George Clooney has just agreed to star in and direct a miniseries based on Joseph Heller’s classic novel, Catch-22. Clooney claims that the book is his favorite novel, but we’ll see how much he respects the story’s original themes.
Critics and lit professors often refer to Catch-22 as a “satirical anti-war novel,” which makes some sense because the novel, which is set during World War II, bitterly lampoons the U.S. military. Joseph Heller, though, said that he did not mean to write a novel criticizing America’s involvement in the Second World War, which he (and almost all other Americans) supported. Heller set the narrative at the end of the conflict on an island near Italy, far away from the decisive battles that finally wrested Europe from the grip of fascism. So the central historical conflict between the Allies and the Axis is not the focus of the book. Heller meant primarily to point out the absurd—and often inhumane—nature of bureaucracies.
In the novel’s most famous passage, we find out that, under Catch-22, an airman can be relieved of flight duty if he is crazy. But if he asks to be relieved of flight duty, he is clearly concerned with his personal safety, which proves that he’s sufficiently sane to keep flying.
The book is full of other examples of absurd rules and bureaucratic incompetence. For instance, one character whose legal name is Major Major Major is promoted to Major on his first day in the Army because of a glitch in an IBM machine. In one of the book’s more morbid jokes, a dead soldier’s next of kin is sent an unedited form letter: “Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs. Daneeka: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father, or brother was killed, wounded, or reported missing in action.”
There are also larger plot points that illustrate the horrors of bureaucracy. Milo Minderbinder exploits the Army’s supply system for personal gain, setting up a syndicate to profit from his position as mess officer. Minderbinder even goes as far as having the Germans bomb his own squadron when it will benefit him personally. In another example, Colonel Cathcart (the part that will be played by Clooney), wants to look good for the generals, so he keeps raising the number of missions required of his own men, essentially breaking faith with them again and again. This never-ending changing of expectations eventually leads the novel’s main character, Yossarian, to abandon his post after 71 combat missions and flee for Sweden without permission.
Catch-22 was published in 1961 and was never a bestseller, but the book became a cult classic several years later when the U.S. government began drafting young men for the war in Vietnam. Many of these young men—suddenly under threat of compulsory military service—started to protest the war en masse and some tried to dodge the draft. That group adopted Heller’s novel as a prescient indictment of the Vietnam War and an inspirational story of a character who, as they saw it, heroically refused to fight. Heller’s book became forever known as an anti-war novel.
George Clooney is a political heir to the Vietnam anti-war left. In 2003, he explained his vehement opposition to America’s intervention in Iraq, saying, “You can’t beat your enemy anymore through wars.” He has lent his voice to every leftist cause and Democratic party candidate in recent memory. He swaps text messages with President Obama and campaigned hard for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
This raises a question: In Clooney’s upcoming Catch-22 mini-series, what story will he try to tell? Is he going to stick with the original spirit of Heller’s novel and demonstrate how bureaucracy crushes human freedom? If so, he will find fans across the political spectrum. Or will Clooney tell an “antiwar” tale, full of blame-America-first claptrap? If he goes down that route, he will probably win a bunch of awards from his Hollywood peers but he will also limit the story’s universality. It’s not an easy predicament for a man in Clooney’s position, but it’s no Catch-22! He has real options, and I hope he decides to reach deeper than today’s fleeting political passions to tell us a story that is deep and painful and funny. It is also the best way to honor the memory of Joseph Heller and the work for which he is deservedly famous.
Image: Georges Biard [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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