It’s one of the smartest, funniest, most depressing novels ever written. Now Joseph Heller’s satire of bureaucracy run amok is to be introduced to a new generation through a six-part television adaptation from George Clooney.
As a feat of filmmaking, the new Catch-22 often dazzles. Kyle Chandler and Hugh Laurie join Clooney, who directs and produces, as incompetent military brass in the dog days of World War II. What’s worrying is Heller’s message – that institutions are inherently untrustworthy and often pathological – feels every bit as relevant today as in 1944.
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In the dog days of the Second World War, American Captain John Yossarian (Girls’ Christopher Abbott) is cooling his heels at a US military airbase in Italy. It’s all over bar the shooting; Yossarian’s real enemies now are tedium and the idiotic superiors he is convinced are trying to kill him by sending him on pointless bombing missions.
Catch-22 has a famously circuitous narrative style, with the same event often described from a different perspective at various points. That’s challenging for the screen. So it’s smart of Clooney to trim the book to its essential moral: don’t trust big organisations, in particular, big organisations claiming to know what’s best for you.
The contemporary resonances are clear, in this age of Brexit and Donald Trump, as Clooney explicitly pointed out when promoting the new series (which comes to Channel 4 tonight after a debut on Hulu streaming service in America).
“We have a 74-year-old president who wishes we were still in the 1950s, which was good if you were a white guy,” said the actor. “Part of the idea of a Catch-22 is that old white men are making decisions that young people are going to die for. And I think that that is something we should argue about endlessly.”
‘Catch-22’ has come to mean a dilemma to from which there is no escape due to mutual conflicting conditions. “For the many disenfranchised voters the message that you’re damned either way has had clear implications at a the ballot box,” said Clooney.
“Part of the reason you feel these waves of populism coming up is because there’s huge swathes of people that feel like they are fighting against a system that they can’t possibly win.”
Heller, who wrote the novel after flying 60 combat missions in a B-25 bomber, would surely have agreed. One of the inspirations for the story was a sortie in which the author, then 21, had participated at the end of the war. In August 1944, he had found himself in a bomber flying over Avignon. It suddenly struck him that he might die. That crystallised in his mind the terrifying absurdity of life during wartime. The ‘Catch-22’ of the novel comes from an attempt by a bomber pilot to get out of combat by pretending to be crazy. Of course, anyone wishing to avoid combat can’t be that crazy to begin with. Hence the circle that cannot be squared and the famous title.
Catch-22 was published in 1961 (it had taken Heller, who worked in advertising after WWII, nearly eight years to write). And if it was about the Second World War, it found its readership as America was wrestling with its latest conflict, Vietnam. If the US military was capable of plumbing the depths of absurdity fighting fascism, how low could it sink in its ill-conceived war on communism in south east Asia?
“What turned the tide was that the Vietnam War began to heat up and was more and more in the news,” Heller’s biographer Tracy Daugherty said in 2011. “Heller’s book seemed to prophesy what was happening.
“What was being stated publicly [by the US government] was clashing so obviously with the images we were seeing on our television screens. The entire culture began to distrust language. We were being told one thing and seeing another, and there’s the paradox.”
Heller believed public institutions were incapable of serving a purpose higher than their own perpetuation. He didn’t much like politicians either. In both cases, he argued, the saving grace was our widespread tendency towards cackhandedness.
“I put my faith in the fact of native incompetence,” Heller once said. “I don’t think we’ll have a Hitler because we’re not efficient enough to have a Hitler. We won’t have a military dictatorship, or a military takeover, because the military isn’t that efficient.”
Catch 22 begins on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm
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