Joseph Heller’s tragicomic novel Catch-22 ends on a strangely hopeful note. Having just learned that his comrade Orr, missing in action after crashing his B-25 Mitchell bomber in the Mediterranean, successfully rowed to Sweden in a life-raft, Captain Yossarian runs. He runs from the carnage, the insanity, the brutal and arbitrary power of military authority. It’s a satirical flight into freedom, made all the more comic in Mike Nichols’ 1970 film adaptation with the final scene of Alan Arkin’s Yossarian paddling to Rome in a tiny yellow rubber raft to the strains of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
This moment of hope and dark humor is absent from the new miniseries adaptation directed by George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Ellen Kuras, now on Hulu. The ending of the Catch-22 miniseries is utterly devoid of hope – indeed, it is hardly an ending at all. And although, in its way, the miniseries is as absurd as either Nichols’ adaptation or the original novel, it just isn’t very funny. In 2019, it can’t be.
None of this is to say that the Catch-22 miniseries is not great television; it certainly is. The script is sharp and incisive, and the production is more than up to the standards of premium television. Christopher Abbot inhabits the Yossarian character more comfortably, and with much more subtlety and nuance than even Arkin. The supporting cast, featuring Clooney, Daniel David Stewart, and especially Kyle Chandler as Yossarian’s nemesis, the sweaty, unkempt Colonel Cathcart, is razor-sharp. The only weak performance comes from Hugh Laurie, who plays Major — de Coverley as Hugh Laurie playing Bertie Wooster.
The miniseries is beautifully-produced, sharply-written, and brilliantly-acted, and it even has some wry, humorous moments – like Major — de Coverley blithely walking into Nazi-occupied Ferrara – but it isn’t a joke. Neither the 1970 film nor Heller’s novel are knee-slappers, but they draw their power from absurdist juxtapositions and gallows humor the miniseries never quite mobilizes.
For example, Heller reveals the “spinning reasonableness” of Catch-22 when Yossarian asks Doc Daneeka why he hasn’t grounded the obviously-disturbed Orr.
“Can you ground him?”
“I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That’s part of the rule.”
“Then why doesn’t he ask you to?”
“Because he’s crazy,” Doc Daneeka said. “He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he’s had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.”
“That’s all he has to do to be grounded?”
“That’s all. Let him ask me.”
“And then you can ground him?” Yossarian asked.
“No. Then I can’t ground him.”
“You mean there’s a catch?”
“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy…”
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
Arkin delivers these lines in the 1970 film hanging upside down from the belly hatch of his B-25 bomber as it taxis to the runway, with the flight surgeon (played by veteran comic actor Jack Gilford) running breathlessly behind, inverted in Yossarian’s point-of-view. It’s all absurd and perverse. In contrast, the scene in the miniseries is shot around the base hospital and comes off as earnest and tragic. To be fair, the setting is more faithful to the text of Heller’s novel, though it feels worlds away from the spirit of its narrative.
The faithfulness of the adaptation is both a sign of the times and a reflection of the medium. Buck Henry’s screenplay for the 1970 film is, at best, a stylized sketch of Heller’s novel. It could not be any other way, of course. Henry had to make some substantial cuts to fit Catch-22’s 450 pages into a feature film’s two-hour running time. The film’s slapstick pacing and surrealist style owes much to this practical consideration. Henry had to get to the point quickly, and could often only infer the chaotic absurdity that the novel makes explicit.
Besides, the cinematic style of the time typically eschewed literal adaptations; filmmakers regarded their art as something quite separate from literature, obeying different rules. Thus, Robert Altman’s film MASH, also released in 1970, bears only a passing resemblance to the novel by Richard Hooker from which it was adapted. Frank Perry’s 1968 adaptation of John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer” expanded the 12-page narrative to 95 minutes, transforming it into the motion picture The Swimmer, an altogether unique work with a slight similarity to the source material.
Such creative flights of interpretation are no longer possible, or at least no longer in vogue. Social media have empowered engaged fans to sit in judgment of how closely a film or television series cleaves to the details of a beloved novel, comic book, or video game. Did Game of Thrones depart from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice? Were these departures justified? Did they improve the story? The Twittersphere was ablaze with discussion after every episode for eight seasons. Criticism of the minutiae of Sonic the Hedgehog’s CGI teeth sent the filmmakers back to the animation studio, and might delay the film’s 2020 release.
It is not a surprise, then, that the Catch-22 miniseries reproduces the details of Heller’s novel and World War II history with stunning fidelity. It is, after all, a product of its time, and this is a time when cinematic technology makes this attention to detail possible, and a six-hour miniseries both demands and provides the opportunity for exacting details.
Yet, at the same time, it straightens Heller’s disjointed, non-chronological story into a linear narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Part of the novel’s power comes from its narrative untidiness; the omniscient narrator tells and re-tells the story from multiple perspectives, and the chaotic order of events – particularly in its final chapters – suspends the reader in an absurdist fog where up is down and military regulations make sense. Nichols evoked much of that, by necessity, in his film.
But television is a different medium. The considerations of retaining audience attention over six one-hour episodes demand a continuous narrative with a clearly-defined and understood causal chain. A novel immerses readers in a universe; a feature film invites the audience to peer into a world like voyeurs. Television needs a narrative arc to keep viewers engaged over six episodes, even when they’re binge-watching. Viewers need to see Danaerys grow into the role of Khaleesi, and to see Walter White defy all the odds (until he doesn’t). On television, we need to watch Yossarian’s battle with military authority from basic training to the final, cruel reality of Catch-22, in that order. So, on television, Heller’s absurdist tragicomedy becomes much more of a classical tragedy than comedy.
The truth is that, through the lens of 2019, there really isn’t much to laugh about in Catch-22. Almost 60 years after it was first published, Heller’s novel – as brilliant as it is – rings deeply misogynist. A decade later, Nichols’ film articulated a kind of winking prurience evocative of the Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione wing of the Sexual Revolution. Neither even give the tragic Lt. Nately’s love interest a name; she is simply “Nately’s whore.” Indeed, in the film’s final scroll, actress Gina Rovere is simply credited as “Nately’s whore.”
There is no place for that kind of casual sexism in 2019 and, to its credit, the miniseries does an excellent job of deconstructing and critiquing the source material’s misogyny. It is still there, but as a phenomenon to be commented on, and as a manifestation of the horror and abuse of wartime. This is clear in the pivotal scene where Yossarian confronts his comrade Aarfy Aardvark over the rape and murder Michaela, an Italian chambermaid.
“But I only raped her once!” he explained.
Yossarian was aghast. “But you killed her, Aarfy! You killed her!”
“Oh, I had to do that after I had raped her,” Aarfy replied in his most condescending manner. “I couldn’t very well let her go around saying bad things about us, could I?”
“But why did you have to touch her at all, you dumb bastard?” Yossarian shouted. “Why couldn’t you get yourself a girl off the street if you wanted one? The city is full of prostitutes.”
“Oh, no, not me,” Aarfy bragged. “I never paid for it in my life.”
Neither the novel nor the film make it clear whether Yossarian is horrified by the crime or by the prospect that his friend will be arrested, tried, and executed for it. But there is no doubt in the miniseries; Yossarian is appalled by the horror of the crime itself, as at the horror of war. It is an appalling act made all the more shocking by the fact that, when the Military Police do arrive, it is to arrest Yossarian for violating military regulations, and not Aarfy for his heinous crime.
Absurdist humor relies on contrast and contradiction. The scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where King Arthur and his knights prance around as if on hobby horses to the clip-clop of coconut shells is screamingly funny because it subverts the heroic trope of the knight-errant with the performativity of child’s play. King Arthur is deadly serious about his heroic quest – underscored by a gag about the air-speed of the swallows that brought his coconuts to Britain – yet he is prancing around Britain like a fool.
And that is what made Catch-22 so funny to readers and movie viewers in 1961 and 1970, respectively. Heller wrote that the US Army Air Corps was bound by absurd – yet superficially-reasonable – rules and commanded by preening clowns, but we won the war. The film was a clear condemnation of the brutality of the Vietnam War, then spreading throughout Indochina. But that critique, and the jokes with which it was delivered, only made sense because, in 1970, audiences could still understand the war as an exception to what they understand as American ideals and American history.
It can be difficult, from the perspective of 2019, to remember that anti-war protesters flew the Stars and Stripes in 1970 without a trace of irony. The idealistic vision of the “Port Huron Statement” was, at least in part, to restore American values “tarnished” by complacency. Both the creators and consumers of Catch-22 a half-century ago approached the absurdity of the novel and film from the certainty that it was a reductio ad absurdum. It was funny because it took things too far.
Milo Minderbinder’s war profiteering was slapstick comedy in 1970 because the American capitalism he embodied was widely perceived as a force for the common good. This was a time of economic growth, when the optimistic illusions of the “New Frontier” and the “Great Society” had not yet been shattered by Richard Nixon, the Silent Majority, and Watergate. American know-how and entrepreneurial spirit were our greatest export, if Milo’s craven opportunism took it too far, then that made it funny. It was still possible – the Vietnam War notwithstanding – to imagine the United States fighting for democracy, even if it did it absurdly.
But in 2019, America fights to fight. We fight not for democracy but for oil, or to shore up the president’s flagging poll numbers ahead of the next election. Milo is not the comical caricature of a fundamentally fair free market; he is the image of our most predatory billionaires. American know-how and entrepreneurialism is not saving the world, as we like to imagine it did in 1945, it is destroying the planet. The clowns in power are no longer buffoons like Colonel Cathcart and General Scheisskopf; they resemble, more than anything, Steven King’s Pennywise from It, a devourer of children. And the clown in the White House has the same moral compass as Aarfy Aardvark.
In its 2019 adaptation, Catch-22 is absurd, but it is the absurdity of our times. It is a tragedy, but not a comedy, and that is what makes it important: a work of art for our times. Any adaptation of Heller’s great, if problematic, novel today has to be a conversation not only with the source material, not only with the previous adaptations, but with their historical, cultural and political contexts. So the miniseries is a critique of the generations of 1961 and 1970 that created Catch-22 and the horror of endless war that we now inhabit. There is no going too far, because there is no farther to go. And that is not funny.