The Revolution That Can’t Be Televised: On Revolutionary Road

February 20, 2009 | 4 books mentioned 4 5 min read

coverAfter a weak year for movies, this Sunday’s Academy Awards promises more than the usual number of surprises. Will we watch The Curious Case of Benjamin Button rack up 13 Oscars, eclipsing Ben-Hur… or will we watch it edge out The Color Purple for a dubious record: most nominations without a single award? Will we thrill to the wit and wisdom of austerity-measures host Hugh Jackman… or will we find ourselves longing for the deft comedic timing of Charlton Heston? What we surely won’t see is a sweep for the film version of Revolutionary Road, which strikes me as more startling than any of the scenarios outlined above. To put it bluntly: Revolutionary Road is pure Oscar bait. It boasts a powerhouse production team (director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and co-producer Scott Rudin) and a terrific ensemble cast. It has the kind of marketing hook Oscar loves: it’s Kate and Leo’s first joint outing since The Highest Grossing Film of All Time.

covercoverMost importantly (with apologies to The Reader and Ben Button) it has the most impeccable literary pedigree of any movie released this year. “Hollywood is a visual town that reveres what it reads,” as The New Yorker’s Tad Friend wrote a few years back. “A classy book connotes New York, taste, and depth.” And yet, when the nominations were announced last month, Revolutionary Road was up for a paltry three statuettes. What gives? The most plausible explanation is some sort of baroque intra-Academy intrigue of the sort that robbed Bruce Springsteen of a nomination for The Wrestler. But I’d like to suggest, for the sake of argument, that the problem lies in the source material – that Revolutionary Road, the novel by Richard Yates, may, for fairly interesting reasons, be unadaptable.

Revolutionary Road now looks like some kind of high-water-mark of urbane fiction. Soon after its publication, loose, baggy monsters such as Giles Goat-Boy and Gravity’s Rainbow would seize the high ground of literary fiction, reflecting the entropic tendencies of the larger culture. But in 1961, the novel still seemed perfectible, and with this book Richard Yates came as close as anyone has to perfecting it. A synopsis sounds straightforward: Frank and April Wheeler settle in suburban Connecticut at the peak of the postwar boom, only to find themselves spiritually and aesthetically ill-at-ease with their surroundings. They dream of being something more than (respectively) a Man in a Gray Flannel Suit and a housewife. Yet their pursuit of the numinous will threaten to destroy them.

This story is easily caricatured, by those who haven’t bothered to read the book, as a denunciation of suburban life – precisely the sort of novel Frank Wheeler might have written. Yates makes painfully clear, however, that the obstacles the Wheelers face are as much internal as external. An ironist of almost infinite subtlety, he spends much of the book revealing Frank and April’s grasping as no less “hopeless” and “empty” than the neat little subdivision streets that give the book its title. Whatever greatness they possess falls victim to their self-absorption.

For all its bleakness, Revolutionary Road is often quite funny. The mediating principle between the comedy and the tragedy, the satire and the sympathy, is Yates’ pitch-perfect voice. His free indirect narration hews for the most part to Frank’s point-of-view, so that even as we see Frank’s posturing, we are drawn into sympathy with him. At times, the subjectivity of Yates’ descriptions borders on the visionary:

How small and neat and comically serious the other men looked, with their gray-flecked crew cuts and their button-down collars and their brisk little hurrying feet! . . . . The waiting midtown office buildings would swallow them up and contain them, so that to stand in one tower looking out across the canyon to another would be to inspect a great silent insectarium displaying hundreds of tiny pink men in white shirts, forever shifting papers and frowning into telephones, acting out their passionate little dumb show under the supreme indifference of the rolling spring clouds.

Even as Frank sees his town-and-country life as “comical,” his eye (for “canyons”, for manly “containment,” for those supreme clouds) betrays its attractions. Flattering himself as a man apart, he is acting out his own “passionate little dumb show.” This foible is, of course, not unique to Frank. And as with Jonathan Franzen’s Lamberts forty years later, we can’t sit securely in judgment; we don’t even quite know where to stand.

All of which is to say that I was concerned when Sam Mendes – surely one of our most portentous filmmakers – was directing Revolutionary Road: The Movie. It seemed likely that Mendes might miss the irony and give us American Beauty meets American Graffiti: a jeremiad against the Cold War dorps of the Metro North. True to form, Mendes does go a bit crazy with the foliage toward the end of the movie; it’s as if he believes that beauty (and his films are beautiful, in a way that sometimes borders on kitsch) only serves as a mask for the general hideousness of human beings. For the most part, though, my fears were unfounded. Mendes is as finely attuned to the posturings of Frank and April as he is to the fatuousness of their real estate agent and the generic idyll of their neighborhood.

Moreover, the acting in Revolutionary Road is excellent. Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, and Zoe Kazan turn in fine supporting performances. DiCaprio takes a little getting used to – he still looks like a teenager to me – but as he grows into the lead role, he reveals the depths of Frank’s frustration. And the great Kate Winslett turns in a terrifically intense performance as April. Mendes, who is her husband, loves to fill the screen with her, and for good reason.

The film earns its nomination for an Art Direction Oscar. It is lovingly upholstered, filled with the trappings of the Eisenhower era. (Rarely does a scene pass without its complement of martinis and coffees and cigarettes; no wonder these people are so moody.) Despite (or perhaps because of) its reverence for its source material, however, the movie misses the key ingredient: the voice. Subjectivity is easy for a novel to do; indeed, we might say that objectivity in fiction is merely an illusion. Film, however, is relentlessly literal, and Mendes never bothers to figure out a way to finesse this – to give us that “great silent insectarium,” for example.

He does offer compelling interpretations of certain scenes, the way one might interpret Shakespeare or Chekhov. He is particularly interested in the constraints April suffers because of her gender. But Yates is not a playwright, he’s a novelist, and the magic of this particular novel is its ability to take us inside its characters. Only in the final seconds of the film does Mendes abandon his handsome neutrality and attempt to figure out how to make film do what literature does. It is too little, too late.

And so one ends up wondering, what’s the point? Revolutionary Road, the movie, has resisted the temptation to condemn a particular set of social circumstances; instead it has gone to the other extreme, making Frank and April’s problems so particular that it seems to have little to say to anyone who isn’t them. The solution to their unhappiness? Suck less.

Up against this year’s other Oscar bait, Revolutionary Road holds up fine. But it has to meet a higher hurdle: it’s up against a great book. For all its fine craftsmanship, its entertainment value, its essential dignity, it doesn’t add anything. Unlike Yates’ novel, it does not command our sympathy; it merely commands our gaze.

Bonus link: Your printable Oscar ballot (pdf)

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. "Hollywood is a visual town that reveres what it reads," as The New Yorker's Tad Friend wrote a few years back. "A classy book connotes New York, taste, and depth."

    This quote may hold true for self-loathing, exiled New Yorkers in Los Angeles, but the rest of us don't look east, imagining it's only there that taste, depth and class reside. It is, I'll grant you, a very popular cliche, and when a writer wants to get a lot done in a little space, well, cliches will do just fine, and facts be damned.

  2. I haven't seen RR or read the novel (am about to), but much of what you said about the movie and what it failed to do reminded me of Little Children–another Kate Winslet Oscar venture about the perils of suburbia. LC used voice-over narration–to great effect, I thought–to do what free indirect discourse had done in the novel. Perhaps such a move by Mendes might have fixed what you identify as RR's tragic flaw?

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.