Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is a classic American novel about World War II, bureaucracy, the illogic underpinning our social charades, and the courageous use of cowardice to do the one thing that really matters: survive. It is long, dense, and nonlinear, with a large cast of characters who represent Heller’s satires of capitalism, incompetence, American exceptionalism, and more.
Previous attempts to translate Catch-22 in motion pictures proved difficult. Mike Nichols’s 1971 film fell flat before critics and audiences, though Heller himself praised it. A 1973 TV series fizzled before it got off the ground. Now, Hulu and George Clooney have produced a six-part miniseries and most reviews contend that Heller’s epic novel has finally been given the treatment it deserves.
On the surface, there’s a lot about this adaptation that works. The actors do a generally fine job of recreating Heller’s counter-logical dialogue, as in the scene where lead protagonist Yossarian is informed he can only visit Major Major in his office when Major Major is out of his office. Everyone looks right for their part, especially Clooney’s deranged Lieutenant Scheisskopf. The scenery, from flak-filled skies to the dirty streets of wartime Rome, all looks great. Many of the book’s most enduring scenes are faithfully depicted, including Yossarian’s impassioned monologue about a bungling, careless God.
Yet the spirit of this series is different from its source material. Nichols’s film does a better job capturing the novel’s frenetic energy, subversion, and maddening hopelessness. Clooney’s Catch-22 tries too hard to make sense of the novel’s capricious cruelty.
Supporting characters like Clevinger, Orr, and Dunbar are hardly given enough screen time to distinguish themselves from one another. McWatt’s mustache distinguishes him, but when he kills Kid Sampson it is neither as terrifying nor as comical as it is in the novel – it’s just sad, as is much of the series. Scenes are often genuine downers, so that those expecting Heller’s furious interpretation of such tragedies will instead receive somber music and reflective moments.
The biggest problem, though, is with Yossarian. Christopher Abbott is a fine actor but his Yossarian is played too straight, taking most of his abuse with a morose resignation that contrasts with the animated indignation displayed in the novel. Even worse, the series’ writers make Yossarian responsible for much of the carnage that afflicts his friends, including the deaths of Mudd, Nately, and Snowden.
In an early scene, Yossarian sends the newly arrived Mudd to the wrong tent for check-in, and Mudd is immediately sent on a mission that gets him killed. Yossarian realizes his mistake, but only lazily calls out a correction when Mudd is already out of earshot. By turning around during a bombing raid, Yossarian causes the death of his best friend, Nately; the novel kills off a comparatively minor character in this scene. Yossarian embarrasses the gung-ho McWatt in front of Colonel Cathcart, and in the next scene McWatt accidentally flies his plane into Kid Sampson. Worst of all, Yossarian advises Snowden to sit in the fuselage on their mission together, and it’s there that Snowden is hit by flak and dies in Yossarian’s arms.
It’s difficult to understand how the narrative benefits by making Yossarian the source, even if unwitting and well-intentioned, of so much death. It undermines his credibility as a moral authority to the extent that, by the end of the series, there’s no one left to root for. His clumsiness with his friends’ lives stands in stark contrast to the raging star of the novel, who valued the preservation of human life above nationality, religion, bravery, political causes, and anything else.
It’s not all bad – not by a longshot. George Clooney and Hugh Laurie are memorable in their roles. Milo Minderbinder’s satire of capitalism is brought to entertaining life. The relationship between Nately’s whore’s kid sister and Yossarian is worth special mention. There’s a great contrast between this small child, who’s grown up in a world of darkness and war, and the much older but more naïve Yossarian. Their sweet friendship culminates in the show’s most heartbreaking moment.
Each work of art should be judged on its own merits. Heller himself said as much when asked whether he was worried that Nichols’s film might tarnish his novel’s reputation. On its own, Hulu’s Catch-22 is a modestly recommendable miniseries. But Heller’s novel is a tour de force of violence and humor. The show ultimately submits the viewer to its pessimistic outcome, whereas the novel motivates the reader to feel its righteous anger.