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How Hulu’s ‘Catch-22’ Lost The Spirit Of Joseph Heller’s Masterpiece

Everything you need to know about the Hulu adaptation of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” comes down to a scream.

In the opening moments of the new six-part miniseries, which debuted on May 17, Captain John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) pads down a runway, naked as the day he was born, with blood caked on his face. Behind him, a B-25 bomber is ablaze. In the midst of this absurdity, he stares directly at the camera and unleashes a primal yell.

That scene, and the series as a whole, reduces Heller’s World War II-set critique of military institutions’ dehumanizing and nonsensical bureaucracy to a generic anguish over the human cost of war.

The series, scripted by Luke Davies and David Michôd, streamlines the free-associative narrative of Heller’s novel by relating the story in chronological order. After Yossarian’s opening scream, the series rewinds, showing Yossarian and his fellow bombardiers training on an airbase in Santa Ana. The crew then lands on the Italian isle of Pianosa, the staging area for six episodes worth of tragedy and small-time barracks intrigue. When boiled down to dramatic beats, the plot is recognizable. Yossarian tries everything in his power to complete the requisite number of missions needed in order to be sent home — that is, when he’s not delaying flying missions altogether. Along the way, he loses comrades and, to bring us back to the beginning — which is also the end — his clothes.

But while the show remains mostly faithful to the plot points of its source text, it makes the mistake of concluding that plot alone is the reason why ”Catch-22” is so celebrated. That conclusion is wrong. Heller’s 500-plus-page novel endured not because of its plot, but because its manic energy and humor powerfully express the morally dubious conditions of war.

The series forgoes much of the absurdity chronicled in the novel. Gone are the dead man in Yossarian’s tent whose presence goes entirely unremarked upon, the disguises of the fortuitously named Major Major Major (who later adds a fourth “Major” to his name by way of a promotion based solely on said name) and the many intentional water-landings of Yossarian’s roommate, Orr. The one bit of surreality the miniseries chooses to preserve — albeit in a labored manner — is the arch-capitalist maneuvering of mess officer Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart) who builds an international “syndicate” through his convoluted importing and exporting of provisions. (In Episode 4, Minderbinder takes Yossarian and Orr (Graham Patrick Martin), to Oran, Algeria, and we learn that Minderbinder was made vice-shah for bringing industry to the city.) As in the book, Minderbinder’s rapaciousness leads him to bomb Pianosa on behalf of the Germans. While in the book, that incident is as jarring as it is chuckle-worthy, for lack of a stronger comedic sensibility, the series’ take on the self-inflicted bombing fails to earn laughs.

However, the Hulu treatment doesn’t just lose the humor of “Catch-22;” it also loses the book’s understated tragedy.

Heller kills off the major character of Nately in a senseless way on senseless mission. We learn, in a few sentences, that Nately’s plane was hit by another plane — and that’s about it. In the Hulu version, Yossarian watches as Nately (Austin Stowell), his tail gunner, drifts to his death after flak shears off his cockpit. It’s in such overtly grievous moments that the show makes clear it’s incapable of accepting one of Heller’s primary themes: that in warfare, men’s lives are expendable.

Similarly, in the book, when Kid Sampson dies — cut in half after McWatt, flying treacherously low as a gag, loses control of his plane — his scrawny legs stay preposterously rooted to the raft where he was standing. In the show, there’s nothing left of Sampson (Gerran Howell); his death, and McWatt’s (Jon Rudnitsky) subsequent suicide, are accompanied by a swell of music and tearful cutaways.

If Heller’s book is a meditation on the insanity of war, Hulu’s “Catch-22” is only concerned with one mode of that insanity — and it’s the least interesting. Anyone pretending at a moral compass can tell you that war is bad and that killing each other is, at its core, illogical. But Heller, emerging from his own World War II experience, told us something more compelling: That armchair generals care more about bad PR than losing men, the Brass will insist on combat purely because they’re on a power trip, and the rules of engagement are defined by a circular logic designed to abrade the nerves of the enlisted until they are driven mad.

Such insight is lacking in Hulu’s series. By obviating those implications the show also ignores the clarity of perception that makes Heller’s Yossarian a kind of warrior-philosopher who fears his own superiors more than the so-called “enemy.” Instead, we see him sweat out his fears while facing artillery, as anyone might.

The format of a miniseries should have been ideal for adapting Heller’s dense and tonally treacherous source material. It’s possible to imagine a version that, given the greater length of a miniseries, did justice to Heller’s complex work where the previous adaptation, 1970’s Mike Nichol’s film, was thought to misfire. Yet in many ways, the greatest accomplishment of the Hulu series lies in its potential to reinvigorate the many merits of its predecessor.

Take another instance of Yossarian screaming — this time from the movie. Yossarian (Alan Arkin) lies in a hospital ward and watches as two nurses attend to a man in a full-body cast. As in the book, they quickly swap a jar of urine attached to his crotch with the empty IV drip from his arm and walk away, leaving the helpless man to subsist on his own fluids in a grotesque biofeedback. The camera pans to Yossarian, who, aware of this cavalier medical horror, yells wide enough for the viewer to take a full dental impression. In 10 seconds, the film, with its clear display of institutional unconcern and actual insanity, channels the spirit of the book more powerfully than any frame from the Hulu series.

Heller’s book is well known for inspiring the slogan “Yossarian Lives,” a statement of hope that Yossarian may have made his way to Sweden and escaped the war. The Hulu series ends without such an attempt at escape, as Yossarian flies off in formation with the other bombers. One can imagine him surviving the mission. But this version of Yossarian was never fully alive.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. Contact him at [email protected]


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