You have and will never read a book quite like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. It is by turns perplexing and enlightening, high satire and vulgar comedy, deeply tragic and profoundly hopeful. It is the one book, in my experience, most likely to become a student’s favorite of all time after being required for English class, and it is one of a handful of written works that I (and many others) consider nearly impossible to adapt to any kind of visual media. Then, I saw the trailer for Hulu’s miniseries and I couldn’t wait to see what was in store. I was at once supremely impressed and profoundly disappointed.
The problem, you see, is that you have seen countless films and television shows like Hulu’s Catch-22 before. Upon reading the novel, one might expect a cross between Monty Python and M*A*S*H: bitingly sarcastic and critical of war and the military, with quirky and sometimes downright silly humor spread throughout. Instead, Hulu’s adaptation opted for a beautifully-realized period piece, told chronologically (the novel’s chapters are intentionally out of order) and sprinkled with the odd joke or two. Heller’s novel is certainly not short on violence, but it is a shocking, even comedic, violence. Like any good war film, however, tragic music never fails to swell as comrades die in each others arms during the series. Perhaps the biggest villains of the novel are the bumbling, incompetent officer-bureaucrats in command of the protagonist’s bomber wing. The series, however, opts to cut almost all of the interactions that reinforce that incompetency (and thus one of Heller’s core critiques), opting instead for a tight, six-episode run. This, in my opinion, was a grave mistake and perhaps the series’ original sin. Catch-22 cannot be tight. It cannot move forward at a breakneck pace. It must meander; it must dwell in the absurd and focus on the dull rather than the exciting, until its audience feels nearly as insane as its cast of characters. Only then can they reach the realization that Yossarian, our protagonist, is the only sane character of the bunch.
All these choices transform Hulu’s adaptation from a sweeping critique of war and the armies that wage them into the personal story of one soldier’s struggle with trauma. Captain John Yossarian repeatedly watches comrades and close friends die in front of him, and as his own culpability in those deaths grows, he becomes more and more unhinged. Heller’s Yossarian is dangerously sane; Hulu’s flirts with and then crosses the line into insanity. This can be seen most clearly in the striking difference between endings. In the novel, Yossarian finally decides that if he cannot beat the system from inside, he must leave the system all together, deserting and running off to join his former bunkmate in neutral Sweden. In the series, Yossarian and reality at last part ways, the final shot showing a naked Yossarian endlessly dropping bombs as his wing flies off into an eternal flak-filled sunset.
So why am I writing about this on a history blog? Well, as I alluded to above, Catch-22 is an absolutely gorgeous Second World War period piece. I have yet to see the experiences of a bomber wing represented so accurately on screen, and some scenes would fit right in with Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan. Indeed, this at times works against the adaptation. Colonel Cathcart, commander of the wing and Yossarian’s nemesis, simply seems like a gung-ho officer in the model of George Patton when he raises the required mission count, not a sniveling coward who advances his own career at the cost of his own men’s lives.
There is, perhaps, a subtle rebuke in all this; that war films as we’ve come to know and normalize them are themselves symptoms of the craziness Heller originally sought to lampoon. Maybe so, but I personally think this gives the show too much credit. In any case, though I certainly recommend Hulu’s adaptation to any interested in trying it out, a true adaptation of Heller’s singular work remains out of our grasp.