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December 13, 2008

Top Pop Culture Reference to Suburbia: Revolutionary Road, the Novel and the New Movie

Coming to a movie screen near you on December 26: the already critically acclaimed, Golden Globe-nominated, and Oscar-buzz-worthy film version of Richard Yates’ 1961 novel Revolutionary Road.

The film re-teams that Titanic duo of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as April and Frank Wheeler, a suburban 1950s couple who are slowly and tragically coming unraveled. (This film is directed by Winslet’s husband, Sam Mendes, who directed that other critically acclaimed examination of suburban anomie and despair, 1999’s American Beauty.)

April and Frank Wheeler are former bohemian urbanites (Greenwich Village, no less) and somewhat intellectually superior snobs who nonetheless felt drawn to move to a somewhat smug suburban housing development in Connecticut, especially with the arrival of their two young kids. As the novel opens, Frank commutes to Manhattan to his boring corporate job, while April stays home with two small kids. Frank and April each are spiritually dying inside from boredom, depression, and their growing disenchantment with each other. It's the same sort of emotional misery and unraveling you see depicted in Don and Betty Draper, the outwardly happy, attractive couple in TV's Mad Men.

Talk about Crazy in Suburbia.

I read the book about a year ago and loved it, so I can’t wait to see the film. Christopher Hitchens, in his essay “Suburbs of Our Discontent” in the December issue of The Atlantic, has a good analysis of the novel. He looks at the book from a literary standpoint and from a cultural, historical one. He aptly points out:

“Most Americans now live in the suburbs than anywhere else, and more do so by choice. Anachronisms of two kinds persist in respect to this phenomenon. The first is the apparently unshakable belief of political candidates that they will sound better, and appear more authentic, if they can claim to come from a small town (something we were almost spared this year, until the chiller from Wasilla). The second is the continued stern disapproval of anything ‘suburban’ by the strategic majority of our country’s intellectuals. The idiocy of rural life? If you must. The big city? All very well. Bohemia, or perhaps Paris or Prague? Yes, indeed. The suburbs? No thank you.”

He goes on to say: “The achievement of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road was to anatomize the ills and woes of suburbia while simultaneously satirizing those suburbanites and others who thought that they themselves were too good for the ‘burbs.”

Things start to fall apart for this couple. There is, as in Mad Men, lots of drinking and, as Hitchens calls it, that “other suburban sport, adultery,” which is full of “bathos and degradation.” Hitchens says: “Revolutionary Road is replete with moments … [that convey] with great economy the experience of boredom and disgust" of its characters.


To Yates, according to Hitchens, April and Frank Wheeler are living in a “microcosmic hell on Earth.”

Hmm. Can any of us say the same about Walnut Creek or surrounding East Bay communities? Are we living in our own versions of hell on Earth? What do you think?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I also loved the book, but am kinda worried about the movie. Will it live up to the original?

Soccer Mom said...

I know what you mean: can the movie live up to the original? I try as best as I can to accept that films are a different art form and must tell their stories in a different way (more cinematically) than novels. Also, I read the book more than a year ago, so, hopefully, I won't notice too many things that the movie might have cut out in the interests of speeding up the story.