Joseph Hellar’s satirical novel Catch-22 is regarded as a literary classic and one of the best war novels ever published. It is also a sprawling piece of work that is difficult to adapt. Hulu has attempted to adapt the novel to the small screen with a number of talented people attached to the series.
Catch-22 focuses on the 256th US Army Air Squadron based in Italy in 1944. One of the bombardiers, John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), is desperate to get out of the war, especially when Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler) keeps rising the mission quota. As the war progresses Yossarian loses more and more friends, which put a strain on his mental state.
Catch-22 was told in a non-linear fashion where it jumped to and from different events. The writers of the season, Luke Davies and David Michôd, set out to tell the story in a more traditional, linear fashion. It goes from Yossarian and his fellow crewmen training to Yossarian having a mental breakdown by the end. As a straighten version of Catch-22 the series works, especially for people who are unfamiliar with the novel.
Due to the series going for a linear style it does straighten out the character arc for Yossarian. At the beginning of the series, he is a selfish asshole who looked for any way out of the war with a ‘to hell with anyone else’ attitude. By the end, Yossarian becomes a more sympathetic character because of the mental stress he was placed under. He did have a level of morality to him as exhibited when he casts a caring eye over an Italian teen (Viola Pizzetti) and being repulsed by Aarfy’s (Rafi Gavron) actions in Episode Five. Events early on in the series come back to bite Yossarian on the ass later on. Abbott perfectly plays the selfish asshole and the man cracking under the pressure.
Catch-22 was famously a satire on the US military and bureaucracy. The series keeps this in tack and due to the involvement of George Clooney and his creative partner Grant Heslov they ensured the series had a Coen Brothers-esque style to it. There were hilarious verbal exchanges from the outset like when Cleverly (Pico Alexander) gave advice to a superior officer, Scheisskopf (Clooney) advise on how to conduct the military parades. Throughout the series, there are satirical swipes against the military that could be applied to today like Milo’s (Daniel David Stewart) war profiteering and Cathcart takes pride in the destruction of Italian cities. It is a show that embraces absurdities like when one character gets a big promotion just because it’s quicker than to correct a mistake and Yossarian getting punished with a bravery medal.
The series also has somber moments because of the death and loss. Catch-22 builds on the friendships Yossarian has made during the series. They felt genuine, especially Yossarian’s friendship with Nately (Austin Stowell), so it hurts all the more when someone dies. It contributes to Yossarian’s eventual breakdown because all the people he knows either die or are sent away, leaving him trapped in an endless loop of bombing missions. It is a show that is willing to show or at least alludes to darker aspects of war. Catch-22 is able to walk the fine line of comedy and tragedy without being tonally jagging. At times Catch-22 shows that comedy and tragedy are able to merge, like at the end of episode three where the airmen play around with a German fighter and the sixth episode starting as a comedy before going into heavier territory.
Catch-22 does have an excellent cast who perfectly played their characters. Stewart as Milo was a great find to play the wheeling-dealing Milo, who ends up operating a trade network across Europe and North Africa. Chandler and Kevin J. O’Conner made for effective villains, one a colonel who is looking for his own glory, so plays with the lives of his men and his deputy who is a clever but weaselly man. Clooney had been effective at playing buffoonish yet vindictive commander who rapidly rises through the ranks. The whole show is an indictment of the American officer core who get the rewards whilst their men pay for it.
Paramount Television and Hulu clearly spent a lot of money on the show. As well as having a casting of talented actors the show was filmed on location in Italy, where it got to show off the beauty of the Italian countryside. There was also a great deal of care for the military gear, especially the CGI for the bombing missions as planes have to go through a barrage of flak.
Catch-22 was considered an unfilmable novel, but the team who made the miniseries gave it a damn good try and were able to make an effective and entertaining