Rarely has a motion picture been so roundly misunderstood. In the past month or two, I’ve read countless articles on and reviews of Revolutionary Road, and I’ve yet to come across a writer who gets it. I’m not sure the people who made the movie get it. Luckily, it’s based on a book that’s virtually botch-proof.
“I wish to record my debt of gratitude to the stories and novels of Richard Yates , a writer too little appreciated,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford in the dedication to his short-story collection Women With Men  back in 1997, five years after Yates’ death. Since then, little has been done to correct this injustice, and the works of the man once hailed as “the voice of the postwar Age of Anxiety” have continued to drift out of print. Sam (American Beauty) Mendes’ new movie may well change all that.
And lovers of great literature have Mrs. Mendes — Kate Winslet — to thank. It was she who happened on a screenplay adaptation of Yates’ National Book Award-nominated 1961 debut by English novelist Justin Haythe. Had she not lobbied to bring it to the screen as a family project, new generations of readers would not be discovering the author and his most highly acclaimed work.
Revolutionary Road tells the tragic story of Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Winslet), a couple who live in suburban Connecticut in 1955, have two young children and, from the outside, look like every other educated, middle-class husband and wife in America. Home is a quaint little colonial with an immaculately manicured lawn. Frank commutes to work in the city, while April holds down the fort until the time rolls around to meet him with a martini.
The tragedy is that the Wheelers don’t believe they’re like every other educated, middle-class married couple in America. For seven years they’ve carefully maintained a secret pact to the effect that they are special, superior to their bourgeois neighbors, and destined for great, if ill-defined, things.
Both are attractive and articulate, qualities that in their youth they misinterpreted as evidence of talent. Now, approaching middle age, April has embarrassed herself in a community-theater production. She is not destined to be a famous actress as she always assumed.
Meanwhile, Frank rakes it in as a promotional executive for a company that manufactures business machines. He affects the attitude that his job is “kind of stupid,” and is fond of joking, “There’s nothing interesting about it at all.” The dimmer their vague dreams of a golden life become, the more the two fight. Their sparring is ruthless, quite possibly the most vicious seen in a film since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Reviewers, by and large, have been content to categorize the film based on its surface elements. How many times have I seen it described as the story of a couple struggling against society’s pressure to conform; of a woman suffocating in the traditional role of housewife and mother and a man doomed to a life sentence working a job he hates? Oh, those awful 1950s — no wonder everybody smoked and drank so much.
Of course, the book and the film actually meditate on far subtler and more fascinating ideas. Yates’ real theme is the peculiar sense of entitlement Americans increasingly have come to feel since the second half of the 20th century, that usually delusional presumption of personal uniqueness that can lead to anything from lifelong disillusionment to full-blown madness when not validated by the outside world.
The author hints that the source of the malady may be movies themselves. People didn’t dream about being famous or special in such numbers, after all, until they were confronted with the phenomenon of mere mortals transformed by Hollywood into demigods. The problem was compounded in future years by the pop-music industry. In many respects, Yates anticipated the everybody-wants-to-be-a-star psychology behind the present day YouTube and “American Idol” cultures. Not bad for 1961.
Here’s the Wheelers’ real tragedy: Frank grew up. He’s the first to admit he has no particular artistic gift, and that he was just “a little wise guy with a big mouth” when the two met. Deep down, he’s OK with his lot in life. In fact, he secretly takes a certain satisfaction in his career. He may not have an artistic calling, but he has a professional niche and, by the end of the movie, the promotion to prove it.
April is not so lucky. “I saw a whole other future,” she confesses to a friend, “and I can’t stop seeing it.” There is something to be said for staying true to your dreams. There is also something to be said for getting over yourself. The Wheelers’ problem isn’t the ’50s or suburbia or conformity. It’s that one of them is miserable and won’t be happy until the other is, too.
The book can’t have been the easiest to bring to the screen — it’s every bit as one-of-a-kind as Frank or April ever dreamed of being. (And you won’t leave whistling.) But its creators and cast have come as close to nailing it as I can conceive of anyone doing. See the movie. Read the book. And then read more books by Richard Yates. Ford was right. It’s high time he got the appreciation writing this revolutionary deserves.