In an earlier post I reviewed the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, one of the books on my Classics Club list. The book contained some passages that presented Frank Wheeler as a melodramatically theatrical man always concerned about how he appears to others:
He let the fingers of one hand splay out across the pocket of his shirt to show what a simple, physical thing the heart was (p. 4).
all afternoon in the city, stultified at what he liked to call “the dullest job you can possibly imagine,” he had drawn strength from a mental projection of scenes to unfold tonight (p. 16).
Since these are examples of the author telling readers about a character, I wondered if this characteristic would come across in the 2008 film version of the novel, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as Frank and April Wheeler.
The film did not suggest this characteristic of Frank, but the visual nature of film did allow for some dramatic emphases of other themes in the novel. The book describes the Wheelers’ house on Revolutionary Road as on a hill. In the scene of the film in which the real estate agent, Mrs. Givings (played by Kathy Bates), first shows Frank and April the house, a low camera angle makes the house appear high on the hill. This visual effect presents the house as a castle high on a hill and suggests the Wheelers are a royal couple who will live there, an echo of the Wheelers’ feeling of their own superiority or specialness.
Even more dramatic is the visual effects early in the film to suggest the isolation and loneliness of the Wheelers’ current lives. Wide scenes show Frank dressed like all the other men waiting on the platform of the local station to take the train into the city for work. Then a shot of Frank inside the train isolates him among all the other similarly dressed men. The series culminates with another wide shot of a horde of suburban men in their suits and hats, all carrying their briefcases, pouring out of Grand Central Station and marching off to work. Even among such a crowd, Frank is isolated and alone.
Juxtaposed with that sequence is a scene of April, a suburban housewife in her apron, dragging her metal garbage can to the end of the driveway for pickup. She pauses to look around, and the camera reveals a road lined with identical driveways and garbage cans, but no other human being. Just as Frank is isolated among all his fellow workers who commute every day between their homes in the suburbs and their jobs in the city, April is also isolated in the suburbs. Several more scenes showing April peering outside from behind her living room picture window heighten her isolation into a feeling of entrapment.
Yates’s novel presents Mrs. Givings’s mentally ill son, John, as a kind of Greek chorus who comments on the action. Ironically, this disturbed character is the one who speaks the truth. Although the character’s role is clear in the novel, it stands out even more in the film thanks to the dramatic presence of veteran stage and film actor Michael Shannon.
In one of the bonus features on the film DVD, either director Mendes or screenplay writer Justin Haythe (I can’t remember which) calls Revolutionary Road “the grandfather of suburban novels.” The film version explores the layers of meaning that include not just the mundane realities of suburban existence but the tragic interlocking of a couple who use each other to explore their own individual pain and shortcomings. April says, “We thought we would be wonderful in the world.” But finally she has to admit, “We were never special.”