Joseph Heller’s seminal novel, Catch 22, has been adapted to the big screen before. This time around, George Clooney tries his hand at a mini series adaptation, focusing on both the surreal satire and brutality of war, seen through the eyes of bomber John Yossarian.
The show opens with a naked Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) walking across the tarmac. The show quickly flashes back to his training with General Scheisskopf (Clooney) where he met his best friend, Clevinger (Pico Alexander), before shipping off to the Mediterranean theater of war. There, he finds himself stuck as Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler) keeps on increasing the required mission count, overseen by a bored, unenthusiastic Major De Coverley (Hugh Laurie).
The show mainly thrives on the absurdity of the situation, as well as Yossarian’s interaction with classic characters such as Major Major Major Major and Milo Minderbinder. As he tries repeatedly to convince the camp doctor, Daneeka, that he is certifiably insane, he finds that there is no way to prove that he’s insane because the moment he wants to go home, he proves that he’s ‘sane’ enough to want to survive. This is the titular ‘catch 22’ that keeps Yossarian in Italy throughout the next two years.
While there’s plenty of harrowing firefighting (and bomb dropping) when Yossarian is on his missions, there is also plenty of R&R: ‘Yo-Yo’ and his friends go sunbathing and when in Rome, they also go on dates. As Yossarian veers closer and closer to insanity, with his friends dying off one by one while he himself is promoted to Captain.
The show is mostly faithful, though it tells a story that feels more futile and defeatist than the fun satire of the book.
This Yossarian is more broken, resigned to his circumstances. While in the book Yossarian has a happier ending, here he still finds himself trapped in the catch 22 cycle by the end of the series: a cycle where he’s free to do what he wants until he’s called into a mission and gets shell shocked.
As good as the show is, at times it feels a bit too safe, with Clooney applying polish to scenes that were more grimy and raw in the source material. It also labors to make long bits of dialogue seem more polished, although the transition works more often than not.
The military in the show is still dehumanizing, taking a meat grinder approach to its soldiers in a bid to gain air supremacy.
However, the show often makes the struggle seem more personal for Yossarian rather than an absurdist nightmare where he is as equally trapped as the others in the Air Force. Of course, this is the kind of choice you need to make to adapt a book to television.
The supporting characters, however, don’t get as much presence. Major Major Major Major, for instance, explains his name too many times, and while De Coverley’s search for better living quarters works well in contrast to the chaos in Yossarian’s life, Hugh Laurie doesn’t get the screentime to make more of an impact.
Still, the miniseries is no mean feat, adapting a book that seems ‘perfect’ for peculiar, ‘lightning in a bottle’ reasons.
The series ends with Yossarian up in the air with other bombers, his fate suspended in both literal and metaphorical senses. It’s an ambitious undertaking, no doubt, and there’s plenty to love here, from glossy, shots of the sky to a subdued, star-making turn from Christopher Abbott.