Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
Greenwood Press, December 31, 1961
High anxiety gusts around the weeks leading up to Christmas like snow blowing past wintry blizzard drifts, although not as a condition of hectic holiday travel, split commitments between in-laws, or pressure to set a perfect gift under the tree. The season’s typical hustle and bustle pales by comparison to the enterprise ahead. On December 26th, in the wake of St. Nick’s reindeer and sleigh, Revolutionary Road rides across the United States in limited release as a “major motion picture” from DreamWorks and Paramount Vantage, a specialty division of the famed studio.
After decades of unsuccessful attempts to adapt the somber story, written by novelist Richard Yates, of a 1955 suburban Connecticut marriage in dissolution, the date strategically places the filmed version in prime position for showy 2008 Oscar consideration. Much ado has already been inked about the reunion of actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as leads for the first time since they played ill-fated lovers in 1997’s Titanic, the highest grossing movie in history and winner of a record-tying eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Bragging rights extend well beyond a brazen casting coup, though.
Sam Mendes, acclaimed director of Best Picture winner American Beauty and husband of Ms. Winslet, helms. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins and esteemed composer Thomas Newman also lend their talents to the sparkling package. Nearly every element of the project from head to toe soaks in prestige the way the mold for Hollywood’s iconic statue dips into gold-plating prior to the industry’s annual celebration of excellence. Windy acceptance speeches, weeks in advance of the first public showing, are almost detectable, and not even a single nomination has been announced.
And now tonight, with twenty-four hours to go, they had somehow managed to bring it off. Giddy in the unfamiliar feel of make-up and costumes on this first warm evening of the year, they had forgotten to be afraid: they had let the movement of the play come and carry them and break like a wave; and maybe it sounded corny (and what if it did?) but they had all put their hearts into their work. Could anyone ever ask for more than that?
An overemphasis on cinematic ornamentation, however, runs the risk of abandoning key thematic elements developed in the book, specifically the middling reality in which the characters reluctantly dwell, and provokes theorization that the film suffers from the same superiority complex overwhelming the story’s main characters, Frank and April Wheeler, who strive to prove themselves as remarkable figures in contrast to their contemporaries. The Wheelers grow destructively misguided by superficial posturing; thus, by comparison, the consequence of a film emulating a similar tactic is called into question. Honoring the fine balance of elegance and lack of pretense so treasured in the novel’s language may simply have been an insurmountable challenge for an industry known best for manufacturing glitz and glamour.
“Well,” he said instead. “I guess it wasn’t exactly a triumph or anything, was it?” And he stuck a cigarette jauntily in his lips and lit it with a flourish of his clicking Zippo.
Screen adaptations often arrive with a passionate amount of skepticism. Dedicated readers instinctively brace to respond with arguments about what was left out, who was miscast and the instances where scenes could have been more expertly portrayed. Sharp criticism is a natural reflex, wherever room for comparison permits. An added concern with Revolutionary Road is that the filmmakers have bloated expectations to a point where any chance for the type of unassuming discovery inherent to the book becomes all but diminished and, ironically, could very well abort its broader acceptance.
So far, the novel has displayed resiliency. A testament to the enduring strength of the rich source material rests in the fact it has evaded a tarnishing for over forty years, giving reason to believe the tale shall continue to shimmer for many more in both written and filmic form. Nevertheless, here the movie is, begging to be unwrapped and desperate not to feature anything close to mediocrity, when the bitter truth is that deep inside, the very essence of bourgeois fights at the core of the narrative. The apparent disconnect only exacerbates nervousness.
Since art aids in shaping society, as much as it is an image of culture, fretting over exactly how the package meets expectations has value. Social relevance, which is always worthy of discussion, is at play. While pre-analysis bears limitations and deeper discussion should be reserved for the moment hence the final credit roll, preliminary conversations are a large part of the journey and certainly weigh more heavily than worrying about receiving a set of mittens, the freshest eau de toilette from Armani or a gift certificate to Borders on December 25th. The stakes are higher should the picture disappoint: There are no refunds or exchanges, nor will forgiveness come easily, after an opportunity lost.
Our ability to measure and apportion time affords an almost endless source of comfort.
Speculation is therapeutic. Contemplating whether or not the stunning Ms. Winslet, in all her acting acumen and beauty, is the right choice to embody the physical characteristics of April Wheeler serves as a healthy means to engage and work through mounting trepidation.
She hated to wear shorts anyway because they called attention to how heavy and soft and vein-shot her thighs had grown in the past few years, though Frank had often told her not to be silly about it (“They’re lovely; I like them even better this way; they’re a woman’s legs now), and now she seemed almost to be parading them in a kind of spite.
Once the movie hype subsides, once the avalanche of exposure to Winslet’s perfectly airbrushed legs gracing the cover of glossy magazines like Vanity Fair is lost to memory, and maybe, just maybe, after any eventual Oscars wins, the focus shall return to the book, the genesis for all the fuss, whereupon a resurgence of appreciation for Yates shines as the true crowing achievement. Universal knowing and respect is the only aid in restoring calm. Until then, hours are spent staring at an impending date, questioning choices, hesitant about what lies in store.
It was the knowledge of the calendar that stopped his mouth. There were twelve days to go. He couldn’t afford to take any chances now, and so instead of shouting those things he held his jaws shut and stared at his glass, which he gripped until it nearly spilled with trembling.
Upcoming weeks are a test of patience. Visits to the bookshelf re-reading passages of the novel, unfortunately, fail to provide reassurance that the film can ever live up to its predecessor because, when stark prose captures the feeling consequent to exiting a second-rate production so expertly, the book emerges more than predictive.
Anxious, round-eyed, two by two, they looked and moved as if a calm and orderly escape from this place had become the one great necessity of their lives; as if, in fact, they wouldn’t be able to begin to live at all until they were out beyond the rumbling pink billows of exhaust and the crunching gravel of this parking lot, out where the black sky went up and up forever and there were hundreds of thousands of stars.
An uphill battle blasts at the fore, but Hollywood has manifested its share of surprises in the past. The town is also a sucker for happy endings. Yates, on the other hand, pens outside the land of make-believe and exposes with sharp authenticity how manufactured promise traps the presumptive. In this regard, should the film fall short at the Academy Awards, the effort is not without purpose. The underlying relevance of defeat shall only epitomize the words Yates wrote more truthfully than any actor, director or studio head ever deemed possible.