In 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.