This story originally appeared in the Movies & Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
It’s a good thing that Christopher Abbott was cast to play John Yossarian, the existentialist, bombardier protagonist of Joseph Heller’s classic World War II novel “Catch-22,” in Hulu’s adaptation of the book, because Abbott is quite the existentialist himself. He studied the author’s work carefully to play YoYo, a man caught in a war he can’t escape since claiming that he can’t fly because he’s crazy proves he’s sane.
“The book is a plethora of backstory and knowledge,” Abbott, the star of the George Clooney-executive produced and directed limited series, said. “Obviously, there were scenes that were in the book that weren’t in the show. But there are elements of the character and who Yossarian is as a person that gave me a lot that could carry through the entire show. A big thing for me that is actually in the show is when he talks about his relationship with God and his feelings about it. He’s obviously an atheist, and that’s a very telling thing that I’m happy was in the show.”
Speaking of differences between the book and the show, the “Girls” alum admits he prefers Yossarian’s ending on Hulu’s limited series than the one in Heller’s book, for a few specific reasons.
“I think it’s open-ended just enough at the end, in the sense that, at least for me even, it feels almost like a weird dream state,” Abbott said. “I think people will interpret it differently, but I don’t know how realistic — especially him being nude in the plane — I think it’s gonna be hard to decipher whether that’s real or whether that’s in his head and if he’s actually been driven to the insanity he’s been fighting against the whole time. So I think it’s open-ended.”
“Now if we’re talking about the history of the actual novel, I do know that Heller technically wrote ‘Closing Time’ which is somewhat of a followup to ‘Catch-22,’ where you do meet Yossarian later in life,” he continued. “So if you’re following what happens book-wise, I think Yossarian continues on and lives on. But at least for the series and what we decided to do with this version of ‘Catch-22,’ I think it’s kind of open-ended for the state Yossarian is in at the end and if that’s him in his head. And I think it’s better cinematically, this version of it. ‘Cause also in the book it ends on a very non-note, which I love in the writing, I think it works very well for a novel. But I think for it to translate to screen, I don’t know if it would have worked the same way.”
One of the key sequences from the limited series sounds a little silly out of context: Yossarian walks around the military base in Italy fully nude to protest the death of the young radio gunner, Snowden. This means Abbott had to spend a lot of time mostly naked on set, which didn’t bother him because of how essential it was to the story.
“Being nude in anything couldn’t be more justified than it is for this because it’s such a big part of the book, too. It’s a character thing. So of course I knew going into it that was going to be the case. But it doesn’t make it that much more comfortable. If you’re doing a sex scene, you’re meant to be nude and that’s expected, but these are situations that are that much more vulnerable because of the state the character is in.”
Abbott says Yossarian’s decision to strip toward the end of the series comes because, “he’s at a point where he’s at the end of his rope.”
“He’s starting to actually become crazy, as much as he’s been trying to fake being crazy up until this point,” Abbott says. “And he meets this young guy who maybe something about him reminds him of him and he decides he’s gonna take care of him on this go. And I think, hopefully, by the time you get to Snowden, even though you haven’t really learned who he is and his back story that you still feel for him, cause I think he represents the bigger picture of life and especially life being taken at a young age.”
Read more from the Movies & Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.