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Seen and Read: Revolutionary Road

It strikes me that there’s a considerable amount of bullshit going on here.


That shockingly blunt line was proffered by Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) in response to his wife’s exacerbated bad mood after a disastrous amateur theatre performance. But the same thing could be said about nearly everything that comes out of the characters of Revolutionary Road.

Richard Yates‘s novel is a story of perception, self-awareness, and illusion. Its characters struggle to maintain outer composure while they fall apart inside over and over again, each time worse than the one before. They spend so much time pretending to be someone else that they don’t know what they want or what they believe in anymore. But they keep on deluding themselves because what are you gonna do? Face your own mediocrity? 

For me this didn’t read so much as an exposition of the suburban life lie, but rather as a deconstruction of those people who willingly, though sometimes unconsciously, live a lie, purposefully adjusting themselves at all times to better fit a certain environment or ideal. I suppose to some extent we all do it: we’re all somewhat self-conscious about what we wear and how we talk to certain people.

But our self-awareness is nothing compared to Frank‘s: he imagines every situation, often rehearses his conversations, and constantly adjusts his posture, facial expressions, and voice tone. Every now and then Frank realises the shallowness of it all, for as it reads, no one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying. The following passage perfectly embodies this self-obsession:

He found it so easy and so pleasant to cry that he didn’t try to stop for a while, until he realised he was forcing his sobs a little, exaggerating their depth with unnecessary shudders. Then, ashamed of himself, he bent over and carefully set his drink on the grass, go out his handkerchief and blew his nose. The whole point of crying was to quit before you cornied it up. […] Because the thing was so easily corrupted, let yourself go and you started embellishing your own sobs.

April is a little different. She’s still waiting for a life of excitement, dreaming of european capitals and fabulous people that will pull her out of her housewife misery. She longs to be one of them, and believes Frank can be, too. They come up with a plan to live in Paris that sounds depressing and hilariously unrealistic to everyone but them. What follows is for you to find out, but you’re probably already guessing how that plan is going to go down.

They both despise (or say they do) the fake and boringness of the american dream, the suburban life, the company job, the white picket fenced house filled with beautiful children. They soon begin to feel trapped, but because appearances are to be maintained, they lash out at each other. And boy, do they know how to hurt one another. 

Their arguments are as mean as they can be, both painfully honest and brutally fabricated, but more than the desire to inflict pain, what drives them is pure self-loathing. The insults are at times so blunt and feel so real that it is shocking – but refreshingly shocking, deliciously shocking, even.

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This may sound bad, but their fights are so goddamn good. Yates wrote them all (and the novel itself) with such simplicity and crudeness that I couldn’t help but wish for more and more. Of course in the end it breaks your heart, and although you may despise the Wheelers at first, you’ll come to understand them and even identify with them at some level. All of this made Revolutionary Road a both captivating and enlightening read for me.

Now in comparison, the movie pales a little. DiCaprio and Winslet were perfectly cast –  we feel like we know them already, we can easily imagine them together romantically (one could hope), and they have the goods to bring all those powerful and destructive emotions to life onscreen. Their arguments are well-written and shot, too (a lot of the lines are direct quotes), and the rest of the supporting characters embody their novel counterparts fairly well.

Overall it is beautifully shot, and the themes of fake friendships and suburban living come through nicely. But yet something is not quite right, something is missing from the movie. I can’t exactly put my finger on it (maybe a bit more humour, depth of theory or feelings of self-consciousness?), but it doesn’t impress as much as the novel does.

Still, it’s a good movie of character study, and it’s worth watching even if only for DiCaprio and Winslet’s performances, which are fantastic. The book, however, is the real star. 

have you seen, or read, Revolutionary Road?

View Comments (12)
  • I’ve done both (seen the film and read the book), and I have to say that I much preferred the film. I know, I know … I can see you shaking your head from here HAHA! I found the book really tedious and boring but that may have been because I was a lot younger when I borrowed the novel from my local library. Maybe I should take it out again and give the book a second shot.

    • Nah, I get it! It’s true that sometimes we’re too young to understand/enjoy a book. Maybe it just wasn’t the right time for you, or maybe you just simply do not like it. Either way, you probably should give it another shot, yes!

      I’m not saying it’s perfect – in fact I felt like skipping Frank’s office scenes a few times – but I did enjoy it very much, and perhaps now so will you!

    • The second time I saw it was after reading the novel and I enjoyed it a bit more than my first watch. I think there’s some storytelling/rhythm issues with it, but otherwise it’s fantastic! I hope you love Leo and Kate in it. Ooh, and Michael Shannon and Kathy Bates too!

  • This has been on my watch & read list for so long it is almost embarrassing. I always battled with which to tackle first and then end being swept away by some other tale. But after reading this post I think I will just toss a coin, see what the outcome is and do that 🙂

    Mo x

    P.S Loving the layout of your blog!!

    • Yeah I don’t know which is better to read/watch first either, honestly… but I think you’ll have a better picture of what’s going through their minds and the underlying themes if you read the novel first.

      No matter whether you know where the story is going or not, it’s like seeing it for the first time because reading what they say to each other is one thing, but actually seeing Leo and Kate delivering those lines… it’s weirdly exhilarating.

      oh and thanks!

    • thanks Brit, give it a try sometime! If you loved the film you’ll probably like to see the its “theories” developed, and to know more about what the characters were going through.

  • Hey Sofia, I watched this movie when it came out in the theaters and I’ve seen it so many times it prompted my mother to give me the book as a birthday present years ago. Despite liking the movie so much (Michael Shannon was rightly nominated for an Oscar) I couldn’t bring myself to finish the book, it was just so… painful. I agree that their fights are well written, but I wasn’t exactly asking for more. I’d give the book another try if I hadn’t already donated it a long time ago.

    It’s funny you mentioned about Revolutionary Road exposing suburban life. I remember some classmates (from business school, no less) talking about it last semester. One of them said: “Revolutionary Road? It’s the one about white people in the 50’s, right?” It seems that’s what most people take out of the movie, but I agree with you: criticising the American dream is only part of it.

    To me, it’s about just how much they rely on what is just a dream or a fantasy. I feel they are not only living a lie, they are holding onto that Paris lie, (or illusion, or hope) in order to go on living. Oh, the hopeless emptiness… 🙂 xx

    • You’re not the first to say that about the book to me, and even though you may in fact just simply not like it, I do think that what you said about giving it another try is especially true when it comes to books. It’s happened to me with American Psycho. The first time I read it I couldn’t even finish it. Then some years later I picked it up again and it became one of my favourite books!

      I will say that I felt like skipping some of Frank’s work scenes, but the underlying themes and inner thoughts were very appealing to me throughout. The hopelesss emptiness really stays with you doesn’t it? And Michael l Shannon was superb yes 😀

      I’m actually really glad that a lot of you are coming forth as people who liked this movie, I always thought it wad underrated!

  • I haven’t read the book, but it’s always struck me that something was missing from the film, despite the outstanding work from DiCaprio and Winslet. Maybe I’ll give the book a chance.

    • Yup, I think the book fills in the holes of the movie. Well they’re not exactly *holes*, it’s more like there’s no connecting thread throughout the whole plot. I loved the book, though some parts were a bit boring.

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