Revolutionary Road: What You Need to Know about the Novel

Sam Mendes’ new film, “Revolutionary Road,” a dissection of suburban life, stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, will be released by Paramount Vantage December 26, 2008.

“Revolutionary Road,” was Richard Yates’ debut novel, published when he was 36 years old, instantly thrusting him into the literary limelight. Soon after its release, and ever since, other writers have made breathless assessments of its power.

Tennessee Williams called Yates’ novel, “immediately, intensely and brilliantly alive. If more is needed to make a masterpiece of modern American fiction, I am sure I don’t know what it is.”

Kurt Vonnegut dubbed the novel “the Great Gatsby of my time.” William Styron said it was “a deft, ironic, beautiful novel that deserves to be a classic.”

Yates as Chronicler of his Age

Many compared Yates to Fitzgerald in the sense that he became the chronicler of his age, doing for the yearning, ambition and marital chaos of the “Age of Anxiety” what Fitzgerald had done for “the Jazz Age.” As time went on, the novel seemed to become even more relevant, even prescient, evoking the start of the Digital Age, the changing role and empowerment of women in American households and the increasing urge towards conformity. To this day, Revolutionary Road inspires provocative discussions across the world.

Yates himself declared the book was an exploration, rather than an excoriation, of the fault lines that have run through American marriages in the post-war years. In a 1992 interview with Ploughshares, he said: “The book was widely read as an anti-suburban novel and that disappointed me. I think I meant it more as an indictment of a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs ¬ñ a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price.”

The novelist also explained that the novel’s title and setting on Revolutionary Road was no accident. Yates said that he was referring to the “betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit. I meant to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the 1950s.”

It was this illuminating idea that drew so many to the novel. Even with all the attention it garnered, Yates himself never attained the success in his lifetime for which he ardently fought. Struggling, much like his characters, with alcoholism, depression and difficult relationships, throughout his life, he died broke of emphysema in his 1960s.

Rediscovering a Masterpiece

Only recently has Yates’ work been rediscovered, thanks to the efforts of his avowed fans from the ranks of today’s literary lions, including Richard Ford, Nick Hornby, Joan Didion, David Hare, Kate Atkinson, Stewart O’Nan and Sebastian Faulkes, who began talking publicly, often fervently, about the influence of Revolutionary Road.

Blake Bailey who in 2003 wrote the first biography of Yates, A Tragic Honesty, believes Revolutionary Road has endured because the storytelling illuminates so much more than one American marriage. “It’s about nothing less than the fundamental issues of what it is to be a human being,” he says, “it’s about coming to terms with yourself, being honest with yourself, facing up to your own limitations and trying to carve out a happy niche in life despite your limitations. As Yates said, the worst thing that you can do in this life is to live a lie.”

Adapted by Jstin Haythe

With so many heightened feelings surrounding Revolutionary Road, finding a screenwriter willing to take a fresh crack at the adaptation was not easy. The circuitous path ended with Justin Haythe, who is not only a screenwriter (he co-wrote the thriller THE CLEARING with Pieter Jan Brugge) but equally important, an acclaimed novelist in his own right, garnering a Man Booker Prize nomination for his debut, The Honeymoon.

Haythe knew he was entering hallowed ground for writers, but felt the risk was worth it because Yates’ story still speaks so resonantly today. “Though the novel is anchored in the 50s, the characters are so psychologically recognizable to our own times,” he says. “I felt that this tale that’s so relevant to our lives now, yet is set against such an iconic and seminal period in American culture, would be very worthy of a film.” Like Yates himself, Haythe saw the story as larger than its time and place: “I never approached it as about the suburbs,” he explains. “I think it’s a much vaster story about human frailty and longing.”

The difficulty lay in presenting Frank and April Wheeler on screen in an accessible way without romanticizing them, or satirizing them, allowing them to reveal through their words and actions their hopes, their fears and the ways in which they chafe against society’s proscriptions of how men and women should act with, and without, one another.

Belief in Being Special

For Haythe, the linchpin of the story is the Wheelers’ belief that they’re special, different, destined for something grander than the life they are now leading ¬ñ an illusion that circumstances will shatter. Much as they believe they are somehow beyond the influence of the developing consumer culture around them, they become more and more aware that have fallen prey to it just as much as their friends and neighbors. “What makes Frank and April’s romance so exciting at first is the presumption that they are not like every around them,” he explains. “And then one day April comes to Frank and says ‘you know, we are becoming like everyone else so let’s do something to change our disappointed lives. Let’s get out. Let’s move to Paris. Let’s save ourselves.’ But then, it becomes the inverse of a Hollywood escape story because their great escape never happens.”

Paris as Unrealized Fantasy

Paris remains an unrealized fantasy because April becomes pregnant, prompting Frank to lose his nerve and causing the whole dynamic between them to shift. “Paris becomes this grand symbol of courage and potential,” says Haythe. Haythe, however, chose not to take sides in the volatile battle that erupts between the Wheelers in the wake of April’s pregnancy, Frank’s subsequent confession of his workplace affair and the loss of their epic dream of the future.

Who’s to Blame

“Some blame Frank for the events in the story, some blame April. Some see Frank as the one who is willing to sacrifice to make things work, other people see it as a story about April’s will to survive. I think that’s part of the greatness of the story ¬ñ that it provides this discussion. At heart I believe it is really about this question: if you get the chance to try to be the person you always wanted to be what will it expose about who you really are” Haythe’s admiration and respect for all that Yates had accomplished with the book drove a desire to be as true to Yates’ tone and dialogue as possible in the adaptation, while also acknowledging that film is always a different creature than a novel.

“In a novel, you have instant access to characters’ inner confessionals, whereas in film, there is an art to dramatizing that,” he notes. “I do hope the movie will lead people to rediscover Yates, and give him the recognition he always wanted and deserved.”

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