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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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.