Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Catch-22 of Translating a Hit Novel to the Screen

At the end of the Sixties the book that everyone was reading was Joseph Heller’s darkly satiric World War II novel, Catch-22.  And the movie that everyone was watching was The Graduate, the outrageous romantic comedy directed by Mike Nichols. So there was little surprise, when word spread that Nichols would be directing a screen version of Catch-22, that audiences couldn’t wait to see the results.

 Nichols’ film, released in June 1970, unfortunately pleased almost no one. This despite the fact that it was a serious effort to translate a complex, almost hallucinatory, novel to the screen.  The Writers Guild of America did nominate Buck Henry’s script as the best screen drama adapted from another medium, but it didn’t win. That same year, M*A*S*H, a much more popular depiction of the truism that “war is hell,” took home a WGA Award for comic adaptation. Perhaps it was the success of M*A*S*H, featuring a lively rendering by Robert Altman of a behind-the-lines Korean War story, that undercut Catch-22’s box-office chances. Or  perhaps the brilliant, bitter Catch-22 just couldn’t work without Heller’s sparklingly ironic prose.

 Still, it was a worthy attempt. Nichols, who’d shown such visual flair in The Graduate, had fun depicting the almost operatic lift-off of WWII era bomber jets. Having used the songs of Simon and Garfunkel to great effect in The Graduate, he mostly avoided music in the far more serious Catch-22, but at one key point tried an outlandish reference to the opening strains of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” familiar to anyone who’d seen 2001: A Space Odyssey. (And, in that era, who hadn’t?)  

 The large cast is a remarkable gathering of Hollywood talents. Nichols was known for his casting savvy, and we can fully believe Martin Balsam as a gruffly maniacal Col. Cathcart, Richard Benjamin as a smarmy Major Danby, Anthony Perkins as a vulnerable Chaplain Tappman, Bob Newhart as an anxious Major Major, and Orson Welles as a bloated General Dreedle. The leading role, Yosarian, is that of a neurotic cipher, and Alan Arkin is particularly good at conveying his anxiety about war, the U.S. Army, and life in general.

 Given the worldwide success of The Graduate, it’s not surprising that Nichols again turned to several performers from that 1967 film. Elizabeth Wilson (Benjamin’s anxious mom in The Graduate) has a tiny but memorable role as the mother of a dying soldier. Norman Fell (the cranky landlord of Ben’s Berkeley rooming house) is seen here as a blunt sergeant. Buck Henry, who had brilliantly adapted Charles Webb’s The Graduate for the screen while also playing a skeptical desk clerk, again performs double duty, donning  a creepy little mustache to portray Balsam’s toadying sidekick, Colonel Korn.

 Nichols also cast Art Garfunkel, a novice actor and one-half of the musical duo whose songs dominate the score of The Graduate, as the naïve young Nately. (The following year “Arthur” Garfunkel was a central figure in Nichols’ corrosive Carnal Knowledge.) Charles Grodin, who to the end of his life insisted that he’d been cast by Nichols as Benjamin Braddock but had turned the role down, plays the oblivious bombardier on Yosarian’s plane. But what of the screen’s actual Benjamin Braddock? I’ve learned that Dustin Hoffman, whose Hollywood career burst into life with The Graduate, badly wanted to play the shifty Milo in Catch-22. Perhaps Nichols was truly offended that Hoffman took on, immediately following The Graduate, the scruffy role of Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. In any case Nichols gave the role of Milo not to Hoffman but to his Midnight Cowboy co-star, Jon Voigt.



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