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Mendes' film 'Revolutionary Road' too timid to reach novel's explosive power

The movies, it seems, just don't want to get tough.

The new film Revolutionary Road is based on the 1961 novel of the same title by Richard Yates, who died in 1992. The book is revered by a whole generation of writers, and rightly so — it's not only an insightful novel about what one of its characters calls "the great sentimental lie of the suburbs" in the 1950s, it's also a breathtakingly beautiful, masterfully crafted piece of writing.

The movie version directed by Sam Mendes boasts terrific performances by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as April and Frank Wheeler and spot-on visual design full of oppressively low-ceilinged rooms and brittle women in sheath dresses and men who go to work uniformed in dark suits.

Revolutionary Road is all about the generation that fathered and mothered the baby boomers — whether they really wanted to or not. But, unlike Yates' novel, which is quite ruthless toward its characters, the movie softens a pivotal character in such a way that the plot's impact is seriously undercut.

The heart of the story is the disintegration of the Wheelers' marriage. They married young and had kids immediately, as most couples did then. Frank works for the same company his despised father did, in a job he protests has "nothing interesting about it." But he trains into Manhattan each day and enjoys enough masculine perks — four-martini lunches and extramarital dips into the steno pool — to make his often-expressed alienation more a stylish pose than a driving passion.

April, in the meantime, is dying by inches, trapped in a happy homemaker role she finds increasingly difficult to play. Her restless, angry, overwound character is a walking embodiment of the kind of women Betty Friedan wrote about in her 1963 feminist classic The Feminine Mystique.

In Yates' novel, the crisis that finally demolishes the relationship is an equal-opportunity disaster. But the film absolves Frank of much of the culpability he bears in the book, making him hardly a good guy but far more sympathetic than he is on the page. That softening isn't in DiCaprio's fearless performance but in how the novel's plot has been altered for the screen.

Yates, writing in 1960, was far more willing to look honestly at gender roles and abortion than this movie is. Everyman's Library has just published a new edition of Revolutionary Road (in a volume with another Yates novel, Easter Parade, and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, a collection of his short stories). Read it for a truly luminous picture window into a bleak world.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Mendes' film 'Revolutionary Road' too timid to reach novel's explosive power 01/07/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 3:30am]

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