I was interested to see the opening of the just released Hulu series Catch 22, and was not disappointed.
The thing is, Catch 22 is a complicated topic. There is, of course, the sprawling 1961 novel by Joseph Heller which I first read in high school and have re-read several times since. Clocking in at 472 pages in the 70s pocket paperback version I still have on my shelf (published in the UK under the Corgi imprint) and over 500 pages in the 50th anniversary paperback version I picked up a few years back (the German language version I set myself to read one summer in the late 80s is only 441 pages, but it is in the smallest font size I’ve ever seen in a paperback, so would probably swell to 600 pages in a legible font size), the novel wanders through a series of characters with intertwined stories and strange players who come and go and the whole thing is told out of chronological order. It is not a work that lends itself easily to other mediums.
Not that it has not been tried.
There is, of course, the 1970 film version that attempted to take on the novel, compressing it down into just two hours.
I love the film. It is, at best, an imperfect vehicle, a sketch of what the book contains, but a beautiful sketch. The audio commentary on the DVD version I own of director Mike Nichols talking to Steven Soderbergh about the trials of making the film is an epic tale on its own.
In video you can capture a sweeping landscape or a vision of chaos with a pass of the camera, summing up in seconds what might take several paragraphs. But a film has trouble telling the audience things, passing on relevant details, without having characters say them aloud. The importance of a breathtaking vista or a harrowing bomb run can be lost without somebody explaining aloud what is going on.
And since the characters cannot possibly speak every line in the novel and keep things in a reasonable time frame… I had an abridged audio book version of Catch 22 that was six hours long… huge sections of the novel had to be lopped off for the film version.
But here is the thing. For all its faults, the film is my baseline for everything. This is because long before I ever picked up the book I had seen the film. Or at least part of the film. After its theatrical run it made its television debut in… by my recollection… 1974 on a Sunday night. This was back when showing newer movies on TV was kind of a big deal and would get weeks of ad spots on the network to herald its coming. And my dad, ever the poor judge of what was appropriate, let me sit up and watch part of it.
This is probably why Alan Arkin is Yossarian in my head. Well, that and the audio book I mentioned was read by him, which no doubt reinforced the whole thing. Seeing just the first half of the movie set most of the characters in my head, so when I think of them I think of the people who played them in the film. This was helped by the fact that the cast was an ensemble of well known actors. So when I read the book I already had faces in my head for many of the roles.
Which leads me back to Hulu. A mini-series has more time to deal with a book as complex as Catch 22, and so I was glad to see that it started somewhere besides the isle of Pianosa, the central location where the film grounded itself.
Instead it starts at the US Army Air Corps training base in Santa Ana with Yossarian and Clevinger and Lt. Scheisskopf (and his wife) and the obsession with marching in formation. This is a major story arc in the book that is alluded at the very end of the film when you see the base turned out to march as Yossarian runs for the ocean.
We were going to get more of the story than the film gave us. The mini-series was going to find its own way through the novel. They even avoided using the name Yossarian, which is uttered, mumbled, and shouted throughout the film, referring to the lead character as Yoyo, his nickname. I was good with that.
The whole thing emphasizes different aspects of the story than the film does. Chaplin Tappman is a passing character. The relationship with Orr is not as key. Lt. Col. Korn has a much less aggressive role. And they decided to include the tale of Maj. ____ DeCoverley and the great big siege of Bologna and the bomb line.
On the other hand, I was a bit dismayed at the introduction of the cast standing in formation in Santa Ana. They were a series of actors so similar in appearance that I could not tell one from the other. This was, perhaps, intentional, in order to emphasize the interchangeability of men in war, where death leads to a replacement, where turnover in the squadron in the book highlights Yossarian’s alienation. The only person who stood out was Christopher Abbott, who plays Yossarian. I can see the point of that, signalling right away the main character. And Abbott does a credible job in the role, though his version of the character is somewhat more subdued that the sometimes manic Alan Arkin performance in the film.
Christopher Abbott as John Yossarian
And things start off well. After training Yossarian and his class from Santa Ana all end up in the Mediterranean theater together, during which the mini-series can tell its own version of the story, even throwing in early on the dead man in Yossarian’s tent, something an avid fan of the book will no doubt remember.
But it cannot stay away from scenes covered by the film as well, and at times it comes off poorly in comparison. Yossarian and Doc Daneeka talking about the circular logic of “catch-22” on the flight line is one of the great early moments of the film. The same exchanges has to take place in the mini-series. In cannot go anywhere without setting that down. But it doesn’t have the same punch.
Likewise, the story leads up to the scene with Yossarian and Arfy, where Arfy has raped and murdered the housekeeper and the sirens are blaring and Yossarian is telling Arfy they are coming to arrest him for this horrible act as the MPs are pounding on the door. But the scene in the mini-series doesn’t live up to the same one in the film, in part because the mini-series hasn’t built up Arfy enough, but mostly because it simply couldn’t top the performances of Charles Grodin and Alan Arkin.
Those are, of course, my problems and not the problems of the mini-series. A normal person probably wouldn’t be drawn to those. But the mini-series has its own issues.
First, there is a seeming need to compress the set by putting characters from the books in different positions in the planes so as to cram everybody into the same scene. The book is primarily about a group of offices, pilots, navigators, and bombardiers. But they need to get Nately in the plane with Yossarian and so he ends up as a tail gunner.
While they visually references some of Orr’s quirks… he is clearly fiddling with the gas stove that so infuriated Yossarian in the book… they never establish any real relationship between Orr and Yossarian and, while they set up Orr’s eventual fate, it lacks any real punch.
The mini-series also eschews any attempt at non-linear story telling… even the film kept that aspect of the book in its two hour run… and bowls through events chronologically. This takes a bit of the bite out of the changing number of missions to be flow, used as a marker in the book to keep the reader sync up with where the story lay at the moment.
Not very far in Milo starts to overwhelm the story. In the end Yossarian is the cornerstone of the story, and while Milo plays into it, it feels like Milo gets about a third of the mini-series. And, while it is fun to see his ever expanding empire and the inevitable contract bombing raid for the Germans, in the end he is a metaphor and not a key player.
Meanwhile George Clooney was an odd choice for Scheisskopf. He is the big name in the production and his being in that role causes somebody who is at best a secondary character in the book to suddenly overshadow those around him. I know he wanted to be in the mini-series, but that wasn’t the spot. He is also too old for the role, starting off the whole things as a Lieutenant in the army. He was originally supposed to be cast as Col. Cathcart, which I think he could have pulled off well enough. Instead we have his outsized presence in an unsuitable role.
Then there is Maj. ____ DeCoverley, who is bizarrely played by Hugh Laurie. I am a huge fan of Hugh Laurie, but he is a man of words and some sophistication, and plays his character as such, while Maj. ____ DeCoverley is so named because he is gruff and intimidating to the point that people are afraid to ask him his first name. He is, as readers may recall from the end of the loyalty oath crusade in the book, not a man of subtlety or sophistication. So I appreciate the inclusion, which is pretty much required as part of the great big siege of Bologna story line, which the film omits, but I am not sure it was well cast.
And finally, the whole story goes off the rails somewhere in episode five, leaving the original tale behind to forge its own story, stopping every so often to cram in some scene from the book to ground its otherwise odd turns. It reminds me a bit of the end of Game of Thrones on HBO, only the team doing the mini-series had the ending rather than having to make it up. That they chose to make it up seems… worse maybe?
Add in some unnecessary stumbles… when a man with sergeant’s strips on his sleeves shows up and introduces himself as Lieutenant Newman I rolled my eyes so hard I may have detached a retina… and the end, the whole thing feels unsatisfying, leaving off with Yossarian’s essential problems unresolved. He still has more missions to fly and people are still trying to kill him. I don’t know. Maybe they are planning a season 2. But they’ve already pass through so much of the book that I don’t know what they would do with six more episodes.
It isn’t all bad. I was certainly on board with it for the first three episodes and had to sit on my hands and not spoil thing for my wife, who watched that far with me, as I spotted this and that from the books while the story moved along.
It was certainly adequate visually. I suspect that the production had access to maybe three actual B-25 bombers for the filming… well short of the full squadron of flying examples the film had… in addition to a T-6, a C-47, and a JU-52. From that they were able to CGI the flying scenes well enough.
The choice to keep the story line completely linear was probably correct. Cutting back and forth in time is jarring enough without having to keep track of where you are across multiple episodes.
And Giancarlo Giannini as the old man in the brothel was an inspired choice. Maybe the only right choice for that role.
But overall I am not feeling it. I binged through it in an evening and morning and am not thinking about a re-watch. Clearly many of my issues are because of the lens through which I viewed the series, a lens distorted by familiarity with both the book and the film. I cannot see it independently of that context. And the reviews for it seems to be overwhelmingly positive. So maybe it is good and it is just grumpy old me who cannot see it.