It’s been nearly half a century since anyone tried to adapt Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for the screen. The first (and last) successful attempt, in 1970, came at the height of the Vietnam War. Perhaps predictably, given the political climate, Mike Nichol’s film received short-shrift from critics. Viewers also stayed away; presumably, biting satire on the absurdity of war was the last thing many wanted to see. Thereafter, the accepted wisdom has held that Catch-22 was in fact unfilmable – either too verbose, too disjointed, or too close-to-home to attempt.
It’s unsurprising, then, that it’s taken the entertainment dream team of George Clooney, who stars, directs and produces, and streaming giant Hulu, fresh from its wildly successful adaptation of another literary classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, to bring Heller’s novel back to our screens. One of the world’s most bankable stars and a juggernaut of consumer capitalism? Heller would applaud the irony.
However, any purists concerned that Catch-22 might go the same way as The Handmaid’s Tale, stretched way beyond the source material into three seasons (and counting) to satisfy the demands of long-form television, need not have worried. Clooney’s adaptation is extremely faithful, reproducing Heller’s dialogue as often as possible, and extremely lean, totalling only six 40 minute episodes.
That, in the main, was a good decision by the show’s writers, Luke Davies and David Michôd. As a novel, Catch-22 is deliberately light on plot, drawing its power instead from a series of vignettes featuring a constantly revolving cast of characters. This lack of structure, combined with the novel’s pervasive sense of absurdity, actively militates against the narrative driven storytelling we have become used to over the last decade. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a novel less suited to this kind of adaptation than Catch-22.
Inevitably then, Davies and Michôd’s screenplay opts to iron-out the novel, creating a linear narrative centred around Christopher Abbott’s Yossarian. His function is two-fold. First, he is the centrifugal point around which the story revolves, and second as a surrogate for the audience; the horror is first and foremost seen through the eyes of the only “sane” figure we meet.
Abbott, best known to UK audiences for his role as Charlie in Lena Dunham’s Girls, does well in the role: his naturalistic, understated approach is an excellent foil for the increasingly absurd situations in which he finds himself. He also captures the pathos of his situation: his reactions to the death of Corporal Mudd and the disappearance of his friend and sparring partner Clevinger are deeply, if quietly, moving.
Given the trueness of this adaptation, a lot of Abbott’s time is spent speechifying: Davies and Michôd have really doubled down on the exposition. Heller’s dialogue, best typified by Doc Daneeka’s (Grant Heslov) explanation of the notorious titular paradox, is highly stylised and intensely rhetorical, finding the humour in the illogical world of military bureaucracy. This spirit is well-preserved here, and proves a great deal of fun.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Clooney’s Scheisskopf, with his fetish for parades, is a cartoon sociopath, Full Metal Jacket’s Sergeant Hartmann with delusions of power. Likewise, Kyle Chandler’s Cathcart is played broadly for laughs; a scene involving an un-bombed Vatican City is genuinely hilarious. Compared to these two, Hugh Lauries’ de Coverley is something of a grace note – nice to have, but not nearly substantial enough for an actor of his ability.
What each of these characters brings out, in their own way, is the opportunism of war: for those in the right position, there is much to be gained from conflict. That’s most true of Milo Minderbinder, the regimental mess officer. Daniel David Scott has a ball in this role, playing Milo as the consummate salesman, popular with the bomb crews and senior ranks alike, whose constant refrain, “What’s good for M&M Enterprises is good for America”, gives him the cover he needs for his increasingly amoral schemes. It’s a delightful skewering of the shamelessness of consumer capitalism, as each officer in turn is convinced to turn a blind eye for the good of the syndicate (and himself), and Scott’s charm is such that we find ourselves carried along with them.
Arguably, it’s this aspect of Heller’s novel which chimes best with our times – what must have seemed radically subversive on publication is less shocking now, when large arms companies can sell weapons to foreign governments and wash their hands of the consequences, even in the face of legal pressure.
Catch-22 is a comedy, its purpose to sharpen our appreciation of the horrors of war and the too-often impure motives that make it a necessity. Clooney’s version doesn’t shy away from this, juxtaposing the sunny, cartoonish atmosphere with frenetic bombing sequences. Up here, where we sit with Yossarian, totally exposed in the glass cage of the bombing pod, we understand the real trauma that underlies the comedy.
That it manages to walk this tightrope is testament to the overall success of this adaptation. It’s not perfect, but its possibly as good as could reasonably be expected given such challenging source material. Many years later, Heller wrote a sequel, Closing Time, following Yossarian in New York in the later years of his life. No one would be surprised if plans for a sequel were already in place. Milo Minderbinder would approve: Heller, one suspects, would laugh.