Yossarian (Alan Arkin): Ok, let me see if I’ve got this straight. In order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.
Doc Daneeka (Jack Gilford): You got it, that’s Catch-22.
Yossarian: Whoo… That’s some catch, that Catch-22.
Doc Daneeka: It’s the best there is.
Director: Mike Nichols
One of these days I will give you a film I didn’t like. It is not today.
I first read Catch 22 when I was about 17. I loved it immediately. It was love at first sight.
I am going to talk about it a little. If you haven’t read the book, I have tried to avoid anything that would impair your enjoyment, but feel free to skip straight to the film part, which begins ‘ANYWAY’.
The book is sitting next to me on my kitchen table as I try and think of a way to talk about it. There are post-its in it, although I cannot remember if they are from my A-Level coursework on the way Catch-22 problematises military masculinity or from my Mother’s time teaching it. In the front there are notes in my Mother’s neat small handwriting. The notes aren’t complicated, mostly page references grouped under subheadings. When she first lent it to me, I noticed these little notations and took care not to read them, just in case some great plot point was hiding among them that I might ruin for myself. Now, having read it three or four times (possibly more, I honestly can’t remember), I always start with my Mother’s page of notes. I read ‘hospital’, ‘heroism’, ‘soldier and his body’, ‘language’, ‘verbal slapstick’, ‘The Texan’, ‘the bandaged soldier’. The very last note on the page, the one that I see before I settle into the opening sentence is as follows: ‘From slapstick humour to hell’.
I’m starting with all of this to try and give you a sense of why Catch-22 means something to me. I don’t, yet, feel like I am doing a very good job. Perhaps I should tell it like this instead. Like I said, I wrote about Catch-22 for my A2 level coursework. I wrote about men and soldiers and the idea of the masculine. Sometimes, when you study a book or a thing very intensively and get to know it well, you get to feel a kind of ownership over it. It’s your special subject, your ace in the hole. I got to know Catch-22 very, very well. Neither of my A-Level teachers at the time had read it, although both were very supportive. The person who let me talk about it, all the time and very loudly, was my Mother. Now, five or six years later, we still talk about it. We share it. Catch-22 always felt big enough for both of us, at a time when some other places maybe didn’t always. Her marginalia happily share the space with mine. In the pages of Catch-22 as it sits beside me are the fossilised markings of my Mother and I. And there is more. More to say, more to talk about, more space to co-exist within the labyrinth of the words.
Of course, I also love it because it is a fucking brilliant novel. That should not be forgotten. It would not be special in the above ways if it was not also a work of pure and beautiful genius. It has made me laugh out loud on trains. It has cut that same laughter short in my throat. It has suffocated me, burnt me and thrown me out of windows. It has fed me chocolate covered cotton. It is non-linear, the events happening out of order, jumping about. Certain events recur and recur, in part rather than in whole, so that Snowdon is always dying in back. It is manic, absurdist, horrific, and hilarious. There is a cornucopia of characters from the fantastic to the pitiable to the despicable. There are those who make you howl at first with laughter and at last with rage, and those that make you want to weep. It has violence and viscera and virtuoso vulgarity. It is, honestly, a labyrinthine work of genius. I have to re-read it now, because even writing this has awoken a longing for it deep in my bones. I miss the words, I need to see them again.
On car journeys, long ones to Italy or France, my family used to play games like ‘Desert Island Books’. You have 5 books to take into eternity on a desert island. Over the years ones choices shift and change. Catch-22, once picked, has never moved. I will be calling my future dog Yossarian.
ANYWAY, all this perhaps explains why my Dad bought me the DVD for my birthday this year. It also, perhaps, goes some way to explaining why Catch-22 might present a substantial challenge for a director and a screenwriter. Non-linear action combined with the way the book uses the narrative voice do not offer an easy adaptation. The mad back and forth of the dialogue, its illogical messes and razor sharp edges require a lot from an actor. The sheer panoply of characters might even give Peter Jackson a moments pause. All this clearly did not stop Mike Nichols and Buck Henry, and we should be so very, very glad that it did not.
That is not to say that the adaptation is perfectly faithful. It is not. Henry (who wrote the screenplay) and Nichols made the decision to drastically reduce the ‘featured’ characters. This is, fundamentally, a smart decision from the perspective of a director. With the full number, it would likely have been unwieldy and bloated with characters who wouldn’t be able to be fully developed in the reasonable run time (it clocks in at about 117 mins). However, for me, nobody in the novel is simply expendable. Each character is part of the teeming mass of guts that makes Heller’s point so strong and his novel so brilliant. There is no dead weight among those personalities, because each is part of the twisted bureaucracy or the manic horror of the war in their own small way. When I think on it afterward, I miss those who do not make the cut. I miss Dunbar (who is trying to live longer by cultivating boredom) and Clevinger, although Clevinger’s brilliant argument with Yossarian (‘Colonel Cathcart isn’t here either’, ‘Who said anything about Colonel Cathcart?’, ‘What son of a bitch do you hate then?’, ‘What son of bitch is there’) is partially preserved with Milo and Dobbs acting as his opposite numbers. I miss Ex PFC Wintergreen and Chief White Halfoat. I miss Kid Sampson, Huple and Flume. I miss Major – de Coverly. I miss everyone who is absent.
Nevertheless, I understand why they are not there. Henry and Nichols worked on the adaptation for two years and it shows. The pared down cast absorb some of the arcs of those left out, but only where appropriate. Thus Milo can rightly take on the part of Clevinger in the argument with Yossarian. When Milo, as he does in the novel, is revealed to have always been a cold capitalist and pure opportunist who frightens Yossarian, this earlier confrontation makes sense. Dobbs, on the other hand, is no longer the one who went crazy in mid air and seized the controls from Huple. The way Nichols and Henry rework that scene removes the need for anyone other than Yossarian and Snowdon. So Dobbs is able to pick up some pieces of other character arcs. The material from Heller’s novel is used selectively and streamlined. This is no mean feat. It does change elements of the novel but not without replacing them. The overall tone is thus a little different, but in a way that makes sense to a reader of the novel. The dialogue is brilliant, and delivered with panache. The pacing is great, with the film giving you a sense of length while still retaining the energy of the novel. It’s no slouch in the photography department either, from the homages to fascist images in the later presentation of Milo to the use of the Italian backstreets to create a labyrinthine nightmare scape.
No wonder Heller himself expressed his approval.
Much of this glory clearly also belongs to the cast. Alan Arkin is superb as Yossarian, managing to capture some of the desperation of him as well as his relentless strangeness. The scenes with Luciana are wonderfully tender to, you can’t help but fall a little in love with him when he argues lightly with her – a softer echo of the arguments and illogic of Doc Daneeka or Milo. His slightly unconventional looks help there too, especially when opposite the more classically attractive Milo or Dobbs. Speaking of Milo, John Voight is excellent there too. He gets the boyish energy of him just right, and nails his darkness too. Martin Sheen, nine years away from a completely different soldier in Apocalypse Now, is compelling, youthful and charming as Dobbs. Jack Gilford’s Doc Daneeka is also wonderfully actively woeful – like Eeyore done by John Cleese. Anthony Perkins’ appearance as Chaplain Tappman is one of my favourites. His earnest desire to be useful amid the madness of Yossarian’s world is perfectly performed. He nails the combination of youthful freshness and agonised inexperience. Perkins’ Chaplain is one you might well fall madly in love with, for exactly the reasons Yossarian does.
If you haven’t seen the film OR read the book I suggest you skip this little bit. Head down to ‘in short’. Trust me. Because now I need to say a word about Snowdon. It is wonderfully done. Amid the madcap crush of people in other scenes, the flashbacks to Snowdon are perfectly isolated. The whiteness of the light, and the brightness of the colouring give the scene something almost other worldly, until the guts finally come spilling out of Snowdon, shattering the illusion. A visceral reminder of the novel’s real message, the absolute flesh and blood materiality of man.
In short? Catch-22 is a triumph. It is the perfect marriage of source material and interpretation. Cast, script, photography and more move perfectly together. I love it.
N.B. My father and I just went for coffee together. He is convinced my Mother stole his copy. The very same one that is next to me on the kitchen table. He also said it made him laugh out loud, when he was 28 years old and taking a train from Oxford, where he had just started working, back to London, where he and my Mother then lived. Even if it isn’t his copy, it might as well be. Within this copy of Catch-22 there is the laughter of all three of us. There is room for it to belong to us each in turn and to us all together.