Revolutionary Road and the Myth of the Suburban Trap

“Every map is a fiction. Every map offers choices.
It’s even possible to choose something beautiful.” –D. J. Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir

Revolutionary Road tells a story Hollywood loves: suburbia is holding you back, its conformity is keeping you from being “yourself,” as if that self is something entirely separate from circumstance. Sam Mendes, having already dealt with contemporary American suburbia in 1999’s American Beauty, tackles the even more readily stereotyped 1950s version of suburban life in Revolutionary Road (an adaptation of the 1962 novel by Richard Yates, which I admit to never having read). Though the acting by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet may indeed be impressive, even the best acting in the world can’t render sympathy for two such narcissistic, deluded characters as Frank and April Wheeler.

Before dropping in on the Wheelers several years and two children into their marriage, the film begins with a brief scene showing us Frank and April meeting at a party, and we learn that while April is trying to be an actress, Frank really doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. A later flashback to another scene from their dating life involves April telling Frank that he’s the most interesting person she’s ever met, though we viewers are never given a clue as to what makes him so special. In fact, the most frustrating thing about the Wheelers as characters is that they view themselves as different from everyone around them, and therefore in danger of being trapped by all the inferior, uninteresting people surrounding them in suburban Connecticut.

If Revolutionary Road took the trouble to question the Wheelers’ viewpoint, it would be a far more “interesting” (to use the Wheelers’ favorite word) film. However, it seems to take their assumptions about themselves and about 1950s culture in general at face value. It would be possible to sympathize with Frank for feeling trapped in the city job he hates, at the company where his father before him worked, and to sympathize with April for feeling frustrated with her life as a housewife, if they didn’t feel so ridiculously proud of themselves for wanting something other than “convention” (and also if they weren’t both sleeping around with other people). We learn that they first bought the house in the suburbs because April was pregnant, implying that children have somehow brought this entrapment upon them. The film never really addresses the fact that the Wheelers made a choice here; they must have, at one point, bought into the cultural myth that the suburbs are the only place to raise children. Sure, children would have imposed some limits on their choices—that’s what life tends to do, children or no—but there were still choices available to them, and they picked one option out of many. It’s hard to feel much pity for people who have chosen the very comfortable lifestyle that they then proceed to whine about for the rest of the movie.

Finally reaching the boiling point of marital conflict and suburban ennui, April comes up with the brilliant idea of moving to Paris, where she will be the family breadwinner while Frank tries to figure out where his true skills lie. This plan of course begs the question: why Paris? Why couldn’t they try the same plan much more cheaply in the U.S.? Part of the answer seems to be that, in spite of all their snideness towards their peers, the Wheelers actually do care about what other people think. They couldn’t be so revolutionary as to let people in the U.S. witness April supporting the family. Heaven forbid they do something truly radical, like, say, moving to the South and working as sharecroppers: there wouldn’t be good wine and cheese!

Despite their supposedly countercultural stance, Frank and April (and, it seems, the film) are utter conformists to American individualism. “Finding themselves” is more important than serving any sort of larger community, even the tiny community of the family. (Their children seem to enter not at all into the Paris plan, until April finds out that a new baby is on the way, which leads her to consider abortion.) And while the 1950s in general ignored the truth that children are probably happier when they sense that their parents are happy and fulfilled—in other words, parents’ needs and children’s needs are not some sort of zero-sum game—the Wheelers go to the other extreme, believing that their individuality is more important than any sort of life they have created together with their children.

The most disturbing thing about Revolutionary Road is that it leaves unquestioned the assumption that a mere change of location will address deeper, spiritual problems. If you’re bored and frustrated in Connecticut, you’ll probably end up bored and frustrated in Paris. It’s a truth of existence that Christian monasticism, in particular, has plumbed. The desert fathers and mothers of early Egypt recognized that, if you can’t be at peace in a tiny cell, you won’t be at peace anywhere. Cassian (ca. 360-425) dubbed the problem “acedia” (a term explored at length by Kathleen Norris in a recent memoir) and described it thus:

“When this [acedia] besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom with one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren, whether they be dwelling with one or some way off, as careless and unspiritually minded persons. Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert. . . . We praise other and far distant monasteries, describing them as more helpful to one’s progress, more congenial to one’s soul’s health. We paint the fellowship of the brethren there, its suavity, its richness in spiritual conversation, contrasting it with the harshness of all that is at hand . . . . Finally we conclude that there is no health for us as long as we stay in this place, short of abandoning the cell wherein to tarry further will be only to perish with it, and betaking ourselves elsewhere as quickly as possible.”

The Wheelers’ acedia is obviously nothing new or special. What they lack, as many of us do today, is the desert tradition’s wise response to acedia: the willingness to submit to your circumstances and your surroundings, and to learn from them. As Abba Moses, another early desert father, said, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Hollywood is so fond of painting suburbia as a jail cell or a trap; what would happen if our movies had the humility to portray limitation as the source of unexpected blessings? It is possible to choose something beautiful, even in suburbia.

About Carrisa Smith
  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    Do you think it is possible that the movie is actually highlighting the fact that their assumptions (about Paris being better, about being more interesting than average suburbanites, etc) are wrong?

    I haven’t seen the movie, but I recently read the book and that seems to be the purpose. It displays their perspectives on the world in a way that helps you realize how empty and wrongheaded those perspectives are, and asks you to look for other solutions to your struggles with discontent.

    I’ve heard a lot of comparisons between American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, but the difference is that American Beauty seems to say suburbia is the problem, while Revolutionary Road says that the problem is essentially inside ourselves.

  • Carissa Smith

    Ben, I don’t think the movie is highlighting the wrongness of their assumptions. From what I’ve read in other reviews comparing the book and the movie, it seems like the book points a lot more towards the inner problems, as opposed to blaming them all on suburbia.

    Re: American Beauty, I’ve also read people claiming the exact opposite! (That American Beauty points to the internal soul-problems, while Revolutionary Road externalizes them.)

  • Thomas Jones

    Carissa,

    First of all, I think that the first poster hit the nail on the head. You seriously misread this one.

    Second of all, have you read the book?

    I hate to seem uncharitable here, but I can’t imagine how you could write such a negative review without reading the source material. The movie is, without a doubt, a cheap imitation of the original. There’s just certain things that you can do with words that you can’t express visually.

    Thomas

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Thomas, in Carissa’s defense, the movie stands on its own as a work of art/entertainment, not only in the sense of the author’s intent, but for all practical purposes in terms of the viewer.

  • Carissa Smith

    Thomas, you’ll see in the first paragraph that I say I have not read Yates’s novel, which, as Rich says, is a completely different critter from the movie. I think you’ll find it pretty common for even professional reviewers (which I certainly am not) to review movies independently of the works on which they are based. Other reviewers have chosen a different approach of comparing the book and the movie, and many of these reviewers have suggested that Sam Mendes (and possibly the screenplay writer) misread Yates’s novel. Now, it’s possible that if I had read the novel, I would have interpreted the movie differently. As I watched, I kept looking for evidence of the nuances that, from most reports, are to be found in the novel–not because I had read the novel, but because I hoped for some greater complexity than the movie initially seemed to have. Whether or not the book has this complexity, the film certainly fails–not just as an interpretation of the book, but as a work of art in its own right.

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    Interesting discussion, all. But Thomas, really, can we try to be kinder in our tone? Carissa has a solid and well-deserved reputation as someone whose analysis is always thoughtful and thorough.

    I think she is unquestionably correct that the movie should be evaluated independently of the book. No true lover of Narnia would want C.S. Lewis evaluated in terms of Adamson or whatever his name is. And it would be unfair to evaluate Adamson in terms of Lewis (unfairly positive, that is).

    One reason I assumed greater connection between book and movie is that I listened to an interview with the guy who did the Rev. Road screenwriting, and he strongly intended to communicate the same things as the book. I found myself in close agreement with much of what he said about the themes of the book that he tried to put in the movie script.

    At the same time, Sam Mendes also directed American Beauty, which is (to my ear) a very different story. I wonder if he felt they are similar types of stories and directed Rev. Road poorly as a result?

    Whatever the case, I appreciate you highlighting these issues. Looks like another case of failure to create solid parrallels between the book and movie versions of a story.

  • Carissa Smith

    This is only tangentially related, but I just came across a post (via First Thoughts) on Mendes and suburbia in general, focusing on his latest movie, Away We Go (currently in urban, but probably not suburban, theaters):

    Sam Mendes has a new movie out. And guess what? It’s not about how family life in the suburbs sucks your soul out of you like most of his other movies. It’s about two young people worrying about whether family life in the suburbs will suck their soul out of them. A radical departure, eh?

  • Thomas Jones

    OK, OK – point well taken. I may have been a little harsh in my tone there – please accept my apology, Carissa.

    I guess that my point is this: Revolutionary Road as a movie was intended to be an adaptation of the film, so it just seems a little unfair to Yates to review the derivative instead of the original. It’s a lot like reviewing the 1974 Jack Clayton production of ‘The Great Gatsby’ and calling ‘The Great Gatsby’ a really inferior work and a ‘failed’ piece of art. Yeah, you could make the argument that they ought to be viewed independently as distinct art forms, but let’s be smart about how we do that. Dealing with topics like this, we need as much nuance as possible – nuance that films sometimes aren’t able to give us.

    I’m probably sensitive about it because I’m so fond of Yates’ novel and was so terribly disappointed with the movie. To be sure, there is nothing inherent about suburbia that is inherently bad. We know that, and so did Yates (and I would venture, so does Mendes, if you’d press him). If you look closely at the book, I think you’d find that it agrees with you in lots of places that you don’t think that the movie does.

  • http://pos51.org/ Charles Jones

    Thomas

    Quite often a movie says something different than the book or story that it’s based on, as everyone has said. Calling Clayton’s Gatsby failed says nothing of Fitzgerald’s work. Saying otherwise would lead to calling a five-minute Gatsby produced by a group of 9-year-olds a great work, simply because of its source material.

    What seems unfair to an author would be to imply that a poorly thought out or executed adaptation reflected at all on the original work. Consider the Bourne Identity: the movie was fun, and fairly clever. But in comparison to Ludlum’s novel, it’s garbage. Should we call it great simply because it bore the same name and some similar plot elements? What about I, Robot or I am Legend or Batman Forever?

    Rest assured that the review here addresses the movie as a separate work, and your disappointment seems to be shared.

    That said, I have to go see Transformers tomorrow, and after reading quite a line of incredibly well written film reviews (and lamenting my own attempt at reviewing Star Trek), I want different movies to review here. This and G.I. Joe will probably ruin my credibility here. I’ve got dibs on 9, Burton’s always a good bet.

    Charles Joness last blog post..…and Zombies

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    This conversation reminds me of our Prince Caspian discussion. It is, of course, fair to compare/contrast (to use what I remember from juniour high writing assignments) the two expressions of story and fair to wonder at faithfulness of adaptation (and whether faithfulness was intended), but in all but the most experimental cases, films should be treated as separate entities.

    It may be that the screenwriter wanted to be faithful to what he got out of the book, but maybe Sam Mendes vision was different. In evaluating an adapted film, we are evaluating such a film on its own terms first. We can enter into comparison if we want, but unless such comparisons seek to say something about the human condition or touch on some sociological topic (like the modus operendi of Hollywood directors), then such a comparison is really kind of a boring topic for all but the fanboi of the original work.

    The Danes last blog post..20090417.teaParty

  • Joannah Ganz

    Having lived in New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, Boulder, Scottsdale, Philadelphia, Boston and the Dallas suburbs, I strongly dispute the notion that geography doesnt determine happiness. “Someone who is bored in the suburbs will be bored in Paris” is simply ignorant, sure you can rely to some extent on your own creativity and make your own adventures, but that has nothing to do with the fact that Paris’ extensive network of art, culture, intellectualism, architecture ect ect provides a level of inspiration and mind expansion that grows perspective and enhances quality of life. I agree that the Wheelers made their own beds but strongly disagree with the OPs assertions that the suburbs are less than intellectually suffocating and creatively void in comparison to thriving cities.


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