Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road is the story of a young couple in the 1950s confronting the reality of their lives in suburban America and struggling to reconcile that reality against the future they had planned for themselves. Yates’ novel, along with the 2008 film by Sam Mendes, present the characters of Frank and April Wheeler weighing the life they each wanted with the life they’ve found themselves living through conflicts with themselves, each other, and those around them. The original novel and the film characterize Frank and April differently, resulting in different versions from the book to the film. While much of Yates’ building of the characters is done with memories and inner monologue, a lot of this is scaled down, left out, or replaced with an adapted visual representation in the movie. The film’s omission of the character detail, background information and key actions by Frank and April that is included in the book result in Frank and April being less relatable or human characters for the audience. The lack of information given in the film transforms Frank and April into lesser complicated characters than in the book, underestimating the true struggle they undergo.
Yates presents the character of Frank Wheeler as a man dissatisfied with his job because in taking it he has broken a promise to himself to never work in the same place and live the same life as his father. He recognizes that the job permits him to do mindless work that doesn’t challenge him, saying, “I mean the great advantage of a place like Knox is that you can sort of turn off your mind at nine and leave it off all day, and nobody knows the difference” (Yates 81). His focus at his job is more on his alcoholic colleague and the attractive secretary he’s seducing than on his actual work, and he seems to find a sort of comfortable detachment in the mindless work he does. He recalls in vivid detail visiting the Knox building with his father as a boy and witnessing a business deal that he later realized ended his father’s career with the company. This memory stayed with him and he later reluctantly interviewed for a job with the company, “with the ghosts of that other visit crowding his head” (Yates 79). He reflects on how he and April distanced themselves from the life of corporate men and their wives, and how he had justified taking the job because he still had, “a girl as totally unlike the wife of a Knox man as the apartment was unlike a Knox man’s home” (Yates 80). He initially takes the job at Knox that he swore he would never take because he needed a solid job when April got pregnant, but then he allowed himself to stay there because it was easy and unchallenging. This is the root of his dissatisfaction now. The reader is presented with his memories of how he used to view the job as a temporary solution and his present state of anger at himself for allowing himself to be lulled into staying there. The movie presents Frank’s lack of caring and commitment to the job, but there is no mention of his memories of being there as a child with his father. His prior decision to never work at the Knox Company after his father did is related only during his discussion with Maureen. The removal of this background information via Frank’s reflections causes the version of Frank presented in the film to lack the sense of disillusionment and desire to challenge himself to be something more that fuel his emotions in the original novel.
The relationship between Frank and Maureen is also treated differently in each version. In the London Review of Books, critic Theo Tait describes Frank’s motives as a reaction to April’s suggestion that they move to Paris, saying “But Frank loses his nerve, and opts instead to continue writing inane copy for Knox Business Machines, while conducting a joyless affair with an office girl” (Tait 1). The film presents it as being a brief fling, with Frank even getting angry at April when she unemotionally responds, “I guess I don’t care. F—k whoever you like” (Mendes) to his admission of the infidelity. This line isn’t in the book, and April doesn’t cuss at all in the book, again illustrating how the film replaces relevant background material with allusions to character traits and flaws for the viewer to interpret. The film does not illustrate any of Frank’s thoughts when deciding to pursue Maureen, nor does it convey any of his guilt after he’s gone through with it or the forcible way he ends it with her when he realizes she thinks it’s a serious relationship. The novel delves deeper into his motives and emotions, allowing the reader to understand that his reasons weren’t simply sexual and that he wanted April to react more so he would know she cared. The film compartmentalizes Frank’s motives, described by Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman as, “He takes solace in feeling superior to his work, and also in his midday martinis and occasional dip into the secretarial pool” (Gleiberman 1). Maureen is actually representative of his disillusionment, as evidenced when Frank scrutinizes all of her imperfections in her head and rationalizes, “He found that if he focused his eyes on her mouth so that the rest of her face was slightly blurred, and then drew back to include the whole length of her in that hazy image, it was possible to believe he was looking at the most desirable woman in the world” (Yates 94). He recognizes her frizzy hair and the rest of her flaws just as he sees what’s unsatisfactory about his job, but he forces himself to distort his views of both of them so he can pretend they’re desirable. His question to her of, “I guess this wasn’t exactly what you had in mind when you went to work this morning, was it?” (Yates 104) is as much directed at himself about his job and the life he has found himself living as it is directed at her in regards to what they’ve just done, but in the film it just comes off as him trying to brush her off instead of a serious question to himself about the state of his world.
The film compartmentalizes April’s character in much the same way as it does Frank’s. It opens after April’s performance in the local theatre production, showing her upset, lashing out at Frank and refusing to go out for drinks with the Campbells. But it omits the background details that the book includes that make this scene such a pivotal one in the book and in April’s life. The book relates how the play and the new theatre company represent hope and a sense of purpose for April and her cast mates: “The main thing, though, was not the play itself, but the company – the brave idea of it, the healthy, hopeful sound of it; the birth of a really good community theatre right here, among themselves” (Yates 7). This allows the reader to understand that April’s participation is more meaningful than just the play, but as an extension into her life. This makes the reality of the play all the more relatable when, according to Stewart O’Nan, “Yates crushes not only Frank’s and April’s hopes, but the reader’s, making us suffer along with his characters” (O’Nan). April’s hopes for something more meaningful in life are crushed. In the film, she just seems moody or self-absorbed. The inclusion of the play’s line, “Wouldn’t you like to be loved by me?” (Yates 9) reflects April’s need to be loved and accepted by Frank as well as the audience, but also her need to accept and love herself. Just as Frank is struggling to accept his career at a job he hates, April struggles to be a good mother to children she never wanted to have as the suburban housewife she swore she would never become. She takes this frustration out on Frank, telling him, “You’re always so wonderfully definite, aren’t you, on the subject of what you do and don’t deserve” (Yates 28) while really reflecting on the life and love that she thinks she deserves, but isn’t getting. Again, the film’s removals of much of April’s background details that are found in the novel transform her from an unfulfilled, desperately unhappy woman into an unemotional harpy. It is only at the film’s conclusion and April’s actions that she can be seen emoting on a level equal to the character of April in the novel and that the viewer sees the depth of her discontent.
The characters of Frank and April Wheeler in Yates’ novel reflect on how they swore never to live in the suburbs and equated being suburban and conforming to that life with death. It is easy to see them as fighting against conformity together even though they are at odds and living somewhat separate lives for much of the novel. In the film, there is none of this sense of togetherness against conformity because the background of who they used to be is missing. The result is a one-dimensional view of two very complex characters. The film version’s characters are a simplified version of Yates’ and the complexities of their emotions and true struggles to be free and to be themselves get lost in the adaptation from novel to film. What results is a movie that presents the questioning of the suburban American dream in the 1950s, but fails to illustrate the individual struggle of the Wheelers of Revolutionary Road to retain their sense of self and the life they want to live the way that Yates intended.
Gleiberman, Owen. “Revolutionary Road Movie Review”. Entertainment Weekly. EW.com 24 December 2008. 19 May 2010. http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20248901,00.html
O’Nan, Stewart. “The Lost World of Richard Yates: How the Great Writer of the Age of Anxiety Disappeared from Print”. Boston Review: A Political and Literary Forum. Oct/Nov 1999. 19 May 2010. http://bostonreview.net/BR24.5/onan.html
Revolutionary Road. Dreamworks SKG. 2008.
Tait, Theo. “Just Like Mother”. The London Review of Books. Vol 25. No. 3. Feb. 2003. http://www.tbns.net/elevenkinds/tait.html
Yates, Richard. Revolutionary Road. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1961.