I have read a lot of great books, but there are only two that changed my life. The first was Red Planet, by Robert A. Heinlein. It is the reason I am a science fiction writer.
The other was Catch-22, and it is quite possible that this book is the reason I’m alive today, and not a name on The Wall in Washington, D.C. When I read the last sentence and closed the book for the first time (I’ve read it a dozen times by now) I swore to myself that I would never be in the military. I would go to prison if I had to, but I would never put on a uniform. And I didn’t, and although I was prime 1-A meat for Lyndon Johnson’s sausage grinder for six years, I did it without ever breaking a law … and that’s another story.
If inducted, would I have served in Vietnam? Who knows? Not all soldiers did, even at the height of the war. But I was motivated by more than just a determination never to go where little brown men I didn’t know were trying to kill me. I swore I would never be subject to the whims of those above me in the chain of command. (Which would have been everybody. PFC was most likely way beyond my abilities. ) The insanity of Catch-22 put me right off the whole idea of military life. I refused to take orders from anybody, ever. And I haven’t.
(I later heard Joseph Heller say that he never had a bad officer. I’m glad. I’m happy that Colonel Cathcart, General Scheisskopf, Major Major Major Major, and all the rest were just figments of his satirical imagination, and I understand now better than I did then that the book is about far more than just the military, it is about all varieties of madness in this mad, mad, mad, mad world. Doesn’t matter. For me, it will always be mainly about horrible men sending other men to die.)
So I was hyped when this came out, and was written by Buck Henry and directed by Mike Nichols. I sat down in the theater to let them take me to the little island of Pianosa … and got up two hours later knowing they had missed it. There are marvelous things here, from the photography showing the huge fleet of real B-25 Mitchell bombers lumbering into the sky and then floating like dandelions, and the acting by just about all involved, to the horrific scene of Snowden in the back of the plane, freezing to death. They tackled really tough scenes, like Yossarian pretending to be the dying Man Who Saw Everything Twice in front of his grieving parents. It worked, though you clearly weren’t expected to believe it. The scenes of Milo Minderbinder bombing his own squadron were spectacular.
But they missed it. I concluded at the time that it was impossible to capture even the complex, non-linear story in two hours, not to mention the wild, crazy, ironic, satiric, contradictory language, the absurdity, and the wild explosions of language Heller used to transport me to a literary place I had never been before. It was a noble effort, but a miss.
Then, almost 50 years later, I saw that George Clooney was making a 6-hour version for Hulu. I should have known better, but I still got my hopes up. I even signed up for Hulu’s 30-day free trial just because I wanted to see it. (And in a bit of serendipity, we discovered and binged on the Veronica Mars TV series.) And the verdict is …