In 1960, Richard Yates, thirty-four, slurred out a proposal to a twenty-year-old student he’d met at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, in Vermont. He was on the brink of a divorce from his first wife, and on the verge of publishing his first book, Revolutionary Road. When the student, Barbara Singleton Beury, first came to New York to visit Yates in his roach-ridden basement, he was scraping to afford groceries (coffee, bourbon, and beer). Mid-visit, he had a nervous breakdown, and was carried off to Bellevue. But things began to look up after his release. “My agent,” he wrote Barbara, “is coming on like Gangbusters with talk of a quick and colossal sale to the movies.” Talk of movies would mean money for more than just groceries. He wrote Barbara again shortly after,
Sam Goldwyn Junior’s shrill announcement that he’d Never Read a More Brilliant First Novel (which I heard about the day you and I were swilling it up at the Leroy, you’ll remember) has come drearily to naught, because cooler heads in his organization decided that the moviegoing public “is not ready for a story of such unrelieved tragedy, for so relentless a probing of the sources of pain.”
Now, almost fifty years later–sixteen years since Yates’s death–what was once too “relentless a probing of the sources of pain” is now a film as ready-made for the moviegoing public as a Betty Crocker cake. Revolutionary Road isn’t some small indie, either, but a Dreamworks/Paramount Vantage production. Staring Titanic icons Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio, it’s the kind of miscast, over-aestheticized Cineplex smash, that, were Yates alive, would drive him thrashing back to Bellevue.
Kate Winslet apparently urged her husband, American Beauty director Sam Mendes, to make the film. He read the novel and loved it. This was a project pushed by people who cared. So what the hell happened?
Yates’s debut is often misclassified as a novel of suburban ennui, one of the first. But really, it maps an inevitable course of marital missteps. The environment isn’t so much the problem as the fact that the couple feel dishonest within it–initially because they believe themselves superior to the conformity of the place, and later because they realize that, despite their pretenses, they are not. The suburbs become a foil for the incongruous, often ugly emotions residing within them. The suburban promise of “invincible happiness,” as Yates described it, highlights the characters’ increasing suspicions about the indecency of their dissatisfaction–their longing, their sometimes supercilious, abstract ambition. Yates catalogues his couple’s flimsy confidences, and all the unintended and regretted cruelties committed during their dependence on one another. This is a book about existentially lost people, not an existentially lost place.
Yet in the movie, Frank, Yates’s charismatic talker, is a sniveling little snot (Di Caprio himself described the character as initially insufferable) and April, Yates’s hardened noblesse, is a soporific sociopath (who, in the book, by the way, resents Frank’s suggestion that she seek therapy, rather than responds as Winslet does, like an alien eagerly accepting an invitation to prom). With their backstories all but forgotten and their intentions never indicated, April and Frank’s attraction is incomprehensible, making their fights largely unaffecting. Emotional buzzwords like “father” are punched with a heavy hand, meant to press buttons whose functions are never defined. Instead of adapting the novel, scriptwriter Justin Haythe seems to have read only the book’s dialogue–to have typed up all the quotations, then deleted the document down to two hours.
Remaining faithful to a text doesn’t mean lifting as many lines as possible. This is especially true with Yates, whose characters, if you were to only listen to what they say, vacillate almost exclusively between pathetic and cruel. The heart of his stories, the stuff that lobs a lump in your throat, comes from what the characters think, and then say in spite of it. Take, for instance, the book’s perfectly constructed opening scene, the staging of a community play.
“The helplessly blinking cast,” Yates writes, “had been afraid that they would end by making fools of themselves, and they had compounded that fear by being afraid to admit it.” Gnawing on his knuckles in the front row, Frank watches his wife, initially a vision of the poised actress he fell for, devolve into the stiff, suffering creature who often sleeps on his sofa. After final curtain, he plans to tell April she was wonderful, but then watching her through a mirror as she wipes her makeup off with cold cream, he suddenly thinks twice: “‘You were wonderful’ might be exactly the wrong thing to say–condescending, or at the very least naïve and sentimental, and much too serious.” “‘Well,’ he said instead, ‘I guess it wasn’t exactly a triumph or anything, was it?'”
The miscalculation is cringe-inducing, but crushing. Take away the underlying good intention, though, and what you get is an utter ass. That’s Leo. That’s Mendes’s movie–a pat little packet of pink pop rocks, predictable little explosions, simply set off. What, in the best light, first strikes as titillating, soon becomes cloying, and then downright annoying.
In one of his first letters to Barbara, Yates casually captures the essence of his life and his novel (the two of which were nearly indistinguishable). “The worst possible way for a young lady to be introduced to her suitor is for him to have a nervous breakdown in her lap, and nobody is more painfully aware of that fact than me. But I also know–and it didn’t take Bellevue to teach me this one, buddy–I also know that there are certain happenings which nobody on earth can help. (This is the secret of tragedy in writing, by the way, and it’s also the secret of comedy.)” There are certain happenings which nobody on earth can help. Certain inescapable inevitabilities. This misconception of a movie wasn’t one of them.–Francesca Mari