'Catch-22' May Not Be By The Book, But It Understands Brutality

Christopher Abbott plays Yossarian in Hulu's adaptation of 'Catch-22.' (Philipe Antonello/Hulu)

If Hulu had announced an original dramatic miniseries that follows a World War II soldier awakening to the horrors of war, executive produced and partly directed (two episodes out of six) by George Clooney, and if the result had been Catch-22, it would have seemed largely successful. But the series, available in full now, is, of course, an adaptation of Joseph Heller's much-chewed-over 1961 novel, a book very unusual in both its tone and its structure. And as an adaptation, it struggles to meet the inevitable expectations.

Some of the basics are retained from the book: Christopher Abbott plays the bombardier Yossarian, who would like to stop flying missions and go home. But every time he approaches the number of missions the military demands, the merciless Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler, playing the mean side of the bureaucratic/governmental operator he has been playing for some years now) raises the number. Also retained is the Catch-22 of the title: the military rule explained by Doc Daneeka (Grant Heslov, also an executive producer). Catch-22 says that a soldier can ask for release on the grounds that he's insane, but also holds that trying to get out of a war is clear evidence of sanity. So all you have to do is ask, but if you ask, you'll be denied.

What doesn't survive from the book is the tone, which is arguably the reason to read Catch-22. The book is often the very example people use to explain what satire is; even if you can't give a clear definition, you can at least point to this book and say, "It is this." Not only because of the absurdity of things like Catch-22 itself, but also because of Heller's style. Consider this bit from early in the book:

There were many officers' clubs that Yossarian had not helped build, but he was proudest of the one on Pianosa. It was a sturdy and complex monument to his powers of determination. Yossarian never went there to help until it was finished; then he went there often, so pleased was he with the large, fine, rambling shingled building. It was truly a splendid structure, and Yossarian throbbed with a mighty sense of accomplishment each time he gazed at it and reflected that none of the work that had gone into it was his.

This upside-down-ness, pride in all the work you did not put in, shows up over and over, and that tone is almost impossible to film. You can certainly show someone saying, "My, I feel proud of the club I didn't build!" But it's an extraordinary challenge to convey this feeling absent a voluminous voice-over to which we are, fortunately, not subjected.

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Or consider this (believe it or not) single sentence:

Colonel Cathcart went away from General Dreedle with a gulp and kicked the chaplain out of the officers' club, and it was exactly the way it almost was two months later after the chaplain had tried to persuade Colonel Cathcart to rescind his order increasing the number of missions to sixty and had failed abysmally in that endeavor too, and the chaplain was ready now to capitulate to despair entirely but was restrained by the memory of his wife, whom he loved and missed so pathetically with such sensual and exalted ardor, and by the lifelong trust he had placed in the wisdom and justice of an immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, humane, universal, anthropomorphic, English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon, pro-American God, which had begun to waver.

That feeling, that the chaplain is clinging to his trust in a very particular kind of God, could be captured in a scene. But the chaos of the prose, and the way it's structurally funny simply because it's stacked on top of itself and looped into knots, really cannot, quite.

Moreover, there is a two-month time jump in that sentence, and the book specializes in this kind of nonlinear storytelling. There are shows that have experimented with jumping around in time, sometimes with great success. The flashback is standard bordering on cliche. But the stubbornly unmoored nature of Catch-22 is, probably wisely, abandoned in the miniseries, which is, with a couple of exceptions, told as a single progressing narrative.

With that said, the writers here have done a lot to draw the dramatic elements from the novel, and those elements are often compelling. Abbott gets at Yossarian's increasingly frantic need to escape, particularly as his friends die in various unglamorous ways. As the chaplain says late in the series, the men who die in Catch-22 don't really die so much as vanish; they go up into the sky to fly missions and they don't come back. Not every character is treated the same way in the series as in the book, but the theme of a slow and despairing march toward isolation — presented within black comedy in the book and more within drama here — remains.

Here, too, the focus is on the way war is, for some of the men who wage it, simply a thing undertaken and continued. You fly a certain number of missions and you go home — you owe them a certain amount of war. Yossarian concocts various schemes to get out of it, but Cathcart insists he will not be fooled; Yossarian owes the war-making that he owes, and the only way out may be endless violence. Or, of course, corruption. Because there is always corruption.

That the successful parts of the series are the more dramatic ones makes it hard to integrate the stories of Milo Minderbinder the war profiteer (Daniel David Stewart) and Major Major Major Major (Lewis Pullman), both of which rely heavily on their absurdity — not that this absurdity doesn't ultimately relate intimately to the horrors-of-war stuff that Yossarian is experiencing while in the air. Minderbinder's collaboration with Cathcart never quite reaches the peak it probably should, and only in the scene in which Sergeant Major Major Major is promoted to Major Major Major Major does that tale of inappropriate promotion and meaningless rank assignment have impact.

A note: Much of the promotion around Catch-22 has emphasized that Clooney also appears in it, playing General Scheisskopf. But both he and Hugh Laurie (playing Major de Coverley) seem to have signed on for more of a dark comedy than this, in fact, is. Clooney shifts into a more dramatic tone in the late part of the series when he reappears, but his opening scene promises a level of absurdity that very little of the series actually contains. There are good reasons to visit this project, but the big-name actors are, interestingly, not really among them. The lesser-known actors are, in many cases, stronger.

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Abbott in particular is very good here, and his face is the pivot point of the whole show. His handsome ease, as it gives way to anger and then panic, does underline what is asked of people when they are sent to fight, particularly if those who send them become hardened or craven. He sits on these missions in a cramped position, dropping bombs from a plane, largely just hoping not to die and never catching sight of anyone on the ground. If you go in expecting a sad and enraging anti-war story, you may well be satisfied. But it is not really Catch-22.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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