Catch-22 screenwriter breaks down the biggest departures from the book
Spoiler alert: This post contains plot details from all six episodes of Hulu’s Catch-22.
Sitting down to adapt Catch-22 for the screen was a herculean task for Luke Davies and David Michôd, the writers of Hulu’s six-episode miniseries. The show follows John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), a bombardier in World War II whose fight for his life becomes a fight for his sanity as the bureaucracy of war proves to be more dangerous than the war itself. Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel, on which the series is based, is considered a classic — and a very complex classic at that, which is why adapting it was no easy feat.
For Davies and Michôd, the first step of the writing process involved cutting down the number of characters in the piece and figuring out just how long they’d need to tell the story. “In the novel there’s 40 characters, approximately, and in a series that’s too many. It was a matter of trying to find out: Who are the 15 most important characters,” Davies says. “And the very first thought we had was, ‘Oh, there’s 44 chapters in the book, so that’s probably 44 episodes, three seasons.’ It was completely crazy. I landed on six episodes because I found six climaxes, and then it went from there.”
From the get-go, Davies knew they’d need to tweak the structure of the book. “What was really clear to me was that the thing that made the book brilliant in a literary sense — the kaleidoscopic fireworks of it jumping all over, the time shifts and the chaos — would not work as well in a cinematic sense,” he says. “Because you needed to care about the characters in a flesh-and-blood emotional way, and not just as comical metaphors for the madness of war.” So the show was given a more linear structure than the novel, but that wasn’t the biggest change they made.
“The radical departure from the novel is that the first half of episode 1 is in training camp in Santa Ana, Calif. The second half of act 2, we go to Italy and to the fighting, and that’s where we are for the rest of the time,” Davies says. Other changes include combining the characters of Kraft and Nately because, as Davies puts it, “they were serving similar purposes.” Then there’s Milo’s Mediterranean tour, which takes place in episode 4 and involves Yossarian traveling to multiple locations with Milo Minderbinder. What was mentioned briefly in the novel became a big montage for the series. “There’s a real gem buried in that paragraph, because you can learn a whole lot about the relationship between these two characters if you actually enact that paragraph into a third of an episode,” Davies says.
However, there were a few things the writers didn’t change because they were too important to Yossarian’s journey. “Without any question, we always knew that you had to have the death of Snowden scene,” Davies says. “If anyone knows the novel, they know that the death of Snowden is of peak importance. It’s central to the shift from the comedy to the darkness that’s going on.” Also of utmost importance was capturing the feeling of what it was like to fly in a plane during WWII while German soldiers were trying to shoot you out of the sky. “We had to have how terrifying and visceral the actual experience of being in the plane was,” Davies says.
All in all, there were two categories when it came to book elements they wanted to incorporate into the series: “There were the essentials that we had to keep,” Davies says, “and there were other things that are fragmentary in the book that we felt that we had to build out.”
Catch-22 is available on Hulu now.
Catch-22 (2019 TV series)