It wasn’t meant to take so long for Richard Yates‘ highly acclaimed novel Revolutionary Road to find its way to the big screen. The book was released in 1961 and was planned to be adapted to film soon after, but problems with putting together a usable script and distribution rights kept the movie project in development hell for decades. It wasn’t until 2008 when the finished film was actually released. By then, Yates himself had been dead for 16 years. So it goes.
Set in 1950s America, the story told is of the middle-class married couple Frank and April Wheeler (in the film played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet). They live in suburban Connecticut, with Frank working a dull office job while April looks after their two kids. As the drudgery of suburbia starts taking its toll on their marriage, they hatch a plan to move to Paris to give Frank time to find his purpose in life and become all that he can be. Complications arise however, and the marriage keeps crumbling.
The movie follows the novel quite faithfully in terms of plot. Some parts are left out, but it still mostly plays out the same way in both mediums. A lot of the dialogue is also lifted straight from the source with no rewriting, which works well since it gives a sense of accuracy to the language of the time period. Screenwriter Justin Haythe has put forth an effective script here, one that hits most of the notes of the book while still keeping things running smoothly.
The novel is told mostly from Frank’s point of view, with a few choice passages devoted to April, their neighbors the Campbells and their realtor Helen Givings. In the movie, April gets a bit more room to play and we see things a bit more from her perspective. This is a smart move as she’s a crucial character, and in a medium where one can’t delve as much into Frank’s thought process, something else is needed to add richness to the relationship between the two characters. They come off as more on equal terms here than in the novel, even if it still remains largely Frank’s story.
Indeed, the thing I miss most in the movie is partaking in Frank’s reasoning. He’s constantly rationalizing and planning ahead in the novel, especially during a prolonged period of arguement between him and April which he strategizes as though it was a military operation. Another thing the movie fails to go into is Frank’s feelings towards his father. Some scenes in the movie concerning this took on a somewhat different meaning for me when I rewatched it after having read the novel.
Director Sam Mendes does a lot of things right with his adaptation, however. Revolutonary Road isn’t the first time he’s made a film about people trapped in suburbia. His debut American Beauty dealt with the same subject matter, so it’s something he’s familiar with. He still finds new ways and angles to approach the themes, though. One striking sequence early on in the film shows Frank on his way to work, surrounded by people just like him, men in the same suits and the same hats, mulling about like ants in an ant farm. It’s a great way to visualize Frank’s feelings of being stuck in mundanity when he and April have always considered themselves to be special and destined for better things. Thomas Newman‘s score, including the recurring main theme, is also a big point in the film’s favor.
And then we have the actors who uniformly do a fine job. Winslet is the stand-out, always giving off the imprssion of believability despite the shifting moods her character goes through. DiCaprio is vivid as Frank, always on edge. When the role calls for him to really fly odd the handle, he doesn’t disappoint. The two actors have great chemistry together and not once am I reminded of them being star-crossed lovers in Titanic a decade earlier. They embody their parts here very neatly. In the supporting cast we find a solid pool of talent: Kathy Bates, Dylan Baker, David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn, Michael Shannon and others. All good or great.
I found the film quite enthralling the first two times I saw it. It’s a striking portrayal of the hopeful 50s and the pressure that time could create, with enough new facets to the image of suburban life to keep it from becoming a retread of American Beauty for Mendes. Through the actors, the score, the set designs and much more, Revolutionary Road is a great film in its own right, and one that holds up surprisingly well even after having read the novel.
That being said, I do like the book better. We get much better insight into the characters, and this really helps to create even more nuances and depth to the themes of the novel. It’s one of those things where the film doesn’t feel lacking for not having it, but the book is very much enrichened by it. Yates doesn’t utilize the kind of extensive vocabulary that’s on display in the other books I’ve talked about on this blog (Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road and Rex Pickett‘s Sideways), but this is not a minus. The prose flows really well and it’s easy to get caught in the characters and their loves. It’s a proper page-turner even when you know how it’s going to end.
So in conclusion: great film, greater novel. Pick whichever medium suits you best, but if that’s a tie, go for the book. It’s a story well worth experiencing either way.