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.