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Hulu’s ‘Catch-22’ tackles complexities of beloved novel

AP

At first George Clooney didn't want any part of his latest project. But fortunately he and his partner, Grant Heslov, changed their minds. Clooney not only costars but co-produces Hulu's new version of Joseph Heller's famous novel, "Catch-22."

" ... They said, 'Do you want to do "Catch-22?"' And we said, 'No, I don't want to do "Catch-22." It seems ridiculous. It's a beloved novel. I don't want to get into the middle of all that,'" says Clooney.

"And we read these first three scripts and I said, 'Well, if the next three are anything like that.' And we read the next three, and then we called up everybody at Paramount and just said, 'Where do we sign up?'"

The script was written by Luke Davies and David Michod, a gutsy move as Mike Nichols and Buck Henry had already turned the dark comedy into a star-studded film in the '70s. And while the movie wasn't a bazooka hit, it became a beloved cult classic.

"I think David and Luke did an amazing job with sort of unspooling these characters because, when you do a movie, you don't have enough time to really get to know the characters," says Clooney.

"And that's why you do this as a television show, is you get to spend time with the characters like the book does. And they just figured out a way to interpret it in a way that we didn't think was really possible. So I think that's why we got onboard, for the most part."

Clooney had read the book in high school. "This is considered one of the great American novels of all time. So it was required reading when I was in high school," he says.

"And I loved the style of writing, which was different than the kind of writing we had read. But I was pretty young, and so I just liked the characters, and I thought it was fun. I reread it when we were sent the scripts to do, and I hadn't read it in – you know, high school was 15 years ago," he laughs.

"And I hadn't read it in a long time. So it was really fun and exciting to go back and read and understand why this book lasted and stands the test of time."

The novel survived the test of time because it's about rules, red tape and regulations that make absolutely no sense. Davies says he was interested in dissecting the complex novel, which takes place during World War II, and relating it to modern times.

"I think we all wake up every morning these days in this kind of shared global anxiety condition," he says.

"And this novel is a beautiful distillation of a prophetic distillation of that anxiety condition. This is like the origin story of that anxiety condition. And I loved it ever since I was 16, and suddenly there was this thought: What if I found a way of cracking the code of that novel, and unraveling it, finding out what the chronology is, and seeing what its shape would be in television?

"I love the film, don't get me wrong," he continues, "but the film just re-creates the chaotic kaleidoscopic madness of the novel, which is held tightly in a very literary sense by Joseph Heller. What we basically did was unfold the chronology so that all our characters could have actual emotional journeys from beginning to end."

The major character is Yossarian, an antic and unpredictable young bombardier played by Christopher Abbott. "It was interesting to research what a bombardier did in World War II, what it felt like to be in that nose cone, which is kind of a universe in itself," says Abbott, 33.

"It's encased in glass, and you feel it's a very vulnerable place to be in on a plane, and one of the more interesting things that I thought or terrifying things about it is that if something happened, or if something went down, or if the plane was going down, the only way in and out of this place, in this nose cone, was through a very, very narrow tunnel," says Abbott.

"So not only do you have the danger of possibly being shot down, then you had to fend for your own life by crawling through a very claustrophobic space to then, hopefully, be at a place where you can live. So it was kind of eye-opening to feel how dangerous it was and how vulnerable it was to be up there, and I understood the fear, the pure fear that Yossarian had in the story."

The series, which begins streaming on Friday, deftly mixes mordant satire with uncomfortable reality. "As the episodes go on," says Heslov, "the sort of difference between horror and hilarity becomes even more pronounced. The horror becomes even bigger and, hopefully, we think it gets funnier as well."

ID REVISITS FAMOUS CASE

Investigation Discovery, which does such a thorough job solving murders, brings a two-hour special on a case that happened in upscale Coronado, Calif., eight years ago. A 6-year-old boy suffers a fatal fall in his father's mansion while his father's girlfriend is supposed to be watching him.

Two days later the girlfriend is found dead, bound and gagged and hanging from a balcony. Did she commit suicide because of the boy's accidental death? Or did someone help her along the way? That's the subject of "Rebecca Zahau: An ID Murder Mystery," premiering May 27. Told through interviews with family members, police and investigators, the show hopes to illuminate the mystery that still surrounds the puzzling deaths.

KINGLY MISDEEDS FEATURED IN SERIES

You don't expect the scandalous details of the royals to show up on the patrician Smithsonian Channel, but that's what you'll have when "The Private Lives of the Monarchs" premieres next Monday. The five-part series, hosted by Tracy Borman, eavesdrops on the naughty doings of the royal line including Queen Victoria's son, Edward, whom she disliked because of his moral dalliances, wicked lifestyle and decidedly ignoble practices.

Edward kicks off the series, followed by Henry VIII on May 27 and Louis XIV on June 3. Henry, as we already know, dumped his wife of more than 20 years for Anne Boleyn. That liaison only lasted 1,000 days before Henry grew tired of Anne and lined up his next wife. He was to have eight before it was all over. As for Louis, when the Sun King died, a post-mortem revealed his stomach was twice the normal size, larger than life to the very end.

DARK AGES MYSTERY PREMIERES ON SUNDANCE TV

John Turturro and Rupert Everett star in the new Sundance TV adaptation of Umberto Eco's famous novel, "The Name of the Rose," premiering Thursday. A little bit of Dark Ages mystery is mixed with some evil machinations of the church hierarchy in this classic thriller. Turturro plays a Franciscan monk who moves to a secluded monastery in the Alps, where he discovers a series of ghastly murders. His attempts to solve the crimes are impeded by the Pope's inquisitor, played by the expert Everett.

While Everett has displayed some memorable acting in projects like "My Best Friend's Wedding," "An Ideal Husband" and "The Musketeers," he confesses he was actually expelled from drama school.

"I was pretty irritating, and they gave me horrible roles to play always. And one particular one they said, 'That's it.' And, 'That's enough. You're too much of a freak.' I was a bit subversive for the English school. It was very boring," he says.

"I was very disappointed. I'd pinned my whole world on drama school. I thought it was going to be such a change and such an escape from the world that I came from, but actually it was just as bureaucratic and bourgeois as where I'd just come from. It was like being in a bank."

(Luaine Lee is a California-based correspondent who covers entertainment for Tribune News Service.)

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