I started Revolutionary Road with the same misgivings I had when reading The Reader. It’s hard to read a book – even one hailed as a modern classic like this one is – when you disliked the movie adaptation so much. And it’s only this combination of readership that I have a problem with. I can read the book and then see and like the movie, like the movie then read the book, and read the book and dislike the movie. I can’t deny that my experience with one narrative form heavily influences how I view the other, but I tend to stay, I think, more objective than most people about adaptations. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to create that distance between seeing a bad movie first and then reading the book. My reading experience is so influenced by the casting, delivery, setting, color, frame, etc. of the movie that it becomes almost an entirely different book.
I became more aware of my bias when reading Revolutionary Road, so I think I was a bit more successful with my processing (which still continues. I only finished the thing yesterday) but I still have no idea how I might have felt about Yates’s novel had I not been so – almost – indoctrinated by the film.
That said, I managed to like the novel. Love it, in fact. DiCaprio and Winslet’s voices echoed in my head during all the pivotal – and frequent – fight scenes, but it was the inner dialogue of these characters that made the book so much more successful. The setting Yates paints is as idyllic and cliche (these days) as the movie presents, but each character is more than the cookie-cutter image they portray. Somehow – and I’ll have to see it again to really analyze this, probably never figuring it out – the movie never captures the real conflict in the Wheeler home.
I have never hated a character in the book more than I hate Frank Wheeler. And while I don’t think Yates intended Wheeler to be the monster he comes across as in 2010 (after all, he based the character on himself), there is certainly a level of disgust in the narrator’s depiction of Frank. Both Frank and April have unrealistic expectations while selling themselves completely short, are obsessed with what society thinks of them while pretending to shun society, and are stuck in gender roles that neither of them can ever live up to. But it’s Frank’s false sense of self-assuredness that ultimately causes everything to crumble. I mean, the dude forced his wife to have his baby (rather than aborting it, like she wanted to) because he has some idea that she wouldn’t be a real woman (or “female” as John Givings calls her) if she didn’t have a natural motherly instinct. THEN…oh my God…then as soon as she decides that she will, indeed, keep the baby – giving up all her dreams as a result – he goes and sleeps with a woman in his office because that cements his proper place as a 1950s Man. Blech.
But Yates has such a detachment from the plot of the story. His bounces from character to character in the suburban neighborhood (mainly focusing on Frank’s perspective), describing all of their actions as a omnipotent narrator, that I don’t think he intends to embody. At the same time, there is one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve read since Where the Red Fern Grows where Frank cleans up the bathroom where April, essentially, killed herself. The narrator remains descriptive and detached through it all.
Creepy. The whole novel is creepy, because it’s just as relevant today as it was in the 1950s. Yes, some of the images come across as cliche at this point (the unfulfilled housewife ironing in front of the television), but the brilliancy of the novel is how it indicts every reader who thinks they might be above the Wheelers. Aren’t you, then, just heading down the same road that lead them to tragedy?