Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.
Catch-22, a Hulu mini-series produced by George Clooney, based on the Joseph Heller novel of the same name.
I remember reading Catch-22 in high school at about the same time Quentin Tarantino released Pulp Fiction in theaters. Both works drew me in by their unique structure. Catch-22 was told in third person omniscient, taking the points of view of several characters. Additionally, Heller tells the narrative non-sequentially, a departure from the linear storytelling I had been accustomed to. An event told matter-of-factly at first is revisited later for greater impact by story’s end. Tarantino’s classic film also opted for a non-linear structure and has been copied by both professional and student filmmakers ever since. (Especially, the latter.)
The small-screen adaptation reverts back to a more linear approach. Showrunners/writers Luke Davies and David Michod also tell the story primarily through the perspective of one character: bombardier John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott). The two alterations have the cumulative effect of blandly attaching historical note cards together in an unbelievable way. Would every absurd event that could happen in a war really happen to one Army Air Force captain over the course of one campaign?
Most other war films follow an ensemble of soldiers, thus creating an air of realism. As it is, this version is one part Memphis Belle, one part Casualties of War, one part Best Years of Our Lives, among others. The theme of a Catch-22 is interesting at first, but tires out by series end.
The showrunners establish early that on the military is necessary to defeat fascism. Waging war is a profitable business, however. So is the very apparatus best suited to end a military conflict is also then financially incentivized to perpetuate it. The series seems dead-set towards viewing every human interaction through this prism. In the most bizarre of protests, Yossarian walks the airfields in the buff in the final episode. We expect a reprimand from his superiors, but the Catch-22 now turns against them. The bombardier, despite him losing his mind remains the most experienced and effective of airmen.
Satirical tone aside, the circular reasoning of the film’s title makes for fittingly repetitive story beats. By the show’s end one is both exhausted and left not knowing how to feel. As alluded to earlier, the show has a nagging way of saying everything about war, but at the same time, nothing.
Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line is a much better war film, employing a somewhat non-linear structure that also gets into many of the heads of its soldiers thanks to generous amounts of voice-overs. The impressionistic style, typical to a Malick film, lessens the feeling of judgment of the film’s characters. Objection to the war machine might be one character’s viewpoint, but not everyone’s, and certainly never something to be imposed on anyone else: characters in the story or viewers watching it.
TTRL’s various viewpoints and fractured story structure masterfully upgraded the James Jones novel on which it was based. It’s a shame that Joseph Heller’s novel of a similar structure wasn’t preserved and respected in the same way.
Also starring are Kyle Chandler and Hugh Laurie; along with being executive producer, Clooney plays Lieutenant (later Colonel and eventually General) Scheisskopf, and he directed the fourth and sixth episodes.
All six episodes of Catch-22 are available for streaming here on Hulu.
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