‘Catch-22’ Boss Breaks Down Adapting Clevinger’s Disappearance
Writer and executive producer Luke Davies first read Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” as an assignment in high school. He fell in love with the “wild comedy” of the tone, as well as the lead character Yossarian, who “was trying to weave his way through this insane situation” in war. After more than a decade in Hollywood, Davies got the chance to adapt the novel. “My aim and my ambition was, ‘Would it be possible to keep the tone of the kind of anarchic black comedy, but also create a narrative series that had an emotional journey?’” Davies says.
Letting the Story Unfold Linearly
The narrative of Heller’s novel, as well as Mike Nichols’ 1970 big-screen adaptation, is “all over the place in radical time jumps,” Davies says. It is Heller’s way of controlling “literary time, which is like a kaleidoscope,” while Davies and his co-writer David Michod wanted to unfold that narrative in order to “find out what happened, in what order, and then let the characters play out the journeys and the relationships on that canvas.”
In addition to restructuring the order of events, Davies acknowledges there were many passages of Heller’s novel that needed to be expanded upon in order to “show more than tell” and drive home the point of how much loss one experiences at wartime.
The 10th chapter of the novel, for example, starts with the line “Clevinger was dead” before explaining that 18 planes flew through a cloud and only 17 came out the other side. The crux of the paragraph is about the absence without explanation: “No trace was ever found of the other, not in the air, or on the smooth surface of the jade waters below,” Heller wrote.
“In the novel it’s the tiniest fragment of a paragraph,” Davies says of Clevinger’s disappearance. “It’s literally just a sentence, and there’s no drama in that.”
Experiencing the Emotions of Loss
The psychological and emotional experience of loss is one that deepens for Yossarian (played by Christopher Abbott) as time goes on in the series, because he loses another friend in every episode. Davies and Michod moved up the loss of Clevinger (Pico Alexander) so that it was the second one Yossarian experienced, occurring in the second episode.
In Davies and Michod’s version, Yossarian and Clevinger’s planes are flying side-by-side on a bombing run over Italy when, after watching a blast ripple along the ground beneath them, Yossarian watches his friend’s plane fly into a cloud. Over the radio, Yossarian hears banging; Clevinger’s plane never re-emerges.
“Being true to Heller meant that Clevinger had to disappear in a way that we didn’t see it happen, but it was clear that he’s gone forever. It touches his soul very deeply, this loss,” Davies says. “I had to make it play out in real-time and allow us to be with Yossarian, experiencing the beginnings of that anxiety. And that anxiety continues; the loss of Clevinger builds up in other scenes.”
And in order to be technically accurate, Davies and Michod included a third character in the scene. As a bombardier, Yossarian wouldn’t be able to communicate directly with the pilot or the co-pilot of another plane; only the pilot or co-pilot of his plane could do so. Enter McWatt (Jon Rudnitsky), through whom the communication had to be filtered.
“We wanted to be authentic to the technical reality of the situation — that Yossarian can’t talk directly to Clevinger. The pleasant side effect of that was it just made the scene inside the plane feel a little more frantic and dynamic because everyone is talking at once,” Davies says.