Thursday, 11 March 2010

BBC 1: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Published by Vintage Classics

First published in 1953

337 Pages

First things first: I haven’t seen the Hollywood version and having read the book, have no desire to. Too many “classics” are getting the Beverley Hills treatment and absolutely do not want to see Leonardo Di Caprio massacre a brilliantly created character in Frank Wheeler. Equally, the thought of Keira Knightley’s wooden beak all over the movie adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, one of my favourite books, is enough to make me shudder. In fact, I struggle to think of a film adaptation that’s better than the original. I could say The Shawshank Redemption, of course, but I think the film’s almost unrecognisable from the novella by Stephen King, such is the artistic liberty they were permitted to take.

The first thing I noticed when I picked up Revolutionary Road was an endorsement in the inner sleeve from one of my favourite authors, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut calls it “the Great Gatsby of my generation”. Now, it’s been a while since I read Gatsby, but I think I see where he’s coming from. This is a commentary on status in Middle America; people aspiring to something greater; people trying to outdo their peers and neighbours; people thinking they deserve better, because they’re better than those around them. Less keeping up with the Jones’, this book is about shitting all over the Jones’ perfectly coiffed lawn. In that respect, I would also draw a comparison with Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller. Whilst there isn’t a character in this as tragic as Willy Loman, Revolutionary Road too exposes the flaws in the very concept of the American Dream.

It’s the story of a young, handsome couple, the Wheelers, and their efforts to escape the banality of plush New England suburbia. It’s about the dynamics of their own relationship and how their dissatisfaction with their own lives really stems from their displeasure with each other. Their relationship is a war of attrition. They fell for each other under a mask of his deceit, which he has kept up throughout their marriage. He is callous, manipulative and calculating. He always thinks one step ahead of his wife, colleagues, neighbours and employers.

As you read on, though, it becomes clear that he is of limited ability and far from the great man he believes himself to be. He has gotten as far as he has on a wing a prayer and a whole load of hot air. He is one of the best characters I have come across in a long time: both pitiable and despicable. Wrapped up in the smug, clean-shaven, suited and booted persona of Frank Wheeler, I see a lot of contemporary politicians. Richard Yates does brilliantly to capture a whole breed in one smarmy character.

But what really struck me about Revolutionary Road is just how much of it I see in my every day life. The Wheelers’ existence is built upon putting on a show, keeping up appearances, as is that of the rest of the characters. People hear what they want to hear. Few are prepared to upset the applecart. In fact, the only person who isn’t afraid to speak his mind is John Givings, a certified lunatic. As I move into my late twenties (eek) I see far too much of this. Teenage abandon is, well, abandoned. People are nice, as a rule. Yates captures the anxiety that comes with getting a little older and getting trapped in a life you don’t want brilliantly. People inhabit a world of trite courtesy and phoniness. It’s not how you are, but how you are perceived to be.

It’s a cliché to say “you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors”, but it rings particularly true here. As a society, we’re obsessed with fly on the wall documentaries and real-life dramas. But few are as effective a reminder as Revolutionary Road that adversity befalls everyone. Everybody has their problems. Appearances can be deceiving. Woven in amongst these observations is a great story: slow paced and methodical. This is a great book and it comes highly recommended.


Bayfy Al Fayed said...

Good review. I will give this book a go. I don't often deviate from factual books but this seems to reinforce the path I'm on at the moment (that being the fallacy of the American Dream).

I do have a gripe, however, so I must defend my Leo. I know you weren't hitting on Leo as an actor but more the screen adaptations of books. I'll have you know Leo is my favourite actor. Of the 'new school' he has grown and despite the early pretty boy image, which is easy to hate, that is fading and I see Jack Nicholson in his face. Not that he will be that great but give the boy a chance.

As far as films that were better than the book Trainspotting is the only one that spring to my mind. And anything by Steven King. The Running Man, The Shining, Stand By Me, Misery.

Anonymous said...


nan said...

I have to agree with Bayfy on this one - Leo is a brilliant actor and he plays Frank Wheeler to a T.

Although I cannot stand it when a film adaptation ruins a good book (especially if you've seen the film before reading the book so the images are with you the whole time), I am not against them as a rule. It is, after all, just another alternative portrayal of the words.

I thought Atonement was an excellent adaptation (even with Knightley poutin about). By no means better than the book but still.....
Other contenders for best adaptation: The Godfather, The English Patient, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Wilder and Depp versions), Schindler's List (Ark) and yeah, Shawshank.

Great review. Lookin forward to BBC 2!

Finbarr Bermingham said...

To clarify: I don't have an issue with Di Caprio, per say. I think he's a good actor and was excellent in The Departed, Catch Me If You Can, etc. And since I haven't seen the film, may be wrong, but when reading the book, I had my doubts about whether his boyish looks and manner would be strong enough for the portrayal of Wheeler. He probably is growing as an actor, but could he be as viscious and manipulative as the role required?

Nan, some good examples there, but wasn't a fan of Depp's Willy Wonka. I was also left pretty lukewarm by the film adaptation of Atonement and having heard you wax lyricing about the book, think it must be a disappointing remake!

I think Stephen King books do lend themselves well to films. Perhaps because he picks quite unique subject matter. Each of those films you mentioned are poles apart and not really like anything else on the shelf.

I think what annoys me is that nothing is sacred anymore. Anytime a good book is written, you just know it's a matter of months before a film is announced. Let the thing digest -- give it 50 years, then make the movie! I know that is what happened with Revolutionary Road, so I'm probably talking shite on that front. Just a bee in my bonnet.