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Monday, February 2, 2009

Adapting America's Great Unknown Author



48 years ago an unknown author called Richard Yates released his first novel, Revolutionary Road. It was recently adapted into a star-cast Hollywood movie. When the book came out people were shocked by how deftly it portrayed the dull reality of post-war American life. It follows a young couple that settles into the suburbs but gets destroyed as they try to live out the American dream. It was a major success, a finalist for the nation book award alongside Heller’s Catch-22 and Yates won acclaim from writers like Vonnegut, Stryon, Tennesee Williams, Cheever and Richard Ford. But the rest of his career was tainted with disappointment; he never hit the same peak of success. By the time of his death in 1992 his name was out of mention and most of his books were out of print. A tragic story, so with the release of the film, questions arise about how it conveys Yates’ book and his legacy.

For starters, the story’s female protagonist, April Wheeler, is far more complex in the book than she is in the film. In the movie she is portrayed as a beautiful but tortured woman, the dove who is pushed to madness by the dull and misunderstanding world around her. In the book, April is largely insane to begin with. This provides for one of the most interesting and ongoing counterpoints in the novel, one that is not present in the film. In the book, she comes from a broken home (her wealthy parents were wed on a cruise ship by its captain and then divorced not a year later), tries to abort her first child, has (presumably) only slept with one man in her whole life, and is ultimately an icily manipulative and selfish person. The rich depth of her character is not done justice in Sam Mendes' film.

Also, while April is the focus of the movie, the book is told largely from the perspective of her husband, Frank. One of the novel's central themes is his quest to prove his manhood. He has an exciting affair with a secretary (which is touched upon in the film), teaches himself how to stop apologizing to people ("Did a lion apologize? Hell, no." he thinks after he coldly ends his affair with the secretary), and by the end of the book he learns to have a sense of indifference to nearly everything ("this is my problem, that’s your problem.”) His character portrays the emergence of a new American man: confused and repressed. The Frank Wheeler of the film is a simpler man, one merely concerned with keeping his life under control.

Lastly, what is not conveyed is Yates' sense of humor. There are passages in the novel that are laugh-out-loud funny. The suffocating, repressed nature of the suburbs provides him with countless opportunities to pick and jab at its absurdity (like when Frank, over drinks with the neighbors, embarrassingly realizes he's telling them, almost verbatim, a story he's already told them before) In the film, this humor is non-existent, as if it was flushed out for Oscar purposes.

Of course it's an adaptation and not everything can be conveyed. Mendes tried his best. Its safe to say that what he made was an attractive drama about the tragedy of suburban life and the American dream, it is not, like the book is, a brooding examination of life in the anxiety of the 50's. Yates wouldn’t be disappointed but he definitely wouldn’t be satisfied. His book mercilessly portrays every aspect of the Wheeler’s painfully ordinary lives. The film is not as dismal and that makes all the difference.

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