Novel by Richard Yates.(Vintage,2009[1961])

Film directed by Sam Mendes (Dreamworks, 2009)


I bought the ‘Now A Major Movie’ paperback edition of Richard Yates’ novel, along with the dvd of the film, intending to write a piece about them if I found anything interesting in the comparison. That was back in 2009. I read the book first, but the film had to wait for a couple of years. It was simply that I found the book so evocative of the pain of a disintegrating relationship that I didn’t want to have to watch it all over again (evoked memory is always more powerful, I suspect, than evoked imagination).

            When I came back to the film, I looked at the book again, and found that the adaptation, though faithful, still threw up some interesting comparisons, most obvious of which was that the endings were exactly similar.

            The film’s last shot is of Mr Givings turning down his hearing aid, as Mrs Givings drones on about the new couple on Revolutionary Road. The last paragraph of the book is: ‘But from there on Howard Givings heard only a welcome, thunderous sea of silence. He had turned off his hearing aid.’

            This rather picks out Revolutionary Road from other adaptations I have looked at, for it is the endings of films and novels that often seem to diverge, as if the changes made to earlier parts have driven the two progressively further apart. Chocolat, First Blood, The Shooting Party, The Man Who Could Work Miracles, The Cider House Rules, and Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day, all either changed, or framed differently, their endings. As a student of the short story form, with which I think the movie has key elements in common (and that means its endings are disproportionately important), this seems to be significant. Changing the ending of a story changes its message. Sometimes this change is cosmetic, a change of emphasis or focus, as in The Man Who Could Work Miracles, but often it is fundamental, as in First Blood. In Revolutionary Road we have an ending that is exactly similar, which implies that book and film are united in their closing message.

            In fact, as I watched the film for the first time, two years after reading the book, I was struck by the way the scenes recalled to me scenes from the book. It was quite late in the film before I reached a scene that did not. This effect alone strikes me as worthy of comment, for the book was written nearly fifty years before the film was made, and a common feature of many adaptations I have considered was that changes seemed to be, to some extent, with the benefit of hindsight. Stories had to be changed to make them comprehensible to their later audiences. Context was the engine for change, yet here was a story, set in the fifties, published in the sixties, and filmed in the noughties of the next century, that on the face of it seems unchanged. Does that tell us something about the enduring rigidity of our view of that time?

            Of course, I am reading, and watching from a culturally different perspective. I am not an American. The America of the fifties that I ‘know’ is a creation of TV, Comic-book, and Movie. I am not comparing art with reality, but holding my looking glass up to earlier versions of the same icons.

            Having watched the movie, I turned back to the book, and the scenes that the movie had not recalled to me made themselves known. At 114 minutes Revolutionary Road is not a long movie. At 463 pages it is not a short novel. Changes have been made, and as is often the case they have been in the nature of deletions. Revolutionary Road is one of those stories that has been stripped down to its essentials in the adaptation: a story made more like a short story than like a novel? Yet the changes made, perhaps because they are deletions rather than distortions, have not led to that progressive widening of a gap between film and the novel.

            The changes begin at the beginning, and what is left in the film of the first chapter is the shot of the curtain falling at the end of the disastrous amateur production that April Wheeler has starred in. There are pages of text about this play in the book; about the theatre group and its members; about the context in which it was established, and the back story of April herself. The film dispenses with all this, opting instead to keep the corrosive scenes from chapter two in which Frank and April argue, in the dressing room after the show, and on the dark journey home along the eponymous road. This reminds me that, contrary to the old saw that CW teachers hammer out repeatedly, stories have to be told, whereas films are shown. We do not need to be given all the detail of the novel in the film, because the film shows us the two characters in action. We can only imagine the characters from their presentation in words, and so must have also the words that give us a context in which to imagine. What Richard Yates tells us, about the background to his characters and their situation does not need to be added. What is shown of the characters as they actually are, at the moment of our watching makes much of what Yates need to tell superfluous.

            Perhaps this is why the film begins the story with Frank and April meeting, opening on a sequence of city views that turn into the party at which they talk, and dance. It is from this that we cut to Frank watching the curtain come down on the play. In the book their meeting is dealt with in flashback, and fills out what we already know. In the film their conversation prepares us for what we will see next: Frank watching his wife on stage.

            The film does not dispense with flashback. We flash back, as in the novel, to them buying the house on Revolutionary Road , which is when we meet Mrs Givings, the real estate agent whose son, John, applies a madman’s nose for the truth to the Wheeler’s façade of married life in both versions. Scenes though are re-arranged, some being brought forward, others put back. The argument over abortion, and April’s sleeping alone comes earlier in the book, being part of their backstory, but is allowed to develop out of the present events of the film. Whole chunks are excised. Shep Campbell still gets to make love to April, but our knowledge that he wants to is based on a few simmering looks, rather than on the pages of exposition it receives in the book. The story of Frank’s father is removed, but a ghostly presence of it lingers in Frank’s conversation with Pollock at the restaurant.

            Simplification, streamlining I have heard it called elsewhere, and re-ordering of events keep the film’s story moving forward, so that it is more like an open sentence than a closed one. We build on what we know, understanding what follows because of what has gone before, rather than, as in more thriller based stories, adding to what we don’t know until we reach an all encompassing revelation.

            Some of the exchanges remain word for word, action for action, and this is a story where the interior lives of the characters, their emotional responses to each other, have to be portrayed non-verbally. Talking about the adaptation, Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, on the dvd ‘specials’, points out that you can’t replicate, on film, the thoughts of a man as he acts, or reacts, whereas the novelist can give you paragraphs of interior life if he wishes. In Revolutionary Road two fine actors do give us those interior lives, but we have to find our own words for what they appear to be going through.

            A specific thread from the film, that of Frank’s encounter with Maureen, gives us a good example of how the adaptation works. Keeping his wonderful parting words, the veritable ‘thank you ma’am’ of ‘Listen: you were swell. Take care now’ the film cuts out a lot of detail from the book. It misses the point that, in the book, Yates tells us that ‘he knew he had never been more grateful to anyone in his life’. We  may take this at face value, or as being ironic, but the film cannot overtly offer us that choice. The way we have taken it must influence the way we see his parting statement, as being perhaps naive, or cynical. We don’t get to know that Maureen is worrying about whether or not ‘to run over and grab it and stuff it behind the cushions’, it being her underwear, nor do we find out anything about her flat, her flatmate, her previous relationships and so on. Yates spends quite some time telling us what Maureen looks like, and even why, but Mendes merely shows her to us.

            The basic story remains the same in both: a young couple, who are viewed by their neighbours and friends as being special, struggle with the growing knowledge that they are not. The differences in their attitudes to this developing awareness strains their relationship to breaking point. In the novel the back-story to this process is examined more fully, whereas in the film it is largely compressed into the events of present time. The outcome is the same, which is perhaps why the ending is the same. 

            At however many tens of thousands of dollars a minute it costs to make a movie, time is not being wasted on telling us anything we do not need to know, or have already found out, guessed, or been told elsewhere. Words, by contrast, may appear cheap, to be thrown in enormous quantities at our stories. A question raised here, is could the writer have dispensed with all the information that the film appears to have successfully excised?

            The answer is, perhaps, that he could not. The information missing in the film, is what, in the book, gives context to key elements of the story. In the film that context is given by the non-verbal soundtrack, and by the visuals. Language demands interpretation; film observation. If stories in language work by setting up key lines to be interpreted in a specific way, as a consequence of what has gone before, then stories in film set us up to do the same as a result of what we have observed (perhaps unconsciously), in the background detail to what is being fore-grounded.

            An alternative explanation for why film and book adhere so closely here might be thought to be that they deal with human relationships and the emotions they generate, which have not changed, we like to think, since time immemorial. That half century gap though, between the writing and the filming is long enough to make the expression of those emotions in those different times sufficiently different to need the sort of explanation through change that we have seen in other adaptations. Perhaps the time gap between the setting and the writing here trumps the longer gap until the adaptation, and the perspective of writer and filmmaker, on the iconic world being portrayed, is closer than we might expect. Perhaps iconic places and periods are less susceptible to changed perceptions than purely historical ones.