A Review of Hulu’s Catch-22 and Prognostications for Netflix’s One Hundred Years of Solitude
Once upon a time, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller was, according to Vanity Fair, “one of the greatest anti-war books ever written.” Now, it is a Hulu series. Already I can hear the conversation:
“Have you read Catch-22?”
“Read it? I mean, I’ve watched it but… is there a book too?”
Diehard bookworms and Heller devotees will cringe, and rightly so. As a voracious reader and avid fan of Heller myself, I’m tempted to rant about the despoilment of sacred literature by the pillaging plunderers of corporate film and television megalodons. But perhaps it isn’t all evil. Perhaps a Catch-22 TV series will inspire hooked viewers to read the novel and thence to explore more of the literary canon—thus making readers of watchers. (I know it’s naïve optimism, but what else do we have to go on?)
Moreover, putting sere crotchety foppishness aside, we must recognize the TV series for what it is becoming: an art form. Long existing solely in the realm of entertainment, television is undergoing a renaissance as contemporary directors uphold artistic ideals besides pursuing enthralling-engrossing entertainment. Oftentimes, this combination yields singularly artistic, intellectual results: Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and Daniel Percival’s The Man in High Castle engage philosophy and alternate history the same as Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle or Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. If we draw a correlation between screen and stage, then TV shows correlate to the drama. As TV series become more indie and intellectual, eventually they too will constitute a form of high art like the film or the play.
Notably, with Grant Heslov, Ellen Kuras, and George Clooney’s screen adaptation of Catch-22 (2019), the TV series faced a test of its ability or willingness to secure high art status: for it to qualify as art, it seems that Clooney & Co. should have approached this novel with the respect one art form owes another, subordinating entertainment value to the reverent adaptation an artistic masterpiece deserves. Unfortunately, they largely failed to do that.
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Equilibrium is, according to Merriam-Webster, “a state of adjustment between opposing or divergent influences or elements.” Equilibrium is also what makes Catch-22 the greatest antiwar novel of all time: repeatedly it rockets between humor and horror, between Yossarian losing his nerve and Snowden losing his guts. Heller, riding a fine line that encompasses wild laughs and bitter tears, achieves a sickening equilibrium that is unforgettably profound. Catch-22’s humor and horror cast each other into deep relief, forming the novel’s single dark shadow that gradually gut-punches, leaving a sharp ache and a vivid knowledge of war’s awful savagery.
Unfortunately, Hulu’s Catch-22 doesn’t quite generate the same emotional power. Granted, Clooney & Co.’s adaptation of Catch-22, incorporating much of the book’s richest comedy, gets the same laughs as the novel. Including all the book’s vomit-inducing tragedy, it jerks the same tears. But viewed comprehensively, the series falls flat, shattering into isolated points of emotion that never choate. Lacking a gut-punching whole, it fails where the book so smashingly succeeds.
There are three reasons for this insipidity. The first is Christopher Abbott’s portrayal of Yossarian. Abbott’s YoYo is too… ‘non-crazy.’ Don’t get me wrong: Yossarian is the sanest character because he realizes that “the enemy… is anyone who’s going to get you killed.” But sane doesn’t equate to non-crazy: Heller’s Yossarian acts erratically in order to “live forever or die in the attempt.” In fact, Catch-22’s essential irony is that precisely because Yossarian is sane, everyone thinks he’s crazy. Abbott’s YoYo, however, acts far too non-crazily.
The second reason is that the first four episodes don’t go ‘all in.’ Rather than achieving Heller’s maximum violence and comedy, they putter down the middle. Whether the delivery is frail (much Yossarian dialogue and every Doc Daneeka quip), the emphasis disproportionate (too much show-time to Milo) or the entirety excluded (e.g. Chief White Halfoat and Hungry Joe), Hulu’s Catch-22 is skim milk everywhere it should be whole.
The third reason, however, is the irredeemable, irremediable death blow. In the show’s penultimate scene, YoYo responds to fresh Lieutenant Newman’s, “Are you ok?” with an uncharacteristic, protector-of-the-innocent bear hug; in the ultimate scene, YoYo contently flies a mission with his formation. This denouement doesn’t belong in Catch-22—a selfish tale of desertion. Yossarian is a yellow-bellied coward who lies, attempts desertion and covers up rape so he can go home. In the novel, he flees to Sweden. According to Clooney & Co., however, Yossarian inexplicably morphs into Big Brother’s model soldier. In short, Hulu’s Catch-22 betrays the work’s essential message.
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On March 6, Netflix announced it had acquired the rights to Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. After watching Catch-22, I found myself asking, “Will Netflix’s One Hundred Years of Solitude be this bad?” The novels are extremely similar: both a-chronologically develop an absurdist plot; both have humorous, ironic third-person-omniscient narrators; both are saturated with crescendoing corruption, violence, loneliness and death; both grapple with existence in a postmodern, unfathomable world symbolized by Pianosa and Macondo. How tragic if both reached the same fate: televised desecration.
But Heller’s novel is grotesque while Márquez’s novel is magical. And this protects One Hundred Years of Solitude from onscreen corruption. For nothing on television is real. Like magic, it is the antithesis of reality (even reality TV involves predetermined camera angles, scene selections, edits and cuts). Simultaneously, television leaves nothing to the imagination: it sets everything before the viewer’s eyes in high-definition color. What’s there is all that’s there.
Grotesque fiction, on the other hand, relies entirely on reality and imagination to function. The grotesque novelist must employ ample realism – what the author Flannery O’Connor terms “concrete” – to evoke the reader’s experienced reality and thereby bring the novel to life. The reader absorbs and interprets this provided concrete according to their imagination and experienced concrete. This individual interpretation privately animates the story in an unverifiable yet veritably vivid way. Then – so powerful is the novel’s animation due to the reader’s identification with the concrete – the author can introduce imaginary, impossibly grotesque scenes while maintaining the grotesque’s verisimilitude.
In other words, Catch-22 never had a chance onscreen. The grotesque cannot maintain its grotesqueness when, unimagined, it visually occurs in the nonreality of the TV, leaving nothing to individual imaginations. Rather, grotesque must occur in the fertile Wonderlands of individual imaginations, animated by experienced realities privately reconstructed at the author’s direction—not onscreen, surrounded by a common ‘reality’ that is actually a stage. Perhaps, then, we can absolve Clooney & Co. of Catch-22’s perversion.
In short, grotesque novels rely on our private re-creations of their concrete, on our ability to fundamentally enter into their realities. And TV absolutely inhibits personal re-creation. But One Hundred Years of Solitude is not grotesque. It is magical realism. As such, the magical laws of its universe differ from our natural laws. And as such, it will work onscreen. Because magical realism, with its fundamentally different laws, makes us all outsiders—just like TV. Of course we can connect with the verisimilitude, the detail and apparent reality of One Hundred Years of Solitude. We can relate to characters and comprehend their ecstasies and tribulations. Nevertheless, we are strangers peering into a different world.
This is why One Hundred Years of Solitude will work on TV. We are outsiders both when reading Márquez’s novel and when watching television. We are peering into separate universes. The causes differ: with Márquez’s novel, the magical laws radically differing from our natural laws make us observers; with TV, the exclusion of imagination makes us viewers. But the results are identical. We are outsiders.
Therefore, One Hundred Years of Solitude will fit perfectly on TV. Television’s viewership effect parallels the observer-ship effect of peering into Márquez’s magical, maniacal Macondo. No, the characters will not appear as you envision them. Yes, the director will cut scenes you consider indispensable. But the estranging character of TV will in no way inhibit a potentially beautiful adaptation of One Hundred Years of Solitude as it did Catch-22. And if Netflix selects an artistic, talented director and, using a Spanish screenplay, maintains Márquez’s lyrical, stunning, impeccable prose, I expect a truly artistic, intellectual bingeing experience when they release One Hundred Years of Solitude—if the term “intellectual bingeing” isn’t an oxymoron only possible in a magical or grotesque universe. I hope it’s not.
W. Trace Miller is a writer based in Dallas, Texas. He is also the assistant managing editor of the Richland Chronicle, the official student newspaper serving Richland College’s body of 20,000 students. Some of his most recent publishings include a map for Eater Dallas, a critical review of Billie Eilish’s album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” and a comparative literature essay for the Tulsa Review.