Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post contains spoilers for both the novel, the movie and even the movie The Reader. You've been warned.

By Edward Copeland
When I reviewed the movie of Revolutionary Road, it seemed as if I was one of the few who found the film great. A lot of the criticism came from people stuck on the idea that it was merely another critique of suburban life when to me the setting was merely backdrop for its story. However, other negative reviews countered that it paled next to the novel upon which it was based by Richard Yates. Therefore, I took it upon myself to read the novel. I finished it quite awhile ago, but I wanted to re-watch the movie to refresh my memory and it just recently came out on DVD. Now that I've read the book and seen the movie twice and feel safe in saying that both are great, though the adaptation proves to be a curious one, being both fairly faithful to Yates' novel while at the same time deviating on crucial points.

The novel dives directly into the play that April Wheeler is starring in, beginning with a dress rehearsal that goes well. One of the reasons I wanted to make sure to watch the movie again is that the book makes it clear that the play being performed is The Petrified Forest and so little is shown of the play in the film, I wanted to see if there was a switch. There doesn't seem to be, though why the performance goes so badly in the novel involves a misfire of the special effects machine guns, almost to comic effects and I can see why the filmmakers went another way because it would have been a type of humor completely out of place in Sam Mendes' film version.
After reading the novel, I do think (at least in my interpretation) that even the filmmakers missed the real point of Yates' book. On the DVD extras, director Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe emphasize that Revolutionary Road is about the splintering of a marriage and while that is certainly a theme and they recognize that the suburbs is just a setting, not the point, the novel made it clear to me (especially after reading Richard Price's introduction about Yates) the larger issue is mental illness. Marriage is certainly pivotal (especially since the novel looks more closely at the marriages of the neighbors the Campbells, who seem completely happy and content on the surface though Shep longs for April, and the older Givings, whose son is in a psych ward and where the husband has learned to deal with his wife's yammering simply by turning off his hearing aid.) It takes a while in the movie for Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) to become a sympathetic character, but you feel for him almost from the beginning of the novel which makes it clear from the outset that this isn't just a couple at the breaking point, it's a couple where the wife needs serious psychiatric help.

It also makes more sense as to why the character of John Givings (Oscar nominee Michael Shannon) is introduced and is viewed by April as some sort of truthteller. While I still love the movie, it gives the false impression that the failure of the play started the Wheelers' problems, when they began almost from the beginning since April has a hard time feeling anything. While the movie Frank asks her if she considered aborting either of their other two children, the book makes it clear that she did want to abort their first child, with Frank making the point that she's been pregnant three times and wanted to have abortions twice.

The other major difference between novel and film is that the book paints deeper portraits of the neighbors Shep and Milly and especially of Frank's mistress Maureen, including scenes with her roommate and the difficulties that Frank has ending the affair. Otherwise, I found the novel and film remarkably similar.

Certainly, the movie took some shortcuts for time reasons that the book didn't need to, but I got the same feeling from the book that I did from the movie, a feeling that must be common to most of Yates' works.

As Richard Price writes in the introduction of the Everyman edition of Revolutionary Road (which also includes The Easter Parade and the short story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness):
"...in his no-exit, unblinking honesty, in his bone-deep sorrowful conviction that loneliness is our inescapable lot, Yates pities his characters but has no choice but to doom them."

As in the movie, when April and Frank hit upon their Paris plan, you really want them to succeed, even though you know it's unlikely. I stick by my assertion that Kate Winslet won the Oscar for the wrong movie. What does it say about audiences that they are more willing to forgive a women who let Jews burn to death because she happened to be illiterate as in The Reader than they are a woman who needs psychological help?

Richard Yates' novel is well worth the read whether or not you've seen the movie (or whether or not you liked it for that matter). His prose is sharp, straight-forward and heartbreaking and overflowing with scenes that ring so truthful they hurt.

It's a great novel and while I still liked the film a lot the second time, I think the filmmakers didn't quite get at the essence of his story.

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Edward: I haven't read the book, and might never. But I'm a fellow advocate of the film, which was probably my second favorite of last year. It's outstanding (though Shannon overstays his welcome the second time around).

As for the idea that the filmmakers missed the point of the novel: That assumes that they tried to hit the point of the novel. I understand why people expect adaptations to reflect what people found in the source material. But a book is a book. A movie is a movie. They work in different ways, and we all need to get over the idea that films are slave to their literary inspirations. (Who talks about The Godfather in relation to the Puzo story? No one cares.)

I don't say the following in argument with you, because you might agree with me, but to the larger point, which your comment touches on.

And I'm absolutely with you on Winslet: right award; wrong film.
I totally agree with you about adaptations not having to adhere to the books. One of my most famous examples is The World According to Garp, one of my favorite books of all time, but I liked the film a lot as well even though they would have had to try really hard to change it from the novel any more. I liked both versions of Revolutionary Road, but I think the filmmakers may have done a disservice to the character of Frank by downplaying early on what April's mental state was. Rewatching the movie, it seemed to me they really lay it on thick in the earlygoing to make Frank seem like a philandering asshole. In the novel, while not excusing his adultery, it's more understandable with his frustration of not being able to rescue the woman he loves who has lost all emotional touch with the world and he just needs to feel with anyone.
Looking back on the film, I think the content was never the problem - of course, the notion of people have settled for so little in their lives and subsequently feeling trapped can be the stuff of great drama. Really, I think the problem lay in the execution: the film didn't strike me as being well-written, well-directed, or even particularly well-performed -it didn't hold my interest. There probably is a good film to be made out of Yates' novel; I just didn't think Revolutionary Road was it.
I really appreciate this post, as I loved both the novel and the film of "Revolutionary Road." You're dead on, though, that the film gives short shrift to April's obvious instability. I read somewhere that Mendes originally shot scenes of both Frank and April as children, but decided to cut them from the finished film. I can't help but think that it's that lack of a full back story for the film characters that makes the film so empty and frustrating for so many viewers, particularly those who haven't read the book.
The DVD included a deleted scene of Frank as a kid riding the train to work with his dad, but it didn't have any deleted scenes of April as a child.
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