Hopeless Emptiness, A Revolutionary Road

by tully
June 14, 2007 2:43 AM
4 Comments
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Last week, I finished re-reading REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. Without any conscious planning on my part, I arrived at the film's last thirty pages while on an Amtrak train, heading north out of New York City. Just as the train was pulling into the Stamford, Connecticut station, I reached the novel's shattering climax. Somewhere in Connecticut at this very moment, production is underway on the big-budget, Hollywood interpretation of Richard Yates's staggering, sarcastic, satirical, blunt, bitter, hilarious, depressing, realistic, intimate, epic, uncomfortable, beautiful, tragic, honest masterpiece.

A month ago, I wrote an admittedly juvenile open letter to Sam Mendes begging him to leave this book alone, to not deform it into an absolute failure of a movie. But right now, I don’t care. I am going to spend the next many months silencing my inner undergraduate and doing my best to separate my feelings for the book in preparation for my viewing of the film. Because, no matter what I said in that letter, I am going to see REVOLUTIONARY ROAD when it is released this December, and I am genuinely hoping that it reflects even one tiny fraction of the novel’s bracing honesty. For that, unquestionably, will be an achievement unto itself.

In my childish stubbornness, I declared that it was impossible to reflect the depths of bleakness that Yates realized with such apparent effortlessness in his writing. And while I still agree that it is a seemingly impossible challenge, I am going to muffle that worry as much as I can. For one of my goals as an individual is to never enter into a situation with my mind already made up. This is an extraordinary situation, to be sure, but I’m determined to silence my inner baby and be as rational and open-minded as possible.

The combination of Yates’s lack of commercial success and his canon’s inability to find a wide audience has earned him the reputation of a “writer’s writer.” That’s because REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is a superficially deceptive work. It reads so easily that someone taking it on a surface level will miss the miracle of Yates’s achievement. It is a work of unflinching social realism, a bitter satire, an epic condemnation of the suburban dream, an intimate critique of extreme self-delusion, and so much more. Somehow, RR manages to be all of those things at the exact same time. How can a book do that? In Richard Ford’s introduction of the version I read this time around, he summed up Yates’s achievement with the following statement: “REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is simply REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, and to invoke it enacts a sort of cultural-literary secret handshake among its devotees.” For some unfortunate reason, the majority of those devotees happen to be writers. While it might look and feel like “easy” writing, it most certainly is not.

I must quote Ford once again in addressing another of Yates’s impossibly magical tricks. (Ironically enough, I find the works I’ve read by Ford--including his Pulitzer Prize-winning THE SPORTSWRITER--to be inferior, unsuccessful attempts to address the exact same themes that Yates relentlessly pursued throughout his lifetime. In comparison to Yates, Ford, like everybody else who navigates this similar terrain, appears to be trying too hard.) In explaining the genius of Yates’s first novel, Ford absolutely drills it: “But for my money, by allowing at least two strategies of representing reality to share time, Yates brought to life all the more remarkable a novel; brought us--through art--near enough to life’s palpable details that we can recognize our own lives, yet preserved for us a distance from which we can exercise judgment and be relieved that the Wheelers aren’t us.” That, right there, is the achievement crystallized. Sadly, many readers are unable to grasp this remarkable feat.

The first time I read REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, I was right around the age of Yates’s pathetic protagonist, Frank Wheeler--twenty-nine years old--and while I wasn’t a father of two who was stuck in a completely wrong marriage, I nonetheless felt a profound connection to him. This quote sums it up best: “He could even be grateful in a sense that he had no particular area of interest: in avoiding specific goals he had avoided specific limitations” (page 22). Of course, I had a goal--to become a filmmaker--but my inability to take the plunge made my twenties as useless as if I hadn’t felt even a tiny flicker of that urge. Temping at offices in midtown, coasting along like a blade of grass in a still pond, my memories of myself in my twenties is of a shamefully deluded child, drinking and talking, drinking and talking, drinking and talking. And when I wasn’t talking, I was stuck in my own mind, crafting fantasies and daydreams that excused my passive behavior and allowed me to convince myself that I was still somehow the person I wanted to be. It was the only way I could accept myself. Reading REVOLUTIONARY ROAD helped to see myself for who I really was, and inspired me to get off my ass and actually do something with my life.

Reading the novel this time around, I felt much more detached from Frank’s pathetic, unforgivable behavior, which enabled me to witness the drama from a critical outsider’s perspective. Yet somehow it affected me just as profoundly. To be honest, I’m tempted to return to page one and start reading it again, which is what I did the very first time I read it however many years ago--something I’ve never done with another book.

But back to the movie. While I still agree with my belief that Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet’s faces have too much baggage with viewers to allow them to ever truly suspend their disbelief 100%, I am willing to swallow this worry and hope for the best. But when I learned that Michael Shannon had been cast to play the unhinged, unforgettable character of John Givings, I felt a surge of hope that caught me off-guard. For if I had been chosen to direct REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, Shannon would have been my first choice to fill that role. I’m not kidding when I say that the casting of Shannon has single-handedly given me hope for the big screen adaptation. After having recently seen him in BUG and SHOTGUN STORIES, I am confident that he is the exact correct person to play this part. Hooray to the filmmakers for making this choice.

Speaking of daydreaming, if I had been chosen to direct REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, I know how I would end the film (no spoiler is coming, don’t worry). I am convinced that it will be a mistake to conclude the film by mimicking the novel’s last chapter. While on paper, Yates’s conclusion resolves things comfortably and appropriately, to take that approach on film will feel like too much of a postscript and will pull viewers out of the present-tense misery of the film’s breathtaking climax, which is where it needs to end. It’s like slapping on one of those “three years later” epilogues, or jumping decades forward, ala SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. On paper, these jarring, dramatic flash-forwards don’t necessarily feel so abrupt. But on screen, they are almost always false and distracting. I feel strongly that this approach will have a seriously negative impact in this particular instance, and beg the filmmakers to stray from Yates when it comes to the film’s resolution.

For me, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is one of the few great statements of art of the 20th Century. It is a work that gives me something to aspire to. Though I almost certainly will never create an achievement so profound and spectacular in my humble, average life, the mere fact that someone else has done it is enough to make me thankful that I am able to appreciate it. When one encounters rare, true genius, even that, somehow, can be enough.

(One final note. While I may appear to have relented in my lack of faith for this adaptation, I stand firm in my belief that everyone should read REVOLUTIONARY ROAD before they watch the film. It might not be the lightest summer reading out there, but I still recommend it to anyone and everyone. DO NOT SEE THIS MOVIE UNTIL YOU’VE READ THE BOOK, PLEASE!!!)

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4 Comments

  • craig | June 20, 2007 9:52 AMReply

    That was brilliant. I am late to this post, but it is so on the money. I have been thinking about RR for the past few weeks for a variety of reasons. But I have to disagree with you about the ending...the story needs that ending. To me, that is the scariest conclusion for Mr. Wheeler. Hell, I might have to read it again tonight.

  • tully | June 14, 2007 8:40 AMReply

    Let me also add that the version of the script I read was from June 2004, so I assume things have changed since then. Or at least I hope they have. I'm not bothered that the script reinvents the ending, I simply think it detracts from the overall impact and will not be as powerful as it should be.

  • matt | June 14, 2007 7:15 AMReply

    thanks to your last post on the subject I've read, and adored, the book. So you've made a difference at least in that sense.

  • Sujewa Ekanayake | June 14, 2007 5:11 AMReply

    Alright Mike Tully, since you've spent a lot of time crafting a long post about it & highly recommend it, I will read RR before I see the movie.

    - Sujewa