Even with a lot of talent at its back, Mike Nichols’ 1970 adaptation of Joseph Heller’s scathing antiwar farce Catch-22 has earned the book a spot on many people’s list of unadaptable novels. For whatever reason, “this is an unadaptable novel” has tended to be a big red matador cape to producers, who reliably insist on rebooting everything, as if there were some kind of law against greenlighting original scripts—so I guess it should surprise no one that Catch-22 has entered the spin cycle in a George Clooney producer-director-performer iteration that drops from the firmament of Hulu next week. If you’re anything like me, you’re question-your-life-choices-level weary of over-adapted properties, and you might be inclined to engage with this one in a state of profoundly lowered expectations.
That defense mechanism is understandable, but, I am thrilled to report, unnecessary in this case.
Hulu’s Catch-22 is considerably more linear than Heller’s original novel, but not in a way that sacrifices the anti-bureaucracy-and antistupidity-message. As panic stricken bombardier John Yossarian, Christopher Abbott successfully takes on a role that was thoroughly owned by Alan Arkin. He’s convincing, equally so in dramatic and comedic moments (and there are plenty of both), and the direction takes good advantage of it, with ample closeups of Abbott’s large, dark, liquid-looking eyes as they perfect the thousand-yard-stare of a man for whom horror and idiocy have become the same thing. The supporting cast (including Clooney as the parade-obsessed General Scheisskopf and Hugh Laurie as taste-for-the-finer-things Major de Coverley) is absurdist-perfecto, nailing the complicated balance of “real” emotion and farce. Production design is understated, a drab palette of khaki uniforms and dry bisque-colored Mediterranean landscapes; even the sky and the water seem subdued and desiccated, making the bizarre comedic eruptions stand out and the occasional moments of raw combat gore all the more shocking and bloody. Daniel Davis Stewart as the enterprising mess officer Milo Minderbinder and Lewis Pullman as the kerfuffled Major Major are also standout-funny. The episodes’ pacing is very balanced, so that we feel the endless repetition Yossarian feels without feeling like the show itself is spinning its wheels.
At risk of overusing the word “Zeitgeist,” Catch-22 is a meaningful, enduring example of it—I wonder how many people routinely use the term “catch-22” without even knowing where it comes from? Probably a fair few. If you did have to study Heller’s novel in school, you probably learned that the term was of Heller’s own coinage, denoting a kind of paradox that paralyzes people in a bureaucratic insanity loop: “I can’t be in a SAG film until I am a SAG member, and I can’t become a SAG member without being in a SAG film.” The setting of the novel is the second world war; the novel was published in 1961—and the conundrum is all too eternal and has any number of disturbing exemplars in the present day. The number 22 is as arbitrary as anything the buffoons in Yossarian’s unit might come up with: Heller called it “Catch 18” and then “Catch 17;” the publishers thought “Catch 22” was more melodious sounding. Arbitrariness infiltrates every level of everything, as it turns out.