Revolutionary Road was acclaimed by Kurt Vonnegut as The Great Gatsby of his generation, but does that classification beside a totem of modernist literature suggest that filming Richard Yates’ novel in a straightforward realist fashion is doomed to failure?
Watching Revolutionary Road you wish you knew more about how the Wheelers came to this point, the substance of their dream and their complaint about suburbia, and you wish that the supporting characters were more fleshed out. Then you read the book and find that a third of the text, if not more, is taken up with flashbacks showing how each character came to this point. The Wheeler children are barely characterised in the film but an undercurrent in the book is the damage that Frank and April’s fighting inflicts on their children. There are heartbreaking descriptions of how they simply crumble when their parents fight, and in one devastating scene it’s implied that April’s behaviour will be faithfully replicated in the future by her daughter Jennifer – she will always do whatever she feels like doing.
Yates is a masterful writer. His language isn’t as gorgeous as the heights reached by his hero Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby but his prose is so wonderfully incisive that you find yourself reading a paragraph repeatedly for its insight. Asides from an unfilmable delicacy with language Yates treats his characters with a universal sympathy hidden beneath endless irony. Mrs Givings is a mere figure of fun to be scorned in the film but Yates manages the nigh-impossible feat of making you laugh at characters for their self-delusions, and in the next paragraph feel pity for them. These characters know they are deceiving themselves, but they must do so in order to go on living. Compared to this Tolstoyan compassion Mendes’ film makes characters and events far simpler and clear-cut. The film removes much of the sting from the fights because we are not privy to Frank’s constant despair that April may leave him at anytime simply because she feels like it – she is a master of mental torture, and even her line about his recourse to physical abuse against this is cut.
The comedy of the novel, such as the epic shirking of work at Knox by Frank, Jack Ordway, and all the other staff, is almost completely lost in the film. Yates’ novel is extremely funny throughout, and its lengthy description of how Frank organises his desk to avoid work is side-splitting stuff. Instead Mendes presents Frank’s Toledo memo as nonsense, when it is the only genuinely good work he has done in years for the company and so merits the attention it bestows on him. Also lost are Frank’s qualms as he runs through various possible comments in his head before delivering horrendous lines for his appraisal of the performances of the Laurel Players and Maureen Grube. Modernist literature is defined by its concern for interiority and the loss of that inner perspective hurts the film by making Frank seem a good deal more callous than Yates intends him to be.
Can a faithful treatment really ignore so many elements of its source? Can a blackly comic novel be truly rendered as an unremitting tragedy? Can a modernist novel be adapted at all without drowning a realist film in voiceover and flashback? Adaptation is always a perilous task but Revolutionary Road suggests that adapting modernist novels is impossible to do within the accepted confines of Hollywood realism…