The first challenge for would-be adaptors of Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s anti-war masterpiece based on his experiences in the Second World War, is how to deal with its freewheeling structure. The novel’s honeycombs of absurdity, allusion, self-reference, paradox and irony, qualities that have made it a favourite of pretentious students for 50 years, also make it difficult for TV producers who must compete for eyeball time with Love Island. For years it has been considered unfilmable.

George Clooney, a man who tried to get Americans to enjoy espresso, has never been shy of a challenge. He directs, produces and stars in this new six-part miniseries, made by the streaming service Hulu. The writers, Australians Luke Davies and David Michod, tackle the filmability problem by keeping things more chronological than the book does. The first episode opens at an Air Force base in the States, where Lieutenant Scheisskopf (Clooney, moustachioed) is berating his recruits for their inability to march. Why does this matter, they wonder, when they are about to go off to fly bombers in Italy?

The central character is the rebellious John Yossarian, or YoYo (Christopher Abbott). His efforts to get himself out of duty come up against the titular catch: while madness will exclude you from combat, wanting to be excluded from combat is proof you are not mad. The enemy, he realises, is whoever is helping to get you killed, regardless of which side they’re on. The Germans, all but vanquished as the Allies make their way up through Italy, are the least of his worries. Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler) poses a far more immediate threat. Just as Yossarian is on the cusp of completing his required missions, the colonel raises the limit.

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Around them are men trying to make the most of the bad situation. There’s the wheeler-dealer Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart), using the base to run an import-export business that rapidly gets out of hand. Major Major Major (Lewis Pullman), not actually a major until he is promoted to spare his seniors’ blushes, trying to sit out the war without receiving any visitors. Or the epicurean Major de Coverley (Hugh Laurie, on excellent form), throwing horseshoes, eating lamb chops and scouting luxurious officers’ residences.

It looks clean and bright, baked in the Italian sunshine. The script conveys the book’s black humour and comedy. Filming war raises new layers of contradiction that you suspect Heller would approve of: in showing the grimness of it, it’s almost impossible not to make it look glamorous, too. The muscular boys frolic in the Mediterranean and giggle with beautiful Italian prostitutes. It is not shy about gore, either, as in the first episode when a blown-up and bloodied pilot briefly clings on to the side of Yossarian’s window, piercing the comedy with horror.

Lots of people will like Catch-22, especially those who thought the book was impossible to do well on screen. In the end it left me cold. Six hours is a long time without sympathy. While we recognise the impossibility of YoYo’s situation, it’s hard to feel sorry for the man whose every action imperils his comrades. Partly it’s down to how Abbott plays him, but it’s also the case that in the book everything is modified by the authorial voice, whose whimsical, thoughtful tone softens the most unpleasant subjects. The final paradox in this web of paradoxes is that war might be hell but we need someone to root for.

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