books to film

Book versus movie: ‘Revolutionary Road’ is a sumptuous watch but a better read

Richard Yates’s novel is a bitter portrait of mid-1950s America. The couple in Sam Mendes’s film could be from any time period.

Whether mad, sad or bad, dad stories make good films when entrusted to Sam Mendes.

Mendes’s multiple-award winning American Beauty (1999) stars Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham who is 42, frustrated, and besotted with his daughter’s teenage friend. Max Allan Collins’s graphic novel Road to Perdition (2002), adapted for the screen and feted for its cinematography, shows gangster fathers John Rooney (Paul Newman) and Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) each struggling to protect a son.

In Mendes’s 2008 adaptation of Richard Yates’s posthumously acknowledged masterpiece Revolutionary Road, Earl Wheeler, the late, nondescript father of Frank (outstandingly played by Leonardo DiCaprio), still has a hold over his son. Earl had once been a salesman at Knox, the same company where Frank, pushing 30, now holds an executive position. Swamped in middle-class inertia, cursing the dullness of his days, Frank nevertheless feels he is paying “fine tribute” to his father by working in the same company.

When he had been a longshoreman in New York, Frank had fallen in love and married April Johnson (the irreplaceable Kate Winslet). She is “a first rate girl” who refuses to live a second rate life. A drama student when they first met at a party, April is now a failed actress and the mother of Frank’s two children. She believes that Connecticut suburban living has trapped her in mediocrity and that she, like Frank, deserves better things. If they acknowledge their current stagnation and take a chance and move to Paris, where she knows Frank had been his happiest, he would be the apotheosis of the manhood she had once loved. In Paris, “or anywhere but here,” April feels they will validate their birthright to be “special.” In short, that their lives will be what novelist Richard Ford terms “blissfully rudderless”.

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Revolutionary Road (2008).

Apparently, all it needs is “backbone” to turn pipe dreams into reality. The collision of April’s narcissistic delusions against Frank’s stodgy pragmatism makes them drag each other down a devastating cul de sac. Yates’s nuanced turn of phrase paints a bitter portrait of an era (the mid-1950s known as America’s Age of Anxiety), a community and a marriage, but Mendes’s film focuses more on the quarter life crisis of the Wheelers who could be any couple at any period of time.

Whether lovers on a sinking ship (Titanic) or spouses in a sinking marriage, DiCaprio and Winslet make an incandescent screen pair. As Frank Wheeler spatting at home with his wife, DiCaprio agitates his boyish features to coalesce in ugly acrimony. But at office, his muscles relax, he smiles and wows his wide-eyed young secretary into an affair.

Though not quite as neurotic as Yates would have her, April’s “enigmatic aloofness” is perfectly played by Winslet. There is a magnificent scene of stasis, where she is as wintry as death itself. Superb performances also come from supporting actors Michael Shannon, whose function is akin to a wise Fool in Shakespearean drama, Kathy Bates as his mother, and Dylan Baker as Frank’s senior colleague.

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Revolutionary Road (2008).

Screenplay writer Justin Haythe uses almost verbatim dialogue from the novel, and Mendes’s efforts to keep to Yates’s depictions of lifestyle are ingenuous. Everyone smokes and drinks excessively, men talk jobs and money, women whip up delectable salads, and lives are steady behind picture windows smiling on freshly sprinkled lawns. We can see for ourselves just why “a man running down these streets in desperate grief” would be “indecently out of place”.

Costumes and colours add to Kristy Zea’s production design and illustrate what Mendes calls “mouth watering descriptions” from Yates’s text. Unforgettable are the back-to-back scenes of loneliness – Frank losing his individuality in a grey-suited sea of commuters and April standing alone on a sunny street pockmarked with garbage cans.

Typical of all Mendes’s films, the lighting (by veteran director of photography Roger Deakins) wistfully punctuates the story. The sun dipping behind the house signifying the last of good family times, the smoky blue of an expensive restaurant where men munch their lunch, the burnt red haze of the cheap discotheque where April drinks herself into a drunken dalliance, the harsh look of empty rooms before the all too quiet and nerve wracking breakfast scene – none of these visuals can go unnoticed.

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Revolutionary Road (2008).

Long before his volatile stage version of the greatest dad story of all (Shakespeare’s King Lear for National Theatre Live in 2014), Mendes had been autographing his films with a style of “stripping away” all the comforts that cocoon characters in their contexts. In Revolutionary Road, Yates’s stinging dialogue lacerates the fetid Wheeler home and harrowed faces with tired eyes show us a marriage in freefall. The house slides into disarray. Children are bundled out of sight and almost pushed out of mind, Then suddenly everything is still, too perfect, and an inexorable, chilling crisis is ushered in.

The film is made of riveting moments, but is somewhat ponderous and belaboured as a whole. With a running time of almost two hours and featuring at least six relevant characters, the fetish to give almost everyone equal screen time is excessive. Claustrophobic as the story of “hopeless emptiness” is, predictable close-ups further drag the pace. What a reader misses more than a viewer is the honesty of back stories as characters rescind into their crumbling inner worlds. The stain of “quiet desperation” that spreads beneath the fine weave of the text makes April courageous, not dramatic.

Yates cuts Frank loose, but our hopes are restored by Mendes, who signs Frank up as a sad, bad, but good dad and earns another clutch of nominations and awards.

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Tha making of Revolutionary Road.
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Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

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In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

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Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.

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The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.

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The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.