Catch-22 is one of the most celebrated novels of all time, but in the 58 years since it was released, Joseph Heller's book had only been adapted for screen once, for Mike Nichols' 1970 film of the same name, until now. Hulu's upcoming adaptation, executive-produced, directed by and starring George Clooney, takes Heller's satirical novel about World War II and transforms it into a six-episode miniseries for the streaming service.
The novel's unique style — in which events are repeatedly described from different points of view in a circular, non-chronological fashion — presented co-writers and executive producers Luke Davies and David Michôd with a unique challenge, which they tackled by first unweaving the various character arcs to create a linear narrative.
"I spent nine months in a room just trying to work out what happened in the novel in order," Davies recalled during a panel at the Television Critics Association winter press tour on Monday. "So the first task was just to work out the events. And the second thing was to try and write it with truth and loyalty to the source material but to allow both ... the darkness and the hilarity to stand on their own."
As a result, Davies and Michôd took all the characters and stories from the novel and centered them around the anchor of Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), a U.S. Air Force bombardier who would like nothing more than to avoid all of his military assignments but finds himself trapped by bureaucracy.
"We really hope that we protect the kaleidoscopic madness of the novel, but the show really flows through Chris' perspective, Yossarian's perspective," Davies said. "The world is chaos around him, but we honed in on Yossarian's character. The novel does do that too, but the novel jumps all over the place and spends a lot of time with other characters at different times. But there's barely a single scene in the entire six hours in which Chris is either not in it or very close by."
Davies and Michôd's strategic approach to the adaptation is what brought an initially dubious Clooney on board to the project. The star admitted he was initially reluctant to join the series out of doubt it could live up to the source material, but that once he read the first three scripts he couldn't wait to sign on.
"I think David and Luke did an amazing job of unspooling these characters," said Clooney, who has a supporting role as Scheisskopf in addition to his behind-the-scenes duties. "Because when you do a movie, as you know, you don't really have enough time to get to know these characters. And that's why you do this as a television show, because you get to spend time with the characters. And they just figured out a way to interpret it in a way that we didn't think was really possible. I think that's why we got on board."
The producing team also noted that now was a perfect time for Catch-22 to return to the public conversation, as its blend of horror and hilarity seems as relevant to the current cultural climate as it did when it was published in the 1960s.
"I think we all wake up every morning these days in this kind of shared global anxiety condition and this novel is a beautiful distillation, or a prophetic distillation of that anxiety condition," Davies said. "This is like the origin story of this anxiety condition. And I loved it ever since I was 16, and suddenly there was this thought of what if I found the way of cracking the code of that novel and unraveling it and finding out what the chronology is ... I love the film, don't get me wrong, but the film just re-creates the kaleidoscopic madness of the novel, which is held tightly in a very literary sense by Joseph Heller. What we did was unfold the chronology so that all the characters had actual emotional journeys from beginning to end."
Catch-22 premieres Sunday, May 17 on Hulu.