'Catch-22' And The Books We Didn't Read In High School
Do you necessarily need to read a book before diving into an adaptation? The answer may surprise you.
The minute you disclose to someone that you're an English major their first response generally is, "Oh, you must love to read!" And while that answer is true, most English majors will confess to certain blind spots. Not all college and high school reading lists are created equal, and what one person read going through the ranks of academia doesn't hold true for everyone. So while I studied the likes of Wuthering Heights and Shakespeare, I can confess to never reading a few landmark titles; in this case, Joseph Heller's Catch-22.
Heller's Catch-22 is considered one of the great American novels. Adapted into a film in 1970, it's now a limited series on Hulu, with six episodes detailing the war-torn life of John "Yo Yo" Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), a bomber attempting to get out of WWII alive.
In the original Hulu series, Yossarian spends all six episodes attempting to get sent home, knowing he'll die if he flies all the missions he's required to. Yet, his willingness to pretend he's insane automatically proves his sanity and thus he must fly his missions. "That's quite a catch, that catch-22," he utters.
It's weird coming into a television series with little knowledge, especially when it's an adaptation of a classic book. Compared to the likes of The Great Gatsby or the works of Jane Austen, Heller is primarily known for Catch-22, which hasn't benefited from numerous pop culture adaptations over the years. This also means his works haven't remained in the popular consciousness despite the prevalence of the term "catch-22."
So it's hard to feel that unique connection to an adaptation if you don't know the source material firsthand; the viewer instead falls upon the knowledge they've gleaned from hearing about it or through other adaptations inspired by it. In the case of Catch-22, it's easier to compare how it plays alongside the wealth of war-related films and television shows that have drawn from it, rather than as an adaption of Heller's work. Plus, Catch-22, the book, is often considered a work of satire, which usually doesn't translate in adaptations without finding a balance in tone and hoping the audience already understands what is being satirized.
Catch-22's male-dominated group of soldiers, all trying to stave off madness, boredom, and death, never feels particularly satirical because war is so common to us now. What is there to say about a subject so heavily documented in the news and popular culture? As Yossarian navigates his own path towards presumed freedom, as well as spending his days alongside his friends swimming and carousing with prostitutes, similarities to features like Jarhead and Generation Kill are in abundance. That's because what was new and unique when Heller wrote the novel in 1961 is now commonplace, more so because the director and screenwriters have more to pull from than the novel itself. With all that's already been discussed, it's hard to separate from the pack.
Yet, not reading the book leaves a new generation of audience with completely unpredictable expectations. I went into the series cold, and though I had issues with the Hulu adaptation, it fostered a desire in me to actually read Heller's novel. That's why such adaptations continue to be released, so that they'll inspire those who wouldn't know about the source material to give it a chance. Hopefully it will spark a desire for people to read, learn, and understand how a book's legacy is applied across the decades.
Regardless of Catch-22's quality, there's a grander scheme at play that allows books to come alive. In an era where literature is chronically dying from lack of use, you're almost required to watch a series like this to keep the history of books alive. So, in theory, shows like Catch-22 force you to confront the books you never read in high school. Maybe it's worth crossing a few more blind spots off my list now that they're all being adapted.
Catch-22 is streaming now on Hulu.