting-edge on-demand content the way the other disruptive cord-cutting services are. diebestetest

  11. The review made me want to read the book again, but the movie, not so much. Although there is a funny story about the making of the movie. The pilots they used to actually fly airplanes were hard to cast. In keeping with the book’s themes, they wanted guys who were sort of ordinary, not “look-of-eagles,” types of the sort Hollywood goes for. But it turned out that real WW II-type pilots who were still flying, mostly looked like the Hollywood stereotype. So that’s who they ended up using.

    One other point about this review. The Catch 22 of the title is illustrated by the insanity/missions paradox, but that is only an illustration, not the essence. Heller makes the essence explicit later in the book. This is from memory, so it may be an approximate quote, but it’s at least pretty close, “Catch 22 means they can do anything to you that you cannot stop them from doing.”

  12. there is no deep anger. is anyone not a moron who works for reason?

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