It has come to my attention that you keep adapting my favorite novels [see Atonement, Revolutionary Road, et. al.], and turning them into mediocre movies. Cease and desist! Get your own ideas!
Jen Sullivan Brych
P.S. There are lots of good movies adapted from mediocre books.
P.P.S. But how many great films come from great books?
In the new Sam Mendes film, Revolutionary Road, adapted from Richard Yates’s novel, there’s a brutal argument between Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Frank Wheeler, and his wife, April, played by Kate Winslet. Frank calls her a hollow “shell of a woman.” Unfortunately, the film version of one of the best books I’ve read in the last ten years also feels like a hollowed-out husk of the original.
I really, really wanted to like this film: The trailer gave me chills and made me cry. Kate and Leo are perfectly cast as the brawling couple who one day realize they have settled for less in suburbia. They act the hell out of every scene as their characters try to recapture the more urban, artistic life of which they once dreamed. But the book was too character-driven and internal to survive the leap to the big screen. Since readers were privy to Frank’s every nuanced, tragic and darkly funny thought, this became the meat of the novel. Screenwriters and editors scraped out much of this meat, and the pieces that are left feel empty and unearned.
Okay. No movie will ever be significantly better than the book, except maybe works like Brokeback Mountain or sci-fi by Philip K. Dick, which started as short stories and thus could become larger and different. There are plenty of films that at least “honor the spirit” of the originals, like most of the Jane Austen adaptations, perhaps because she is a plot-driven, dialogue-heavy writer. Yet Hollywood must choose its novels carefully. There are moments in Revolutionary Road that choked me up, but the film falls far, far short of the book.
I’d never heard of Yates when I started reading Revolutionary Road earlier this year. But Kurt Vonnegut and Tennessee Williams had praised him unreservedly. As I read, I realized this was one of those books that makes you stay up late and cancel plans and which you read slowly because you don’t actually want the lovely prose to end, even though it’s depicting the brutal ways in which couples can subtly destroy each other.
The 1961 novel brilliantly begins with a community theater’s inaugural production, starring April Wheeler. This establishes the theme of playacting. April nearly moves Frank to tears with her youthful performance, until the entrance of her co-star, a last-minute replacement. The play then tanks. Alone with her in her dressing room, Frank wants to tell her, “Listen: you were wonderful.” But April is so upset that he’s afraid of sounding “naïve and sentimental.” So he flounders: “Well… I guess it wasn’t exactly a triumph or anything, was it?” He immediately realizes his mistake in hiding behind sarcasm. He then looks at his reflection in the mirror, “tightening his jaw and turning his head a little to one side to give it a leaner, more commanding look, the face he had given himself in mirrors since boyhood and which no photograph had ever quite achieved…”
He suddenly realizes April is watching him, an excruciating moment which perfectly captures the tension between Frank’s self-image and reality.
But in the film, the play is reduced to its final moment, showing none of April’s talent. We then get Frank’s comment, sans internal struggle. The audience actually laughed, since Frank comes across as Insensitive 1950s Man. On screen, the ensuing fight is thus reduced to a bitchfest between two characters we don’t know, whereas in the novel, the fight was the subtle evolution of a tragic miscommunication.
To make up for this loss of interior, the film bludgeons us again and again with its theme. In the novel, it is this: People like Frank see themselves as the heroic, innocent victims, blaming other forces in life for their unhappiness when they themselves are their biggest obstacle. Frank has always said that he wishes they’d “taken off” to Europe when they had the chance, and that life in the suburbs and at work, which he describes as the “dullest job you could possibly imagine,” is “mediocrity.” So April calls his bluff: She proposes a the family move to Paris so that she can work and Frank can “find himself” and stop “stifling” his “essence” in the “great sentimental lie of the suburbs.” Frank initially agrees and then, out of the fear that he’s not so special after all, does everything in his power to sabotage himself, including—spoiler alert!—having an office affair with a secretary, and impregnating April, then convincing her to keep the baby he doesn’t even want.
But in the film, without access to characters’ internal self-delusions, thematic lines become lightweight: “This is our one chance,” April says, and later, “It takes backbone to lead the life you want” and “I just wanted us to live again.” Show, don’t tell! Use a flashback or something! Gosh!
The supporting characters, such as neighbors Shep and Milly Campbell (played by David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn), are similarly flat in the film. One of the novel’s most vivid images is Shep’s realization that he can’t stand the body odor of his own wife, which he calls “rancid.” He compares her smell to April’s, which he remembers from,
…last summer when he’d held April Wheeler half drunk on the stifling, jam packed dance floor of Vito’s Log Cabin, when her soaked dress was stuck to her back and her temple slid greasily under his cheek… the smell of her was as strong and clean as lemons; it was the smell of her… that had made his—that had made him want to—oh, Jesus.
It’s fine to cut this moment of heartache, but it is replaced with Shep asking his wife if she’s going to wear “that” outfit, and with his long looks at April.
We do get a little more of Shep’s unrequited love and a lot of his frustration with his own domestic life in a very quiet scene where he sees his boys sprawled in front of the television. He says hello and asks them what they are watching. They don’t even look at him. He goes outside with the first of many beers and stands in the backyard, staring beyond his property. Until April appears, with Milly.
Another lovely moment shows April, post-fight, leaning against a tree in the backyard, smoking a cigarette as Frank watches her from a window. He downs drink after drink, half-crying and grimacing, afraid to approach her, afraid not to. Suddenly, she turns and looks back at the house, a moment that’s terrifying and heartbreaking and true to the book all at once. It’s reminiscent of Mendes’s fabulous film American Beauty. If only there had been more of these moments! If only the film had been bold enough to trust quietness, to be more impressionistic, even experimental, instead of expository.
There were other fantastic scenes in the film that are even better than the book, such as Michael Shannon’s portrayal of John Givings in the role of Shakespearean fool, on leave from the asylum, pointing out the insanity of 1950s norms. So why did Revolutionary Road, the film, ultimately fail to honor Revolutionary Road, the novel? For the same reason I flinched at seeing Kate Winslet’s bleached out hair and large, dark brown eyebrows: it just doesn’t feel right.