Hulu’s ‘Catch-22’ tackles complexities of beloved novel

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At first, George Clooney didn’t want any part of his latest project. But fortunately, he and his partner, Grant Heslov, changed their minds. Clooney not only costars but co-produces Hulu’s new version of Joseph Heller’s famous novel, “Catch-22.”

“ … They said, ‘Do you want to do “Catch-22?' And we said, ‘No, I don’t want to do “Catch-22.” It seems ridiculous. It’s a beloved novel. I don’t want to get into the middle of all that,’” says Clooney.

“And we read these first three scripts, and I said, ‘Well, if the next three are anything like that.’ And we read the next three, and then we called up everybody at Paramount and just said, ‘Where do we sign up?’”

The script was written by Luke Davies and David Michod, a gutsy move as Mike Nichols and Buck Henry had already turned the dark comedy into a star-studded film in the 1970s. And while the movie wasn’t a bazooka hit, it became a beloved cult classic.

“I think David and Luke did an amazing job with sort of unspooling these characters because, when you do a movie, you don’t have enough time to really get to know the characters,” says Clooney.

“And that’s why you do this as a television show, is you get to spend time with the characters like the book does. And they just figured out a way to interpret it in a way that we didn’t think was really possible. So I think that’s why we got onboard, for the most part.”

Clooney had read the book in high school. “This is considered one of the great American novels of all time. So it was required reading when I was in high school,” he says.

“And I loved the style of writing, which was different than the kind of writing we had read. But I was pretty young, and so I just liked the characters, and I thought it was fun. I reread it when we were sent the scripts to do, and I hadn’t read it in — you know, high school was 15 years ago,” he laughs.

“And I hadn’t read it in a long time. So it was really fun and exciting to go back and read and understand why this book lasted and stands the test of time.”

The novel survived the test of time because it’s about rules, red tape and regulations that make absolutely no sense. Davies says he was interested in dissecting the complex novel, which takes place during World War II, and relating it to modern times.

“I think we all wake up every morning these days in this kind of shared global anxiety condition,” he says.

“And this novel is a beautiful distillation of a prophetic distillation of that anxiety condition. This is like the origin story of that anxiety condition. And I loved it ever since I was 16, and suddenly there was this thought: What if I found a way of cracking the code of that novel, and unraveling it, finding out what the chronology is, and seeing what its shape would be in television?

“I love the film, don’t get me wrong,” he continues, “but the film just re-creates the chaotic kaleidoscopic madness of the novel, which is held tightly in a very literary sense by Joseph Heller. What we basically did was unfold the chronology so that all our characters could have actual emotional journeys from beginning to end.”

The major character is Yossarian, an antic and unpredictable young bombardier played by Christopher Abbott. “It was interesting to research what a bombardier did in World War II, what it felt like to be in that nose cone, which is kind of a universe in itself,” says Abbott, 33.

“It’s encased in glass, and you feel it’s a very vulnerable place to be in on a plane, and one of the more interesting things that I thought or terrifying things about it is that if something happened, or if something went down, or if the plane was going down, the only way in and out of this place, in this nose cone, was through a very, very narrow tunnel,” says Abbott.

“So not only do you have the danger of possibly being shot down, then you had to fend for your own life by crawling through a very claustrophobic space to then, hopefully, be at a place where you can live. So it was kind of eye-opening to feel how dangerous it was and how vulnerable it was to be up there, and I understood the fear, the pure fear that Yossarian had in the story.”

The series, which begins streaming on Friday, deftly mixes mordant satire with uncomfortable reality. “As the episodes go on,” says Heslov, “the sort of difference between horror and hilarity becomes even more pronounced. The horror becomes even bigger and, hopefully, we think it gets funnier as well.”

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