When both a book, and the film based on it, are highly praised, it is always a dilemma to decide which to indulge in first. The general rule is that you should read the book first, but often it works out the other way around. Often it is watching the film that first inspires us to pick up the book. Especially if that book is particularly dense or long, the knowledge that we know and love where it is headed can give you the extra push through the difficult passages. If I watch a film and then read the book I am always left wondering how I would have pictured the characters had I not already had a particular actor or actress in my head. If I read the book first I wonder if I would have been less critical about the film if I wasn’t constantly comparing it to the book.
Catch 22 is an example of a film which is often met with very mixed reviews thanks to comparisons to the book. In this instance I read the book first and came out wondering how it could be successfully translated to film. The narrative of Catch 22 is anything but linear, jumping from time to time, from place to place, and tracing back on itself to reveal little by little the actual course of events. Incidents are repressed, and then slowly come to light. Not only that but the story itself is such a farce of crazy events that it would seem an extremely difficult task to make it at all watchable. Especially as I was already predisposed to be critical after reading and enjoying the novel. But watchable it is. They have maintained just enough of the non-linear narrative to stay true to the books without becoming too repetitive or confusing. The most important and most repressed element of the storyline, that being Snowden’s death, is the recurring element of the film, as it also is in the book, the trauma of which is slowly and painfully revealed to the viewer. They also jump back to the stabbing of Yossarian by Nately’s whore, a humorous event which could have been made more obvious in the film to increase it’s absurdity.
Despite the black humour of the film, overall the feeling is that of sadness and despair. As the film starts out it is very funny, especially in the great dialogue about the “catch 22”, but as it progresses it gets darker. In one scene Yossarian walks the streets passing disturbing tableaus of life past curfew, ending in discovery of a woman who has been thrown from a window. In this scene we see Yossarian barely acknowledging the horrors he passes, let alone attempting to intervene, we can feel his numbness and hopelessness, as well as the trauma that has led him to this point. Catch 22 asks us to laugh at the absurdity of war, but we laugh until we cry. The book too ends with a feeling of horror at the nature of war, but with even more absurdity, some of it better explained, some of it lost to farce, the book manages to be more humorous overall than the film, but also more confusing and convoluted (though arguably that is the point). The book allows more time for the characters to develop, the story lines to come together, and for us to become more attached to our hero. It is hard to say whether I would have enjoyed the film more or less if I had not first read the book. If you were to ask me which one you should do first I would reply that in this instance trying to decide whether to read the book or watch the film is a catch 22.
Catch 22, 1970.
Joseph Heller, Catch 22, 1961.