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Re-Imagining Revolutionary Road

revolutionary roadIn the week leading up to the release of the film Revolutionary Road, there was quite a media ballyhoo about Kate Winslet reading Betty Friedan's 1963 feminist classic The Feminine Mystique to prepare for her role as April Wheeler, as well as Winslet's declaration (albeit tepid) that she is a feminist ("I think I probably am. I mean, not in a bra-burning way. But I think I am a feminist, yeah.") Now that the film is in theatres, the connection between the film and feminism has continued to be the subject of much conversation. Over at HuffPo, blogger Melissa Silverstein goes so far as to write that the film "should be required watching for all young women who think that feminism is irrelevant." But in all this talk about feminism and Revolutionary Road, there hasn't been much dialogue about film's relationship to its source, the 1961 Richard Yates novel of the same name, or the way that the character of Frank Wheeler has been re-imagined. Casting a critical eye on the way the novel has been adapted calls into question just how revolutionary the film really is.

Warning: Major spoilers ahead for both novel and film.

It's a tricky business to adapt a novel to film, and then to measure the success of that adaptation. In the case of Revolutionary Road, director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe have appeared to do quite a proficient job of bringing the novel to the screen intact. In fact, their effort is notable for the amount of word-for-word rendering they carry over from the novel into dialogue and action. Yet, there is also some considerable re-imagination of the text going on in the film, chiefly in the service of making Frank and April Wheeler warmer, more sympathetic characters than they are in Yates's brilliant - but undeniably bleak and scathing - novel. (This is surely even a more pressing concern today given that the novel is steeped in so much middle-class white privilege.) These changes have a great deal of impact on the thematic, as well as emotional, implications for the characters and the story.

Silverstein's point about the power of witnessing April Wheeler's life is well taken. In the film, April's life as suburban housewife and mother is depicted as confining and conformist, and the botched abortion that ends her life can be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of conservative social values. In developing the film, however, Mendes and Haythe have expunged any information about April's past. In the novel, April has a devastating childhood lacking any positive parental figures, a psychological dimension that enables Yates to paint her as a woman too neurotic and emotionally disabled to accept her role as wife and mother. If Yates seems to capture some of malaise Betty Friedan articulated in The Feminine Mystique, which was published two years after the novel, it was certainly not in the service of social criticism about women's oppression. Instead, Yates is more concerned with depicting April's disappointment that her self-deluded fantasies about adult life did not come true. She is by no means a feminist character, but she is a coherent one. Yet, in an effort to suggest a more feminist version of the character, Mendes and Haythe have discarded all of April's backstory, pinning her unhappiness entirely on her surburban existence rather than on her own expectations. In a pivotal scene in the novel between April and her neighbor Shep Campbell, she articulates these self-delusions and disappointments as a product of her childhood. In the film, the conversation is heavily re-written, and April makes a crucial statement that she "wanted in" to a presumably more liberated life - the closest thing the film comes to an overtly feminist statement and a major deviation from Yates's writing.

But if what Mendes and Haythe have done in Revolutionary Road is attempt to recast April as a protofeminist character, they haven't been entirely successful. As critic David Denby notes, Yates "never suggests that April suffers from even the slightest social constriction, and neither does Mendes. April is isolated in her own neuroses." In fact, they've resigned her to being even less intelligible as a character. Eliminating April's history and her preciously few reflective moments about her life only serves to make her less human and far more neurotic and enigmatic. It's quite a testimony to Winslet's peformance that she is able to transcend April's blank slate of motivations to make the character sympathetic and seemingly understandable.

But what's far more revelatory are the changes made to Leonardo DiCaprio's Frank Wheeler. The film adapatation includes discussions of his childhood, and his relationship with his father is more than adequately explained as a main source of his motivations. What the film doesn't include, though, is telling: his cool, manipulative treatment and rejection of his mistress Maureen Grube; his continued misgivings and anxieties about having children (in fact, Frank's bitter musing that the couple might have had their second child "to prove that the first one hadn't been a mistake" is given to April as a line of dialogue in the film adaptation); his anxiety when he imagines his wife coming home from work in Paris while he has been at home, accomplishing nothing; his absurd assertions that penis envy may be motivating April's desire to have an abortion; and his fear that he might not really want a third child even after he convinces April not to have an abortion. All in all, what the film has done is not just make Frank Wheeler a more sympathetic character, it has made him a better man. At the end of the novel, Yates describes Frank as a "lifeless man" who has moved back to New York City and sees his children, now living with relatives, only on the weekends. In the film, Frank has become a "devoted" father, and the last image we see of him is with his children at the playground.

In making a better man out of Frank Wheeler, Mendes and Haythe have, unfortunately, thrown out one of the real achievement's of Yates's novel: his ruthless critique of 1950s masculinity (a critique that has no doubt informed the sensibilities of Mad Men - although that show is also constructed with a very shrewd feminist consciousness). As James Wood notes, Yates is at his best when writing about the "weakness and hysterical anxiety of mid-century American masculinity." This is beautifully, painfully evoked during Frank's reflection on April's consent to keep their first child (the scene of this early argument over abortion is left out of the film): "And it seemed to him now that no single moment of his life had ever contained a better proof of manhood [than]... holding that tamed, submissive girl...while she promised she would bear his child." The film Revolutionary Road has thoroughly revised Frank Wheeler's character to be more palatable and to invest some type of redemptive hope at the story's end. If the story now has more heart, though, it has almost entirely lost its teeth.

Clearly, we should judge the film Revolutionary Road by more measures than just its relationship to Yates's novel. In that sense, it's noteworthy that the film has evoked many positive response towards April's story and prompted a lot of discussion about the relevance of feminism. It's also important to note that film adaptations are huge challenges, and it would have been impossible to include all of the missing pieces mentioned here in a two-hour film. Yet, I think it's important that in the rush to praise the feminist virtues of the way that Mendes and Haythe have re-imagined the novel, we should not lose sight of the powerful critique they've also left behind. 

 

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Comments

5 comments have been made. Post a comment.

As you said, the film aptly

As you said, the film aptly demonstrates the struggles of white housewives in the 50's. I definitely appreciate the effort the directors put into making April's character stronger.

However, I was really upset about the ending of this movie. I've never read the book, so I was really taken by surprise. But I shouldn't have been. All strong women characters with a desire for independence die at the end of any movie. It's the rule, right? Frank's words summed it up - "She did this to herself."

Her "struggles"? April

Her "struggles"? April wasn't struggling with the patriarchy's grand plan to keep her down--Yates paints her as struggling with a dawning consciousness that most of her choices have been the wrong ones.

The movie, which is American Beauty circa 1961, keeps both of them ensnared in the suburban gulag in a way that Yates would have considered too pat.

April Wheeler keeps having her fantasies ripped apart by life: She's not an actress. She married the wrong man. She didn't want children.

Her fantasy of escaping to Paris, where she'll land some sort of secretarial job while Frank "finds" himself is another delusion. There' s no self for Frank to find. He's dull, and is likely to remain so. Since she's projected all her illusions onto him, she's really up shit creek.

You are correct that the

You are correct that the film is about much more than just 50's/early 60's patriarchy. But the filmmakers do take the environment of the time into consideration when creating April's character. How could they not, being where we are today? Remember, movies can encompass more than one theme at a time.

They did want us to realize that being a a women in the 50's was part of her problem (notice the amount of time they spend on showing her clean house; the way they make her look lonely and bored with dull lighting and silence). She wanted the secretarial position not just to give Frank time to "figure everything out", but because she genuinely wanted to work.

At the beginning of the film, acting is all she had to define herself, and it's no coincidence that Frank and April's first fight in the film is about her acting. You can almost trace a line throughout their arguments that go back to this fight. Frank is the one that told her she is not an actress. She could have kept it up, even as a hobby, but he took it away from her by crushing her confidence. And why? It seems to me he saw her failure as his failure. Typical of the 50's marriage to see your spouse as an extension of yourself.

Then you have the whole abortion thing. Frank convinces her through an argument that she doesn't love her children and that she needs a psychiatrist just for wanting an abortion (I don't really blame him personally for this - he's a product of his time). April really internalizes what he says. Notice that she called her children to tell her she loved them before attempting to perform her abortion. She felt guilty as a mother. (I don't think she wanted to die, though this is debatable, hence I don't think she was trying to say good-bye to her kids). She thought, because of the common belief about women in the 50's, that she was a bad mother simply because she was unhappy with the direction of her life - that she was not fulfilled by motherhood.

(However, and this was another problem I have with the film, I wonder if the filmmakers were actually trying to shed light on the subject, or if they actually agreed that the abortion would make her a bad mother. Audience reaction during this scene seemed to side with Frank).

As far as Frank's dullness, you're right up to a point. One of the first things we hear him say is that he has no interests. But by the end of the film, when he's showing April the drawing of the computers he's developing at work, we realize (and we see April's realization too) that maybe his life isn't as dull as hers. So, through all the twists and turns in the movie, we see April go from someone who has ambition to someone trapped in the dullness of housewifery, and we see Frank grow from a dud to someone doing something pretty interesting. Unlike you said, he did find himself, just not in the way he or April had planned.

So, while I do agree with your synopsis of April's "dawning consciousness", I think that she was also a victim of the patriarchy of the 50's/early 60's. The filmmakers did a good job at taking this book that was written in it's own time period, applying the critical eye of our time, and wrapping it all together.

That's funny because I sympathized with April in that scene

"However, and this was another problem I have with the film, I wonder if the filmmakers were actually trying to shed light on the subject, or if they actually agreed that the abortion would make her a bad mother. Audience reaction during this scene seemed to side with Frank)."

But then I've made a deliberate choice not to procreate so I'm probably in the minority. I actually felt sorry for both of them, trapped as they were in a culture where being parents was expected by default whether or not you wanted them or were equipped to properly care for them.

Revolutionary Road

The problem with this film and possibly the book was revealed to me towards the end, when April is made to look insane because she doesn't want to live in the status quo and becomes pretty dramatic about it. It's much more than just an anti-suburbia lifestyle film. It was written by a man, and sorry to say it, but no matter how progressive they may seem, they are going to portray the woman as the problem, at least that's what the film did. And the real clincher was in the last scene when April appears in the morning all cleaned up, dressed to fit the part of what is expected of her as a housewife in her floral apron, cooking breakfast, as if nothing drastic just happened the night before was erie and quite insane. It was in the way she knew she was going to end her life that morning, after her husband was to leave for work, and deliberately playing the part of the rational and resigned suburban housewife, that made me think how despicable can she have been made out to be portrayed. Only a man could have portrayed her to look like a complete C*** in the way she played the part of a deceptive, reptilian creature, almost to the point of being a witch, that I could hear them saying burn her at the stake! I knew this was written by a man, sorry to all the females for using such vile language, but it's how I thought a man looking at it would see it and call her as well. I know because I was in the 50's and raise the only girl in a family with three other brothers, so I know the meaning of oppression.