2008 Dec 13

Kate! Leo! Gloom! Doom! Can It Work?

RICHARD YATES’S 1961 novel, “Revolutionary Road,” is far from the kind of property that typically becomes a big Hollywood movie, especially one starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in their first post-“Titanic” outing together.

For one thing, the book is set back in the mid-20th century — an era that, until “Mad Men” came along to exhume it, was thought to have about as much entertainment potential as the Bronze Age. The story requires armies of boring fedora-wearing commuters to disembark from Grand Central every morning. The characters wear dopey clothes and drive boatlike cars, and everyone drinks and smokes too much — even pregnant women.

Nor does it help that “Revolutionary Road” is among the bleakest books ever written. It ends unhappily, with a gruesome death, and neither of the main characters is entirely likable to begin with. Partly autobiographical, the novel tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler, who in the mid-1950s move with their two children to the ’burbs (the movie was shot on location in Darien, Conn., a good deal more upscale than the Wheelers’ town) and from the minute they get there hold themselves apart.

On no particular evidence the Wheelers consider themselves full of unrealized potential. Frank (drawing on Yates’s experience as a sometime copywriter for Remington Rand) works for Knox Business Machines at what he calls “the dullest job you can possibly imagine,” but thinks of himself as an intellectual, an “intense, nicotine-stained Jean-Paul Sartre sort of man.”

April, like Yates’s first wife, Sheila, has theatrical aspirations, and it’s she who comes up with the solution to their depressing, unfulfilled lives: they’ll chuck everything and move to Paris, where she’ll get a well-paying secretarial job until Frank “finds” himself. For Frank, who has meanwhile begun a grubby affair with a young woman at the office, the plan is an agreeable pipe dream, but April is in deadly earnest about it, and the marriage proceeds to unravel with the inexorableness of Greek tragedy. Watching them is like rubbernecking at a car wreck.

“I’m pretty surprised it ever got made,” Blake Bailey, Yates’s biographer, said recently about the movie version, scheduled to open Dec. 26. “It has long been an ambition in Hollywood to make a movie that’s the last word on postwar suburban malaise, but like any highly nuanced work of literary art, ‘Revolutionary Road’ is awfully hard to translate onto the screen.”

By all accounts, that the movie did get made is owing mostly to the drive and enthusiasm of Ms. Winslet, who was taken with the script from the moment she read it. “I loved the emotional nakedness, the brutal honesty about what can sometimes happen in a marriage,” she said in an interview. “And also all the minor characters are so good.”

She began lobbying Mr. DiCaprio, she recalled, after slipping him the script over coffee, and she also worked on Sam Mendes, the director. He was an easier sell in some ways, because he happens to be her husband. “I just told him, ‘Babe, you’ve got to do this,’ ” Ms. Winslet said.

What none of the principals knew then is that for all its gloominess, or maybe even because of it, “Revolutionary Road” is a novel cherished by a passionate and protective coven of admirers (including, incidentally, Matthew Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men”) who pass it along, the novelist Richard Ford has said, like a secret literary handshake. They cherish its honesty, its uncompromising exactness, the austere beauty of its prose.

But despite its many champions, the book has slipped in and out of print, never quite catching on with a wider audience, and it would probably amuse and irritate the author in equal measure to know that it has been reissued in a movie tie-in edition. (There is also a new Everyman’s Library omnibus volume that includes “The Easter Parade,” another of Yates’s novels, and “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness,” a collection of stories.)

Though he would have hated the term, Yates was a writer’s writer, or even a writer’s writer’s writer. He was extravagantly admired by his peers and by many critics; but popular success, which he cared about more than he let on, maddeningly eluded him. He was dogged by bad luck — “Revolutionary Road,” his first novel and also his best, was a finalist for the 1962 National Book Award but lost to “The Moviegoer” by Walker Percy — and bad timing. At a time when postmodernism and meta-fiction were starting to become fashionable, he clung to the realist tradition of his models Fitzgerald and Flaubert.

Yates could also be his own worst enemy, courtly and cavalier at times but at other times bitter and self-inflated, and after the breakup of two marriages he became almost a caricature of the alcoholic, self-destructive American writer. Gaunt and stooped, perpetually broke, he lived in a series of rented rooms in New York, Boston and Tuscaloosa, Ala., with squashed cockroaches underfoot. By the end of his life he was doing little else but smoke (even when attached to an oxygen tank), cough, drink and write. He died in 1992 at 66, though he seemed much older.

Yates used to say he hated the movies. But like so many Americans of his generation he was imaginatively shaped by them, and like a lot of writers in search of extra money he did a couple of purgatorial stints in Hollywood. He adapted William Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness” for John Frankenheimer — the film was never made, but the script was good enough to be printed, years later, in a literary magazine — and he got a screenwriting credit (though he disowned it) for the 1969 war film “The Bridge at Remagen.” Near the end of his life he even tried some scripts for David Milch, a former student who was then producing “Hill Street Blues.”

So he knew his way around Hollywood sufficiently to be skeptical about the movie prospects of “Revolutionary Road.” Right after the book came out, Sam Goldwyn Jr. expressed interest. But Yates wrote later: “Cooler heads in his organization decided that the moviegoing public ‘is not ready for a story of such unrelieved tragedy.’ … Sic transit the hell Gloria.”

Much the same thing happened in 1965 when Yates took a meeting with Albert S. Ruddy, the producer of “The Godfather,” who had just bought the rights to “Revolutionary Road.” Is the miserably unhappy ending of the novel a problem? Mr. Ruddy asked, according to Mr. Bailey’s biography, “A Tragedy Honesty.” “Why, hell, let’s face it, of course it’s a problem. Nine out of 10 guys in This Town would cop out on a problem like that.”

What Mr. Ruddy proposed was not a cop-out, exactly, but rather a lot of tricky camerawork — a flashback here, a match-dissolve there, a dolly-back and a pan — so the audience couldn’t be entirely certain what had happened. “Don’tcha see? I’m trying to eat my cake and have it too,” Mr. Bailey writes that the producer said to Yates, who left certain that the movie would never get made.

Mr. Ruddy, caught up in the “Godfather” saga, eventually sold the rights to the actor Patrick O’Neal, who was passionate about the book but not really a writer and spent the rest of his life trying to finish a workable screenplay. Marion Rosenberg, now a producer but Mr. O’Neal’s agent at the time, advised his widow, Cynthia, that the way to film “Revolutionary Road” was to steer clear of Hollywood entirely. Despite being approached many times and by some big names, she said, she didn’t want to let the book out of her sight until she knew it was in the proper hands, and a few years ago she sold it to BBC Films.

“I thought that was the way to develop the script,” she said. “Under the radar, with people who understood the written word.”

Justin Haythe, the screenwriter hired by the BBC, is 35, an American who grew up in London, and “Revolutionary Road” is just his second script. He got the job, he said recently, because he was “hugely affordable,” adding, “You don’t want to front-load a project like this with a lot of unnecessary expense.”

Another thing in his favor was that he already knew the novel, having read and admired it a few years earlier. “The book is very cinematic in some ways,” Mr. Haythe said, pointing to a few scenes, like a roadside quarrel between Frank and April, that practically contain their own stage directions. (During filming several of the actors recalled, there were almost as many copies of the book on set as there were scripts.)

“But it never occurred to me that it could be a viable business proposition,” Mr. Haythe went on. “You’ve got the ending, the whole outlook of the book.” Everything changed, he said, when Ms. Winslet and Mr. Mendes took an interest, and once Mr. DiCaprio came on board the movie almost immediately went into production. “The way you make a movie like this, it turns out,” he said, laughing, “is you get Kate, Leo and Sam.”

Scott Rudin, the producer of “Revolutionary Road,” has a track record of making sophisticated literary adaptations, like “The Hours” and “No Country for Old Men.” He knew Yates and tried, years ago, to buy the rights to his novel. “It was a tough movie to do, and not a wildly inexpensive one,” Mr. Rudin said. “The budget’s a decent size, even high-end on the indie side. I don’t know that in a different scenario we would have got to do it.”

By “different scenario,” he meant different stars and a different director. “Kate sent me the script and asked my advice,” Mr. Rudin said. “I told her, ‘The perfect director for this lives right in your house.’ I think Sam wanted some validation from someone who wasn’t his wife.”

He added: “No one was worried about the subject matter. In a way that was the catalyst. In my experience it often works that way. The very things that to an outsider would seem daunting. Those are always the reason why people take something on. The only thing we were worried about was whether people would still buy the idea of Paris as a panacea for everything.”

Mr. Haythe’s original screenplay, which Ms. Rosenberg called one of the best first drafts she had ever seen, was a faithful and at times literal adaptation, using great chunks of Yates’s own language. Mr. Mendes, he said, urged him to give it more shape.

“Sam’s a very visual guy, and he kept saying, ‘What does it look like?’ ” Mr. Haythe recalled. “I told him I imagined it as a kind of shot going up into the air, and then it starts to fall back to earth at the same speed. To think of it like that was a great way to be held to account as a writer. Sam got me to focus on this as a tragic love story, and the big challenge was to find ways to externalize all the things they don’t say to each other.”

Mr. Mendes said that in editing the film he cut some 18 scenes, or 20 minutes. “The result is less literal but more in the spirit of the book,” he explained. “It’s the difference between portraiture and narrative.”

When he picked up the novel after first reading the script, Mr. Mendes recalled, it “just slayed me.” “The book is very particular in its insights into what people are thinking when they’re saying the opposite,” he said. “The subtext is made explicit, and you get this sense of an overpowering ache, of collective longing.”

He added that a number of early viewers of the movie, including Yates’s daughters, had approached him to say: You didn’t mess it up. (Or words to that effect: the book’s partisans tend to be more graphic.)

“That’s meant to be high praise,” Mr. Mendes explained, “but I think it’s really a sigh of relief. There are a lot of great books, but somehow this one is different. If you make a film of ‘War and Peace,’ people don’t come up to you say, ‘You better not mess it up.’ I’m glad I didn’t know about this at the beginning, or I think I might have just frozen.”

SOURCE:  The New York Times, 14th December 2008, Charles McGrath