Will the new ‘Catch-22’ mini-series live up to the hype?

As George Clooney returns to TV for Hulu’s adaptation of Joseph Heller’s satirical masterpiece, Martin Chilton reflects on the book and other screen adaptations

Thursday 20 June 2019 03:00 BST
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George Clooney in ‘Catch-22’: ‘Making fun of the ridiculousness of war’
George Clooney in ‘Catch-22’: ‘Making fun of the ridiculousness of war’ (Hulu)

In Catch-22, Captain John Yossarian’s sole aim is to come down alive from his B-25 bombing missions in the Mediterranean. It is something George Clooney may have ruminated on as he lay in a Sardinian hospital last summer, recovering after being hit by a Mercedes and sent flying from his motor scooter. The Oscar-winning actor was on his way to a day of filming in Olbia, for a new six-part television adaptation of Joseph Heller’s satirical masterpiece. “It’s good to be alive,” Clooney told a friend, CNN reported.

For Yossarian and his fellow US Army Air Forces bombardier crews avoiding being killed was a task made harder by the stupidity and absurdity of their own commanders. “The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he is on,” says Yossarian, with characteristic gallows humour. The first attempt at capturing Heller’s crazy story on screen was Mike Nichols’ 1970 film. The latest, in which Clooney plays the minor role of Lieutenant Scheisskopf, as well as serving as executive producer, begins on Channel 4 tonight.

The late writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron was 27 when she travelled to a remote Mexican mountain town called Guaymas to write about that first adaptation. In a March 1969 article “Yossarian Is Alive and Well in the Mexican Desert”, she recounted a bizarre anecdote from Buck Henry, who wrote the screenplay, about John Wayne’s rage after his impromptu set visit. “Wayne stood around, apparently waiting for a welcoming party; but none of the actors knew him, and Nichols and Henry did not emerge to greet him,” Ephron wrote. “Wayne went to the Playa de Cortes and spent the evening in the hotel bar, drinking, smashing glassware and complaining that he had been snubbed – possibly for political reasons. Ultimately, he fell and broke a couple of ribs.”

Henry, who played Colonel Korn in the movie, said they simply had not been told of the famous actor’s arrival. It was a cock-up rather than a deliberate snub. Henry joked that they spent the next few days “waiting for John Wayne to come back and bomb us”. There were bigger problems during filming than Wayne’s temper tantrum. Second unit director John Jordan declined to wear a harness during a scene filmed in a B-25 bomber and fell 4,000 feet to his death.

Heller did not pay much attention to screen versions of Catch-22 and was not even excited when Jack Lemmon rang him to lobby for the part of Yossarian (a role that went to Alan Arkin). Heller sold the movie rights in 1962 and kept true to his insistence that he would exercise “absolutely no control” over the screen version. “People don’t like to hear me say this, but I really did not care what they did to Catch-22,” he told The Daily Californian in 1975. “It would have made no difference to me if they’d made it into Phil Silvers with Sergeant Bilko. I think of myself as a novelist and what happens to it in another form is really no concern of mine. I thought they would turn it into a service comedy with a little bit of sex. As it was, it was a much grimier, harder work than the book itself. But I didn’t care and I don’t care.”

The cover of the 50th anniversary edition of ‘Catch-22’ (Simon & Schuster)
The cover of the 50th anniversary edition of ‘Catch-22’ (Simon & Schuster) (Simon & Schuster)

For Heller, who was 76 when he died on 12 December 1999, any relationship with Hollywood was purely about money. The Brooklyn-born author earned a fortune in 1964 when he moved to Beverly Hills to work on the screenplay for Sex and the Single Girl, starring Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis. “I love going to Hollywood, somebody else is always paying the expenses,” Heller joked. When pressed about movie adaptations, Heller said that for Hollywood bosses, “movies are pictures; for the most part they want nothing to do with words”.

This went against Heller’s passion for fiction and diligence in crafting his experiences in the Second World War. Heller, who had been stationed in Corsica, flew 60 missions, witnessing carnage and confusion. He said the moment he knew “I wanted out” was when his B-25 was hit by flak and the top turret gunner was badly wounded. His funny, disturbing novel, an indictment of bureaucracy, was hailed as “a gargantuan masterpiece” by John Steinbeck. “Catch-22 is the only war novel I’ve ever read that makes any sense,” said Harper Lee. When an interviewer told an ageing Heller that he had never written anything as good as Catch-22, Heller replied: “Who has?”

After the war, Heller returned to New York to work as an advertising copywriter. By 1953, he was applying his imagination to transforming his war experiences into fiction. He also wanted to explore the question of what a sane person does in an insane society. “I was lying in bed in my four-room apartment on the West Side when suddenly this line came to me: ‘It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, someone fell madly in love with him.’ I didn’t have the name Yossarian then,” Heller told The Paris Review in 1974. “As soon as the opening sentence was available, the book began to evolve clearly in my mind – even most of the particulars. All of this took place within an hour and a half. It got me so excited that I did what the cliche says you’re supposed to do: I jumped out of bed and paced the floor. That morning I went to my job at the advertising agency and wrote out the first chapter in longhand.”

Over time, he used a complex series of index cards to map out the novel’s 58 leading characters and their situations, working painstakingly with editor Robert Gottlieb over the next seven years, to bring his complex story together. The original title was Catch-18, but Heller’s agent, Candida Donadio, said it might be confused with another book out in 1961 (Mila 18 by Leon Uris) and the number was changed.

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The 1970 film adaptation, with Alan Arkin (second right) as Yossarian
The 1970 film adaptation, with Alan Arkin (second right) as Yossarian (Paramount Pictures)

The updated title of Heller’s novel was to become part of popular language. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Catch-22’ as “a difficult situation from where there is no escape because it involves mutually conflicting or despondent conditions”. It’s when Yossarian (like Heller) wants out that he discovers the catch. He finds out that the military rule book permits anyone declared insane to be excused from flying death-defying missions. “Let me get this straight. In order to be grounded I have to be crazy,” Yossarian says to Doc Daneeka. “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.” The doctor replies, “You got it. That’s Catch-22.”

“Heller’s language-comedy, the twisted-sane logic of his twisted-insane world, is as funny now as it was when the book came out,” Salman Rushdie told NPR in 2011. “The bits of Catch-22 that survive best are the craziest bits: Milo Minderbinder’s chocolate-coated cotton-wool, Major Major Major Major’s name, and of course the immortal Catch itself (‘it’s the best there is’).”

The novel is sometimes misinterpreted as Heller’s attack on the Second World War. “My interest was more on the Cold War and the Korean War,” the author told The Daily Californian. “The effect they had on the domestic political climate was frightening. And that’s the spirit of revolt that went into Catch-22. The anti-war feeling of Catch-22 is not a feeling I experienced in World War Two. There are numerous episodes in Catch-22 which are deliberately anachronistic – like a chapter called ‘The Loyalty Oath’, which relates to the McCarthy period and the House Un-American Activities Committee.”

George Clooney as Lieutenant Scheisskopf
George Clooney as Lieutenant Scheisskopf (Hulu/Channel 4)

The novel was published on 10 November 1961 and a year later had failed to make a breakthrough. It was selling steadily, but in small numbers and not making much money. Heller said he was “frightened” because he had lost interest in his advertising job and had a wife and two children to support. Around that time, he sold the movie rights to Columbia Pictures for $100,000, leaving a clause in the contract that allowed him to perform a play based on the book, as long as it was at least seven years after the deal was signed.

The casting process for Nichols’ screen version was labyrinthine. Among those initially considered for roles were Walter Matthau and Al Pacino. Lots of the final cast, who were fans of the book by 1969, signed up without knowing which specific part they would play and what they would be paid. Alongside Arkin there was a stellar cast that included Orson Welles (General Dreedle), Martin Balsam (Colonel Cathcart), Dick Benjamin (Major Danby), Norman Fell (Sergeant Towser), Jack Gilford (Doc Daneeka), Anthony Perkins (Chaplain Tappman), Paula Prentiss (Nurse Duckett), Bob Newhart (Major Major), Martin Sheen (Lieutenant Dobbs) and Jon Voight (Milo Minderbinder).

Singer Art Garfunkel made his acting debut as Lieutenant Nately. Paul Simon, who missed out on a role in the film, wrote the song “The Only Living Boy in New York” about being left behind (“Tom, get your plane right on time/I know your part’ll go fine/fly down to Mexico”).

Nichols faced a tricky test in compacting Heller’s wild, macabre comedy into a cohesive cinematic entity. His friend, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, warned him that Heller’s book, which has separate storylines out of sequence, was a difficult narrative and timeline to get right in a film. “The book and, as a result, the film, have to be somewhat dreamlike, not quite real – either something remembered, or a nightmare,” Nichols told Ephron. “In a story in which the men bomb their own base, you have to find a style that makes it clear, from the beginning, that such things can happen.”

Although Catch-22 was a box-office success, it was overshadowed by director Robert Altman’s Oscar-winning film version of M*A*S*H, which had come out five months before, in January 1970. “We were waylaid by M*A*S*H, which was fresher and more alive, improvisational and funnier than Catch-22,” admitted Nichols. “It just cut us off at the knees.”

Heller was happy, though, because the movie sparked a renewed interest in his novel, which reportedly sold nearly a million copies in the year after the film’s release (the book has sold more than 11 million copies in all). The success prompted the author to utilise his option of putting the book on stage. In 1971, he used dialogue from his novel for the one-act play Catch-22, which was produced at the John Drew Theatre in his East Hampton hometown. The production, which condensed a 175,000-word book into a two-hour drama, was not well received, though.

Three years later, in London, Heller approved the production of Clevinger’s Trial, another drama he had written, which was based on Chapter eight of Catch-22. The Arts Council-funded production took place at the Soho Theatre (in its former subterranean Soho Poly location in Riding House Street). Although Heller described Clevinger as “a secondary character whose basic function is to come on stage as a trusting, idealistic young man and be slaughtered”, the brief play was a witty exploration of the lunacy of war, when the young air cadet finds himself on trial for telling the truth. In March 1974, The Stage newspaper praised Clevinger’s Trial as a “vigorous, hurricane-paced production”.

In the play (and novel), Clevinger’s commanding officer Lieutenant Scheisskopf (which translates as “shithead” in German) is simultaneously prosecutor, defender and one of the judges. During the trial he rises in rank, while everyone else, including the stenographer, is found guilty of different offences. In the Hulu mini-series, Pico Alexander plays Clevinger, with Clooney, who directs two episodes, starring as Scheisskopf. The 2019 show also stars Christopher Abbott (as Yossarian), Kyle Chadler, Hugh Laurie, Giancarlo Giannini, Daniel David Stewart, Rafi Gavron, Tessa Ferrer, Julie Ann Emery and Grant Heslov.

Clooney, who has not had a major TV role since playing Dr Doug Ross on ER in the 1990s, says the production aims to highlight the “insanity” of conflict for a 21st-century audience, “making fun of all the red tape and the ridiculousness of war”.

“It’s a beloved novel,” Clooney told Reuters at a Television Critics Association event in February. He praised writers Luke Davies and David Michod for their “amazing job unspooling these characters”. Clooney’s Catch-22 is sure to end with better reviews than the attempt 46 years ago to turn the novel into a mini-series, a project which flopped at the pilot stage.

The 1973 version for ABC ran into problems from the start. Heller was reportedly unhappy with director Richard Quine, whom he believed was “incapable of pursuing the wildly satirical (and anti-military) point of view of his novel”. It starred 25-year-old Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian. Dreyfuss, who went on to win a Best Actor Oscar for The Goodbye Girl, described the project as “a nightmare”. He said a short while after the pilot had been rejected, an ABC lawyer told him the network was considering re-applying for the rights. “We have another chance with the show,” he excitedly informed the actor.

“I told him, ‘You will see me in jail before I do that part,’” Dreyfuss told avclub.com in 2016. “I would’ve gone straight to court to get out of doing that. I had a route through the forest of shit, a great part that could not be overlooked, in playing Mordecai Richler’s Duddy Kravitz in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and on the other hand was Catch-22, which was ABC’s nomination that year for the worst writing of anything ever. So I walked away. And they never called me. They never said, ‘Are you sure?’ They just knew I wasn’t going to do that role.”

Heller’s novel is populated by characters who flounder bewilderedly from one embarrassing catastrophe to another. It is as timely in 2019 as it was in 1961. “We all wake up every morning these days in this kind of shared global anxiety condition. This novel is like the origin story of this anxiety condition,” said Davies, co-writer of the new mini-series. As the popular graffiti slogan used to say: ‘Yossarian Lives’.

Catch-22 begins on Channel 4 on Thursday 20 June at 9pm

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