I’ve been watching George Clooney’s TV adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and it did that great thing of making me want to read the book all over again, which I have not done for a long, long time. Too long, as it turns out, because it is indeed a unique piece of writing that seemed so much fresher and full of energy than I remembered it.
The Clooney adaptation is very different to the 1970 film but I think that both show the impossibility of capturing the wild, contradictory spirit of the book.
Catch 22 is a novel that has contradictions at its heart. The main one being that in the novel, set in the later years of the Second World War, as a member of a bomber crew you could be grounded and not have to fly any more missions if you were insane. But before you could be grounded you would have to ask to be grounded. And if you asked to be grounded it proved that you were actually in full possession of your faculties, and so could not be grounded.
‘That’s some catch, that catch 22,’ says Yossarian after Doc Daneeka explains it to him.
‘It’s the best there is,’ says Doc Daneeka.
I felt that there was a similarly contradictory catch with Clooney’s TV adaptation. For instance, the fact that it clearly cared so deeply about its source material was one of the main reasons that it failed. It was too obsessed with being true to the book that it could not be true to the book. It understood that the novel, despite its many comedic moments, is a tragedy about the horror of war, and in so doing it forgot that it is in fact a comedy about the horror of war.
The book shouldn’t be funny – it’s about fear and war and rape and terror and death and the inherent moral turpitude of capitalism – but it is, gut-achingly so. It is a glorious collision of comedy and tragedy that works brilliantly in the book, but not so well on screen. I thought Clooney’s version was a superb, beautifully filmed piece of TV that somehow utterly missed the point of the book by separating out the comedy and the tragedy, so it became a tragic story with some funny moments. Yet for me the point of the book is that the only rational approach to the madness of war is irrationality: humour and sex and satire and surrealism. The difficulty of filming Catch 22 is the difficulty of capturing its inherent contradictions which portray anger and outrage; yet how angry and outrageous can a work of art be if it takes source material and faithfully lays it out in a straightforward narrative?
Clooney’s version lacks the sparkling irreverence, chaotic energy and sense of originality of the book. Catch-22 is an archetypal novel in this sense, stretching the boundaries of what the form can be – truly a novel. Any successful adaptation must be prepared to take similar risks in form, but I felt that this version ultimately played it safe by seeing the story through the eyes of just one character (Yossarian), in a chronological structure. The book, by contrast, inhabits the interior lives of multiple characters and leaps around in a way that is hard to piece together. It is disorientating and hysterical, absurd and awful – and it takes the reader to a place that is like a nightmare, where the line between laughter and madness is so blurred as to be almost non-existent.
Perhaps the best thing about this adaptation is that it sent me back to the book which reminded me that your greatest enemies can often be those people, like Colonel Cathcart, who are pretending to be on your side. And that feels like a poignant reminder in the United Kingdom in 2019.