Years ago, Joseph Heller confessed to an interviewer that he’d gone through a period when he wouldn’t allow any person into his home who hadn’t brought along a pizza. That was a slice of the mordant sense of humor of the author of the classic anti-war novel “Catch-22.”
I went through a similar period of my own. I wouldn’t allow any person into my home who hadn’t read “Catch-22.”
The 1961 World War II novel has had squadrons of adoring readers. It sold more than 10 million paperback copies. It seemed, in style and tone and absurdity, a prescient, biting parody of the war in Vietnam. It inspired the 1970 Mike Nichols-directed movie version of the book, starring Alan Arkin.
And now, nearly 60 years since its original publication, it’s inspired the George Clooney-produced version on Hulu, a six-part “Catch-22” mini-series which came out the other day and held me transfixed through more than four hours of running time.
Is it as good as the novel? No, of course not. The novel’s 443 pages were far more textured, the characters more developed, and the tone far more comic. In that sense, the Hulu series has the same problem as Nichols’ movie version: They both captured the drama of war, and the insane illogic of the bureaucrats running it – but never figured out how to move between pathos and punch lines the way Heller did.
In fact, the Hulu version makes only occasional, and incidental, stabs at humor. Its focus is on the slow emotional undoing of Captain John Yossarian, who wants to get out of the war because, every time he flies another combat mission, “They’re shooting at me.”
“They’re shooting at everyone,” he’s told.
“What difference does that make?” Yossarian asks.
Later, when he insists he wants to go home rather than risk his life flying another mission, he’s asked, “What if everybody felt that way?”
“Then I’d be a damned fool to feel any other way,” he says.
Yossarian isn’t questioning the need for America to win the war. The war’s almost over, and he’s already flown dozens of dangerous missions. He’s questioning the higher-ups who keep raising the number of missions for their own glory – and the insane logic that keeps him under the thumb of a mythical ruling like Catch-22.
In that sense, the series is faithful and deeply moving – and almost reverential – toward Heller’s book. But it’s essentially Yossarian’s story, at the expense of all those fabulous characters who surrounded him in the novel.
Sixty years after its original publication, and nearly 75 years since the end of the war, it’s remarkable to see “Catch-22” still has such popular appeal.
One personal story: I had a brief correspondence with Heller back in 1970, nearing the arrival of my first child. Richard Nixon was in the White House, and the war in Vietnam threatened never to end.
I wrote, “I want to name the baby Yossarian, but my wife says if I do, she’ll divorce me. Please advise.”
Heller responded, “I don’t think you should name the baby Yossarian, but I do think your wife should divorce you, just for thinking of such a thing. Don’t name the baby something subversive, like Yossarian. Name it something clean and wholesome, like Richard Milhous. Or Tricia, if it’s a girl. Or Julie, if it’s a girl (or boy).”
That’s the Heller sense of humor. The new Hulu series needs some of it. But, in terms of sheer drama, it’s pretty powerful.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.