The first season (six episodes) of the new series Catch-22, co-directed and executive-produced by George Clooney, is available now on Hulu. I was cautiously optimistic, going by the trailer that loads up the novel-like bits, and by the enthusiasm of author Joseph Heller’s daughter on social media. A movie was made from the novel in 1970, of course, directed by Mike Nichols, and an aborted TV pilot in 1973, with Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian, Catch-22’s anti-hero.
Catch-22 is, by setting, a WWII novel, about American bomber crews driving the Nazis back up Italy. Heller, who served in one of those bomber groups, began writing it in 1953, but it was not published until 1961. Its cult following took another couple of years to get established.
But Catch-22 is about WWII in the way that M*A*S*H (both movie and TV series) is about Korea—which is to say hardly at all. All of them have a Vietnam-era, counterculture sensibility, not at all like, say, Norman Mailer’s Naked and the Dead. After Heller’s Today show appearance in 1962, NBC’s John Chancellor gave him a sticker he had gotten printed that read, “Yossarian Lives.” Chancellor had been surreptitiously putting them up in the halls and bathrooms at the network, apparently as an anti-establishment statement.
I first read Catch-22 as a young E-nothing right out of basic training. It not only spoke to what I was beginning to see of the strangeness of military life, and how one struggles to retain a sense of self and humanity in a system that overdetermined, but it was also one of the most powerful things I had read. Decades and multiple readings later, and having taught it at the graduate level, I still feel that way. It is a holy fool of a book, with allegorical power not unlike Greene’s Power and the Glory. Its form, satire, linguistic invention, and willingness to question help make it one of the towering works of the 20th century. Adapting all this to a streaming series could not be expected to be easy.
The advantage of any series over a 90-minute movie is that its length and apportioning might be expected to work more like a novel: episodes could be like chapters, and seasons like acts, and the series something like the original book.
But there are more to books than chapter breaks. To capture one of the most important aspects of Catch-22—its surreal tone and anti-authority, anti-inhumanity stance—would require, on the screen, part Marx Brothers, part Juvenalian (not Horatian) satire, and part Coen Brothers. The series is none of those.
Clooney’s mugging in the Coens’ O Brother would have been a good choice here, playing the officer Scheisskopf, but does not get used. Christopher Abbott, who plays Yossarian, is excellent and happens to look like a young Joseph Heller, but he has evidently been told to be almost exclusively thoughtful.
More than anything, the series flattens out the book. Do not expect to see more than a few of the novel’s nearly six-dozen characters, or for those to be developed. The tangle of chronology of the novel, which keeps us as off-balance and fearful as the characters, has been straightened and put in order.
Physical difference has been eliminated. In the novel Orr, Yossarian’s tentmate, is a bucktoothed, grinning simpleton, and Aarfy, a navigator, is an overweight, “grinning, moon-faced” tormentor. These and nearly all other characters are played by handsome young actors with the same sculpted bodies, including six packs. The lovingly-shot wrestling match among them on a swim raft looks more like the slow-mo, muscle-glistening volleyball game in Top Gun.
The series primly deals with what Clooney calls the novel’s “terrible” misogyny. In doing so, most sex has been expunged (there is a rape), and the women’s characters flattened. In this season of the series the character “Nately’s Whore” has no emotions at all, let alone strongly ambivalent ones for Nately, as she does in the novel, where she becomes a magical being, powerful as death incarnate and just as unreasonable.
Politics is flattened in the series too, presumably for politically-correct reasons. The character Chief White Halfoat, for instance, is gone, and with him the novel’s indictment of white colonist mentality toward Native Americans—as well as Halfoat’s own casual racism.
Most of all, the novel’s existential-level horror is gone. Everything in the novel is a danger, from Aarfy’s selective deafness, to the corruption of logic, to a cat that lovingly smothers someone by sleeping on his face. The only danger in the series so far is flak thrown at American bombers by the Germans.
The novel’s climax, or perhaps proof-of-concept, is hinted at several times before we finally face it. When the gunner on his plane is wounded, Yossarian gives first aid, self-congratulatorily, until he sees there is a much worse wound.
Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out. A chunk of flak more than three inches big had shot into his other side just underneath the arm and blasted all the way through, drawing whole mottled quarts of Snowden along with it through the gigantic hole in his ribs it made as it blasted out. Yossarian screamed a second time and squeezed both hands over his eyes. His teeth were chattering in horror. He forced himself to look again. Here was God’s plenty, all right, he thought bitterly as he stared—liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch. Yossarian hated stewed tomatoes and turned away dizzily and began to vomit, clutching his burning throat.
“Man was matter,” Heller writes, “that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage.” It is just as Yossarian has feared all along.
In the series, this is a brief scene with no voiceover, and the carnage is barely glimpsed. Yossarian’s reaction is tears and a hug.
The novel provides an antidote to its poison. Orr, who has been secretly practicing to ditch safely in the sea, does so and escapes the war by paddling a tiny raft to Sweden. For Yossarian, who is about to give up, it is an epiphany of the human spirit. In the series this is mentioned in passing.
(A quick word on the tackiness of sponsored streaming for important things: just after the rape-murder scene, and what is called the “night journey” of Yossarian, a particularly hellish passage in the book, one of the series’ many commercials cut in to sell Apple watches to the tune of “The Hokey Pokey.”)
Grant Heslov, who plays Doc Daneeka and also co-directs, says, “It’s a very complicated book. It’s beautiful as a read, but as an adaptation it’s really tricky.” Christopher Abbott says the series’ writer did the “best possible translation of the book that you can do.”
Adaptations are translations, and translations their own art. They stand as something on their own and/or drive traffic back to the original. This season of Catch-22 does neither.