60 years on, 'Catch-22' lands on TV in new age of absurdity

By Jill Serjeant

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Joseph Heller's 1961 novel "Catch-22" was set in World War Two, but the makers of the first television adaptation believe its satirical take on the insanity of war is just as relevant in today's age of anxiety.

With characters like profiteering Milo Minderbender, mediocre commander Major Major and parade loving Lieutenant Scheisskopf, "Catch-22" portrays a U.S. bomber squadron whose superiors are not just incompetent, but deaf to reason.

"Heller was very prophetic and this has become more apparent as we move more deeply into this age of anxiety and absurdity," said Luke Davies, who co-wrote Hulu's six-episode adaptation starring George Clooney that launches on Friday.

"The novel is filled with crazy older men who are delusionally invested in the sense of their own glory and importance, and who are comically clueless. We have one of those guys in the White House right now, so it feels way more relevant even than it was a couple of years ago," Davies said.

"Catch-22" follows a squadron whose leaders continually raise the number of missions their men are required to fly before being sent home, resulting in no one being sent home.

The only way out is to claim insanity, but a request to be removed from duty is proof of sanity, hence the bureaucratic rule Catch-22.

Although "Catch-22" was made into a film in 1970 starring Alan Arkin, Davies said the story was better suited to the longer arc of a television series.

"It is very hard to do justice to this magnificent novel in two hours or less," he said.

Because Heller's non-linear style echoes the absurdity of the plot, Davies took eight months just to straighten out the chronology for the TV series, which is told from the viewpoint of bombardier Captain John Yossarian, played by Christopher Abbott.

"I wanted to let the chaotic energy and that kaleidoscopic sense of a mad jostle remain, but I cleaned up the chronology so that all of our characters could actually grow emotionally as the series progressed," he said.

Davies said he fell in love with the book when he was a teenager and has since read it multiple times. But he hopes the TV series will resonate whether or not viewers have read, or remember, the book.

"I think the absurdity that keeps raining down upon Yossarian is something that resonates with people.

"All of the metaphorical stuff aside about the insanity of war, Yossarian loses his friends and this increases his sense of anxiety, fear and bewilderment," Davies said.

(This story corrects in 7th paragraph that Alan Arkin, not Alan Alda, starred in the 1970 movie)

(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; editing by Jonathan Oatis)