BURN HOLLYWOOD BURN: REVOLUTIONARY ROAD
A Post-Viewing Open Letter to Sam Mendes
(NOTE: Revolutionary Road is Michael Tully’s Favorite Book Ever. The opinions expressed herein are fiercely personal and do not reflect the attitudes of Hammer to Nail at large—though they should.)
Dear Mr. Mendes,
Where, oh where, should I begin? How about here:
You castrated Revolutionary Road. You did exactly what I said you were going to do.
To the angry people who commented on the aforementioned post, I understood your concern with my extreme demeanor, and respectfully acknowledged your comments that until I had actually seen the film, nothing I said mattered. But now that I have seen it, I only have one thing to say to all of you: SUCK IT, folks.
Moving forward, I will try to express myself as calmly as possible. That first letter was not how I ordinarily like to live my life—snippy, bitter, loud—but I’d also rather not waste however many more hours writing this post to explain why my initial hunch was correct. But to pay respect to Mr. Yates, and to defend myself, it must be done. Because I was right.
Let us start with a paragraph from that afore-linked-to letter:
Mr. Mendes, I am not clairvoyant, but I mean it when I say that I have already seen your movie, and while it is ‘impeccably executed’ on a superficial level, it is missing the one thing that matters: the book’s nearly unbearable HEART and SOUL. You hired the best costume designer, the best production designer, the best cinematographer, the best composer, the best everything. You recreated post-war 1950s Connecticut (and Manhattan) as well as it could be recreated. You’ve chosen the right scenes to include, and your film will have the air of nobility and Academy-worthy professionalism. But you will not have come close to capturing the novel’s breathtaking, tragic impact. As an intelligent human being, you must realize that it is impossible to translate that impact to the big screen. It is IMPOSSIBLE. So why are you doing it, then?
Now that I have seen this sterile, wholly incorrect adaptation with my own disappointed eyes, I admit that I made some mistakes. The truth is that I think a translation is, in fact, possible. It’s just a very, very difficult thing to achieve. As for the others, I was pretty much on the mark, with one major exception. You did not, in fact, include all the right scenes. For the record, here are the ways in which you went wrong:
—You never show Frank Wheeler’s internal doubt.
I sensed immediate trouble when you abandoned the sucking and biting of Frank’s knuckles as he watched his wife act in the local play at the beginning of the film. Granted, that’s a potentially over-the-top character trait, but if the only flashback you’re going to show is the sultry, romantic first meeting between these two characters, you aren’t establishing Frank’s rampant insecurity. Walking through the crowd to the back to reunite with his shaken wife, Mr. DiCaprio’s Frank Wheeler didn’t seem like a painfully self-aware scarecrow of a man. He seemed rather cocky. Whether this is Mr. DiCaprio’s fault or the fault of your direction, the fact remains that to carry off this part, an actor needed to exude an innate blend of outward confidence and internal timidity. I’m not saying this is an easy thing to convey. I’m just saying that it needed to be done.
This is followed up with the unquestionably horrific omission of Frank’s waking up hungover the next morning as his wife mows the lawn, at which point he answers the door to be met with the concerned glare of their nosy realtor Mrs. Givings. This is as cinematic and visual as it gets, yet where was it??? At this point in the film, the audience hasn’t been shown any evidence that contradicts Frank’s outwardly confident appearance; you’re simply establishing a superficial situation of “love gone bad.” Mr. Mendes, this defeats the entire purpose of the book.
Later, when April convinces Frank to move to Paris, instead of showing his internal concern and worry—I realize that you tried to use Shep as Frank’s voice of reason when he’s talking to Milly, but that doesn’t imply that Frank himself is having these doubts—you insert a Catch Me If You Can-esque shot of Frank sipping coffee in Grand Central Station and smirking at the businessmen scurrying past as if to say, “So long, suckers!” Once again, here is where the line becomes blurry and my close connection to the source material gets in the way. Trying to remove that baggage from the equation, this appears to me to create a totally different type of presence for Frank Wheeler, one that is more assured and carefree than Yates would ever allow any of his characters to be. Why did you do this?
I realize that flashbacks or dream sequences might not have been the best way to go—I would have been leery of that approach myself—but this book is built on those fantasies, daydreams, and visions, and to simply abandon them and not find another way to show how different reality is from the way these characters wish they were perceived is to ignore one of the traits that separates Revolutionary Road from other “white-suburban-couples-whining” fiction.
Similarly, this ties into Frank’s affair with his secretary. Without providing any context, this seems like just another run-of-the-mill conquest for the dapper Frank Wheeler. In actuality, it was a pathetically exaggerated victory on his part, in which he used his power over this young, impressionable girl to fill him with a false sense of confidence. As it is executed in the film, this either seems like something everyone did in the ‘50s and, therefore, who cares, or it makes him stupid in an obvious, uninteresting way. What makes his behavior in the book so fascinating is how he uses it to feed his ego. Without that, who cares?
I could keep going on this point, but I’ll move on.
—You abandoned the book’s sense of humor.
Everyone agrees that Revolutionary Road is one of the bleaker books ever written. Yet it is also very, very funny. When I criticized you in saying that you were making the film to win an Oscar, I feel like this was one of those Academy-sensitive decisions you made to further derail the situation. Either that, or you and your screenwriter didn’t grasp Yates’ gift for stinging humor.
An example of this is when Shep is daydreaming about having danced with April, leading into the following dialogue: “Carrying his empty beer can, he went downstairs to see what Milly was doing, and he was halfway across the living room before he realized that he had four sons. He almost tripped over them.” You appear to have no use for the novel’s machete-sharp comedy, yet that is what keeps it afloat. Without it… well, without it, you have your movie.
As expected, Michael Shannon is the only actor who seems to have grasped the true essence of Yates (that’s not entirely true; David Harbour gives it his all as Shep, and Zoe Kazan is also as fully realized as she can be in such a clipped role). As soon as Shannon appeared on screen as John Givings, the film came to life in a way that it hadn’t previously been. Some may say that he turned up the quirk in his performance, but this was vital. His character is the only one who speaks the truth in the film, and for the supposed nut job to play it completely straight would have been too jarring. He had to be unhinged. Most importantly, Michael Shannon understood the inherent humor in Yates’ writing and he brought that to his performance. He wasn’t playing it 100% romantic and depressing. A lesser reader would grasp onto these misleading attributes of Yates’ novel, as you appear to have done, Mr. Mendes. Revolutionary Road is even more devastating because it is excruciatingly funny. This is one of your more unforgivable omissions.
—What was with that score?
Thomas Newman’s score is one of the more amorphous creations I have ever encountered. I am a fan of repetition, but this was a drifting sort of repetition that left things too open-ended. It was like the film became an extended trailer instead of packing an emotional punch. If you’re going to use a score so consistently, it should serve some sort of purpose. In an objective movie-viewer sense, this confused me to distraction. It was there like a hammer, but not an emphatic hammer. More like the droning of a neighbor’s stereo through an open window. Too clear to block out, but too vague to resonate. I ask you this sincerely: what feeling were you gentlemen trying to conjure with the main theme? I have absolutely no clue. This left me feeling a further sense of detachment. It was bad enough that the story didn’t seem to add up, but coupled with a score that sort of sat there lazily churning its wheels, it further emphasized this meandering detachment.
—You made a spruced up movie-of-the-week, not an actual film.
When I said in the first letter that the film would be impeccably executed, I meant it. But I was quite shocked by the visual pattern you adopted. It made me feel like I was watching a TV-movie-of-the-week, not a major motion picture. Or, more bluntly, it felt like a film school parody of a Sam Mendes movie. In theory, I also prefer a master shot to lots of cutting, which allows the action to unfold in an unbroken, wider space, but you establish a routine that is simply far too removed to create any genuine emotional tension. I realize that you are immersed in the theater and this is a technique influenced by that, but you have to mix things up a little. While I know there are many different set-ups used, it also started to feel like every other shot was executed in the following manner: start wide, then when things begin heating up, slowwwly push in. By the third time, I was exhausted. By the tenth or eleventh, I couldn’t believe what I was watching.
Again, it’s hard to say for sure, but I have spoken to people who have seen the film and who have both read, and haven’t read, the book. Everyone I’ve spoken to seems to agree that there is no emotional trajectory to the narrative. I’m not just saying this as a purist who needed everything to be exactly like it was in the book, but as executed the film remains a surface experience. I acknowledge the difficulty in this adaptation, for the book is all about interior thoughts and hidden, horrifically shameful self-motives, but if you aren’t going to attempt to transfer that magic to the big screen, why not simply pick another novel to adapt? Why pick this book and leave behind that which makes it so distinguished and excellent?
—***These characters never really loved each other.***
In their own weak, distorted minds, they thought they were in love, but they weren’t. The only time the film appears to be tapping into this is in fleeting moments—when April convinces Frank to take the plunge and move to France or when they argue about their already born children—these contradictory moments of sincerity and hatefulness address this delusion, yet without exploring their inner lives it doesn’t have the impact that it should. All of your flashbacks appear to be of “happier times,” of “better days,” and while their current messy state implies things turning bad, it implies it in a more romantic, Hollywood way. You needed to firmly establish that they were doomed from the start, not that things “went bad.” This is an egregious mistake.
I understand why you turned this into a story of a young woman being trapped in a marriage and society that wouldn’t let her be free. You love your wife and wanted to create a more heroic role for her, maybe even get her that trophy for your hearth (as expected, Ms. Winslet gives it her all and proves that she is one of her generation’s finest actresses). My advice: leave these gestures of kindness off camera. In doing this, you have created more of a two-dimensional experience, something that audiences have already seen countless times before. In my first letter to you I said that if you did it right no one would want to suffer through the film, and if you did it wrong they would wonder why it was even made. To my eyes, the latter has occurred. My finger is as far from the pulse of America is as humanly possible, but I will be shocked if this thing becomes an even minor sensation.
As for the changing of her character, I also understand that one of the book’s biggest criticisms is the thinness of April’s character. But I think there was a way to transfer this to the screen and deliver a living, breathing human being, albeit a more emotionally schizophrenic one. April didn’t know who she was, and she played along in situations, only to see through the facade at the end, forcing her to take action. Yes, she was trapped, but she had also played the game poorly her entire life. I feel strongly that had you, your screenwriter, and Ms. Winslet taken this approach to the character, she would have been even more recognized come awards season.
But back to the question of love. To show Frank on a bench at the end of the film, expressing a flicker of sadness and remorse for what happened is nothing short of a sin. Like Yates did, you needed to show that he has moved on and that he is living his life as if that whole troubling experience was on par with a bad adolescent summer fling. This is the entire point of the book. Not that “something terrible happened” and that “life is cruel and depressing.” For as hopelessly bleak as Yates’ vision is, there is something that elevates it beyond these simplistic notions.
Contrary to how you appear to have perceived it, Revolutionary Road isn’t a generic one-trick pony. It’s a masterful expression of a writer who is working on a higher plane than most artists could ever dream of working. Richard Yates uses honesty, irony, humor, clarity, and pain, in order to expose us at our very, very worst. But with this adaptation, Mr. Mendes, you have shown that you are not Richard Yates. I knew you wouldn’t succeed, I just didn’t expect you to do it in such a disappointing, bland manner.
(P.S. A Bold Proposition — Usually when people are driven to comment on posts such as these, they end with a zinger along the lines of “As if you could do it any better!” or “I’d like to see you try!” or “Those who can’t do complain!” Well, I’m here to offer my services by accepting that challenge. Not that anyone wants to play this game, but let’s get hypothetical. Having seen how it was done wrong, I am prepared to do it right. I will even acknowledge the need for recognizable stars to appear in the film. I will only be responsible for writing the adaptation and co-producing. I will not direct. Claire Denis will. Agnes Godard will shoot it. Max Richter will compose the score. Michael Shannon will play John Givings again. I don’t know who it is I’m challenging exactly here—Mr. Mendes? a brave Hollywood studio? some incredibly rich angry commenter?—but if anyone wants to participate in a fascinating experiment the likes of which has never been attempted, I am prepared to put my actions where my words are. Truth be told, when it comes to Revolutionary Road, I believe with every ounce of my being that Mr. Yates’ words should remain on the page, where they belong, but since the floodgates have been so tragically opened, drastic measures must be taken.)
(Revolutionary Road is being released by Paramount Vantage. Visit the film’s official website for God knows what reason. Better yet, read this thorough piece by Stewart O’Nan on Yates in the Boston Review, or betterer yet, read the book instead.)