Catch-22is headed to Hulu as a six-episode miniseries and might end up being something of a hit. It's got many funny scenes, a strong lead performance by Christopher Abbott and an entire platoon of handsome young actors in uniform. It sinks its teeth into absurdist wordplay, circular illogic and world-weary defeat in the face of frustrating injustice. But with so many familiar with its source material, Hulu's version (directed two apiece by George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Ellen Kuras, and written by David Michôd and Luke Davis) runs the risk of more "the book was better" comments than the usual adaptation.
Joseph Heller's thick satirical war novel Catch-22 (and, yes, this is where the expression comes from) was a smash at its release in 1961 and has only grown in stature as one of the 20th-century literary masterpieces that everyone has to read. Luckily it's hilarious (though dark) so this hardly feels like homework.
The show is less interested in the hyperspeed stream of consciousness and timeline cartwheeling that makes the book so irresistable. Also, there seems to be an effort to sand the edges of the characters. The shock about Catch-22's protagonist, Yossarian, was that he was a hero, but also an unrepentant coward. He doesn't have an inch of "greatest generation." People are trying to kill him, both the Germans who shoot at his plane and the American officers who force him in that plane to begin with. The show's first episode includes a conversation where it is implied that their specific sorties are unnecessary with the war effort going well, and that only military inertia (led by the myriad contradictions at the heart of the story) is forcing them in harm's way. It's a small but surprising change.
But I have good news. Streaming elsewhere (Amazon Prime with subscription, for rent elsewhere) is a 1970 movie version of Catch-22 which, especially when compared to this new iteration, really nails the essence of the book.
Catch-22 was a huge bet at the time for Paramount, just when Hollywood studios were realizing that, hey, this whole counter-culture, anti-war jazz could mean big money. Director Mike Nichols was coming off of two major successes, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and, more relevantly, the very zeitgeist-y The Graduate. With the same screenwriter (Buck Henry), Catch-22 seemed like a natural. It had a large $18 million budget, very visible there on the screen for many long takes involving actual B-52 bombers taking off in formation.
But, as in the movie itself, there was a catch! A few months before its release, a much smaller production from Robert Altman at Fox called MASH made waves. (Yes, before M*A*S*Hwas on TV, it was a movie, with Donald Sutherland in Alan Alda's role.) It was a sensation, and much more in-your-face, with more slapstick, more nudity and profanity, more anger. It isn't one-half the movie Catch-22 is, but it came first and, as such, Nichols' film was greatly overshadowed.
Now, half-a-century later, it's time to recognize that the movie version of Catch-22 is outstanding. Unlike MASH, which lent itself well to episodic television because it was shot so flatly, Catch-22 is very cinematic. Its use of associative editing mirrors Joseph Heller's acrobatic prose. Nichols is creative with backlighting, with lengthy tracking shots and with unsettling frames with negative space. The purpose of this story is to show the absurdity of war, which ramps up from annoying little grievances to cosmic-scale bleakness, and Nichols creates a world that grows more strange as the film continues. It has its own internal logic, one fueled by contradictions.
A contradiction within the film itself is the see-saw between deeply poignant moments about the cruelty of war and the abuse of power, and scenes of what's basically Borscht Belt schtick. Front-and-center is Alan Arkin as Yossarian, one of fiction's finest schlimazels. Eternally in panic mode (because, you know, people are trying to kill him) yet he's the one that the social structure says is crazy. The massive supporting cast (Martin Balsam, Buck Henry, Richard Benjamin, Orson Welles, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Bob Balaban, Art Garfunkel, Norman Fell, Bob Newhart, Austin Pendleton, Anthony Perkins, Jack Gilford, Charles Grodin and on and on and on) are all, by any reasonable measure, the ones who are completely nuts, yet they all seem to be fitting in fine.
This is the central "catch" of the film. The Colonel keeps upping the number of missions they need to fly before they can be rotated out. So Yossarian goes to the Doc to see if he can get grounded. "I can ground you," the Doc says, "if you are deemed crazy," because the military doesn't want crazy people in their planes. "All right, so I'm crazy!" Yossarian says. But only someone who isn't crazy would call themselves crazy in order to get out of a dangerous mission. The crazy people who keep flying, well, they just keep on going, because the Doc can only ground someone who asks. But remember, if they ask, this means they can't be crazy.
This is "Catch-22" and also the essence of Catch-22. (And it's also much funnier the way Buck Henry writes it as dialogue for Arkin and Jack Gilford.) These absurdities play out in a number of hilarious scenes, like Bob Newhart's Major Major, who you can only go see once he is out, or when Yossarian has to pretend to be a dying soldier for the sake of a visiting family who flew 5,000 miles to see their boy before he dies, but got there too late. "I'm not dying!" "Of course you are. We all are!" "They'll know. They came to see their son!" "They'll take what they can get."
This is the golden age of peak TV and all that, but Hulu's Catch-22 is, I hate to say it, just another show with dark themes and a great lead performance. Then George Clooney (who was a small role) makes googly eyes, which is always a problem when he's not being directed by the Coen Brothers. It's all basically good, but the flashes in and out of the silliness don't quite work. Nichols' Catch-22 is the much better bet, both for fans of the book and also people who prefer a two hour stream to a four-and-a-half hour one. Go ahead and stream it, there is no catch.