Richard Yates’ debut novel Revolutionary Road is a suitably bleak vision of fifties suburbia and Madison Avenue soullessness, but it’s much more than that; as Yates remorselessly tightens the screws around Frank and April Wheeler, his trapped central couple, the book pile-drives you into imagining how their helpless self-deception and character flaws, all laid out in punishing, inescapably believable detail for the reader, lead them inexorably to a conclusion so immaculate and terrible that it has the ordained feel of a Greek tragedy. Yates’ technique as a writer is brutally commanding throughout. There’s a late scene in Revolutionary Road where the madman son of Mrs. Givings, the Wheelers’ intrusive realtor, laces into the couple with such viciously pinpoint accuracy that I had to keep putting the book down to recover after every one of his verbal grenades.
In truth, when I finished the book, I wanted to find any pretext possible to shake off and deny its pessimistic vision of life. Yates lacks humor and compassion, and there’s a questionable scene or two involving Frank’s office co-worker Maureen Grube, who briefly becomes his mistress, but in the end, I had to accept the fact that Revolutionary Road was going to haunt me. There was no chink in its armor that would let me duck its level, pitiless gaze; there is no point where this book does not see you and tell you the despairing (boozy?) truth about yourself and the people in your life. I kept thinking about April Wheeler as if I had known her and had somehow let her down. Even writing her name hurts me. She’s “only” on the page, but she still lives there, alive and fighting. She says “fuck you” to it all and goes down with the ship of her ideals.
Yates let’s us see that April Wheeler (the name he chose for her spells out all her aimless potential) has an adolescent kind of triumph over her husband, all the while making us feel that she is cornered like an animal and cannot possibly make any other choice. He insists that we cannot change our nature and that life’s winners are generally the people who can lie to themselves at all times. These are both fairly standard verities; where Yates is truly depressing, however, is in his insight into how life’s losers need to tell themselves smaller, more degrading versions of the winner’s lies in order to simply survive; in the world of this book, the losers on display don’t even get to have any compensating pride, as they do, for instance, in the essential novels of Dawn Powell.
If Sam Mendes’ film version of Revolutionary Road reminds me of anything it is William Wyler’s films of Henry James and Theodore Dreiser, The Heiress (1949) and Carrie (1952). Wyler has no strong point of view as a film director; like Mendes, he’s basically there to serve the material and the actors, but when the material provided is as strong as James and Dreiser and Yates, and the actors are well-matched with their roles (who can forget the gasp-worthy intensity of Laurence Olivier’s George Hurstwood in Carrie, or Ralph Richardson’s Dr. Sloper in The Heiress?) it’s fine to simply get out of the way. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are perfectly cast as the Wheelers, and even their shortcomings as actors (they’re both weak vocally at times) do not stop them from totally immersing themselves in the world of the book.
The screenplay by Justin Haythe is a model of literary adaptation, and it even improves on the book sometimes. Yates’ handling of the flashbacks to the Wheelers’ youth can be slightly clunky, and Haythe gives you the information you need about them in a much smoother fashion; he also wisely eliminates Frank’s uncomfortably nasty last scene with Maureen Grube. Haythe does not even falter with the tricky first scene of the book, where Yates describes a catastrophic amateur production of Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest and plots the steady deterioration of April’s performance on stage in the lead with an overwhelming kind of “and it kept getting even worse” fascination. It’s a superbly written opening gambit but probably impossible to stage, not to mention perilously difficult for Winslet, who would have to show some kind of theatrical promise at first and then gradually lose confidence until she was acting very badly. It’s too tall an order, really, so Haythe just gives you a brief, stabbing glimpse of her failure at the curtain call and Frank’s reaction, as well as the reaction of the audience, and this economy works well.
The Petrified Forest fiasco isn’t the film’s first scene; we initially see a potent glimpse of Frank and April’s first youthful meeting, and DiCaprio and Winslet unleash all the chemistry they had in Titanic (1997) for a few indelibly charged seconds. They look like movie stars, and surely that’s the way the Wheelers see themselves at this moment, so that the iconography of the actors is being used in the smartest possible way. The casting is ideal all down the line: how can I begin to describe the pleasure I took in Kathy Bates’ performance as Mrs. Givings? Some of the best sections of Yates’ book concern Mrs. Givings’ sadly paltry inner life, and there’s no way for the film to give you that sense of her, not even in dialogue, yet all of it is there in Kathy Bates’ eyes, all of this woman’s confusion and hurt feelings and fear, which she tries to conceal with a steady stream of cheerful, slightly pretentious small talk.
DiCaprio and Winslet are uncomfortable with some of their heightened dialogue in their early scenes, but both of them start to catch fire midway through. Frank Wheeler is basically a complete jerk who has a mean knack for always saying the wrong thing to his wife, and DiCaprio nails his sense of entitlement and his empty salesman soul, while Winslet carries the best scene in the film, April’s soul-baring confession to Shep (David Harbour), a married friend who is intensely in love with her. When she comes on to Shep and sleeps with him in the backseat of his car, it’s clear that this is a dream come true for him and an act of annihilating desperation for her, and this comes very close indeed to the astringent, clear-eyed pain of Yates’ book. I miss the extremely telling back story about April’s neglected childhood with her mainly absent playboy/flapper parents, and especially the last remembered scene with her father which turns the book’s final screw of hopelessness right into April Wheeler’s heart, and ours. Still, this is the best film version of this major book that I can imagine.
Revolutionary Road is not a great film, per se; a great film needs the stamp of a great director. But it is a great film of this great book, just as The Heiress and Carrie are strictly great films of their great sources. This is such a rare thing that we can surely loosen our aesthetic criteria to accommodate it, just as we can love the film version of a play like Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding (1952) because it preserves a great theater piece without going into the neutral directorial style of the movie’s director, Fred Zinnemann. Haythe and Mendes step out of Richard Yates’ way, just as Zinnemann ceded the screen to McCullers and Julie Harris. I don’t want to see David Lynch’s Revolutionary Road, or Jean-Luc Godard’s Revolutionary Road. They might make a great work in their own right, but it would necessarily alter and even mangle an already existing great work, and this would inevitably be a kind of desecration.
Emblematic of this film’s success is the last scene, which follows the book exactly: Mrs. Givings sits with her husband (Richard Easton) and chats about the Wheelers, all the while stroking a puppy on her lap. Now, we aren’t told that Mrs. Givings bought the puppy to assuage her guilt about the Wheelers; there’s no way to do that without several short scenes, and the film can’t waste that kind of time. But that damned puppy is there on screen, all the same, and for those who have read the book, its meaning leaps out at us. Mrs. Givings is a truly awful woman. She is also completely understandable and even sympathetic. We know her, as we know all the people in Revolutionary Road, book and now film. We know Mrs. Givings because we’ve met her, and because her heartless pragmatism is a part of human nature as constant as the romanticism of April Wheeler. There is no place to hide from Yates’ story, on the page or on screen. He doesn’t want you to drop your lies and defenses, because he says you can’t; he simply shines a harsh spotlight on them and eyes them like a surgeon longing for a drink.