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Thoughts on ‘Revolutionary Road’ (the novel and the film) April 26, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, Movie Reviews, On Writing.
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I suppose there’s not much point in reviewing a book that is widely regarded as a masterpiece and one of the best English novels of all time.  The classic  Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates was first published in 1961 (and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1962), but I only discovered the book following the recent movie adaptation starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.  The movie was so explosive that it made me run out to buy the book, and I’m glad I did.

I’m sure there are plenty of great reviews of the book out there, so I’ll save myself the embarrassment and just share some thoughts on it.

Thoughts on the book and the writing

In a nutshell, the book centers around the lives of young couple Frank and April Wheeler, who dream of being special (ie ‘revolutionary’) while struggling to deal with the pressures of conformity in 1955 suburban America.  It apparently caused some controversy at the time due to the inclusion of a taboo subject (which I won’t spoil by revealing), but boy, no one can deny that Yates can write!  I think ‘jealousy’ would be a more suitable word than my usual ‘envy’ in this particular case.

I was stunned to learn that Revolutionary Road was Yates’ first published novel.  Yates’ writing simply flows off the page with effortless grace, but at the same time fills the story with intensity.  The scenes are incredibly vivid without being weighed down by excessive description.  The dialogue is so brutally honest and effective that you have no doubt the characters are real, and in fact at times you may even feel like you’re in the room with them.  In particular, I loved the imaginary conversations the characters would have in their heads, contemplating the reactions of others if they said or did things a certain way.

What impressed me the most was the how Yates managed to make a seemingly mundane topic (the banalities of everyday life) into something so riveting and emotionally truthful.  Ordinarily, if I saw such a book on the shelf I would think – man, what a boring thing to write about!  But thankfully (largely due to the film), I was able to put my prejudices aside and I ended up being captivated by it.


A young Richard Yates - kind of reminds me of the guy who shagged Stifler's mom in American Pie

Even after more than 50 years from the time in which the book was set, the issues that Yates tackled in Revolutionary Road remain pertinent today.  I’m grateful I was able to read the book now (as I’ve moved into the latter part of my twenties) because I can fully relate to the emotions the characters are feeling.  That desire to be something more, to strive to be something better, but at the same time too afraid to take the big steps that would take you away from the safe, comfortable existence you’re used to.  I think Yates captured that dreaded feeling of being stuck in life to perfection.

I would have loved to have been able to observe Yates write (unfortunately he passed away in 1992), to see whether the words came as easily to the writer as they did to the reader.  I think I finally understand what Stephen King meant when he said in his brilliant book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (my comprehensive review here) that writers need to ‘write the truth’ and be ‘honest to their characters.’  Yates embodies those principles.  There’s no pretentiousness in his writing, no veiled attempts to impress with his vocabulary or metaphors or gimmicks – he just tells the story as it is.  That’s something I can definitely learn from.

It’s terribly tragic that despite the critical acclaim Yates received throughout his career, none of his books were ever commercial successes – I assume until now, that is.

The Book vs The Film

I saw the film adaptation of Revolutionary Road when it first came out.  I posted a short review of it in Part III of my Golden Globe film reviews for 2009, which can be found here.

I enjoy a good film as much as I enjoy a good book.  Occasionally, I would read a book after first seeing the film version.  Conversely, sometimes I would see the film after reading the book on which it is based.  You know what’s going to happen in both cases, so is there really a point?  I say yes because books and films, even when based on the identical story, can provide vastly different experiences.

I’d say that reading the book after seeing the film is probably the better choice (if one was to do both), at least in the case of Revolutionary Road.  Generally, books have a lot more depth than their movie counterparts, which can be restricted by adaption problems, budget constraints, bad actors, poor directors, inept screenwriters, a tendency to be more style over substance – the list goes on.  Hence if I were to experience both the film and book of a story, I’d generally prefer to watch the movie first, because the book has a higher probability of being able to pleasantly surprising me with things not in the film.  On the other hand, it’s much more difficult to find a movie adaptation that outdoes its original source.  For instance, the only examples I can think of where I preferred the film(s) to the book are (with respect to JRR Tolkien and Nicholas Sparks) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Notebook.

That said, I was amazed at how incredibly faithful the film version of Revolutionary Road was to the novel, to the point where almost every event that happened in one was in the other, and even the majority of the dialogue was taken verbatim.  That doesn’t automatically make the film good.  But it was.  Really good.  Much of the credit has to go to the director (Sam Mendes) and the actors (especially Winslet, DiCaprio and Michael Shannon), who captured the overall feel of the novel as closely as I could have imagined.  While it doesn’t fully live up to the book (which I don’t think was possible to begin with), it does about as good of a job as it could.  I thought it was a good film before, but after reading the book, I came to appreciate the brilliance of the adaptation even more.

Example: two scenes that stuck out in my mind from the movie involved Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) at the train station – the first when he was just like everyone else, walking along the platform with hundreds of other workers dressed in the identical suits with identical hats and the same glum expression on their faces; the second after he decided to change his life for the better, where everyone else remained the same, but he was different, perched atop the stairs without his hat or jacket, peering down at the endless streams of robotic workers with an intense, lively expression and a fire in his eyes.  Those scenes weren’t described in the book, but it nevertheless managed to effectively convey Frank’s emotions and his changed view of the world without him saying a word.

So yeah, the book may have been richer but the film was pretty darn good too.

The one sad thing about movie adaptations is that it can turn people away from reading the book (though it can probably also lead them to it, like me in this case).  I remember being at a family function a couple of years ago where I sat next to a teenage boy of around 17.  We were taking movies and books, and he surprised me when he said that there was no point reading books because every book he has ever wanted to read has been made into a movie, so all he had to do was watch movies!  It was funny but also equally sad.  I think Revolutionary Road is just one example that tells us that reading the book can also be very rewarding, even when you’ve already seen the film.

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