Kurt Vonnegut's landmark, anti-war, time-tripping, sci-fi masterpiece is one of those books that seems unadaptable as a motion picture. The tone is a highly unusual mix of wartime nihilism, gleeful absurdity, and biting satire. The main character is deliberately drawn as a charisma vacuum. The plot is told non-linearly, and the structure doesn't lend itself to the typical three acts of a Hollywood production. However, against all logical expectation, George Ray Hill's 1972 film version of Slaughterhouse-Five, released just a few short years after the novel's publication, is one of the best book-to-film adaptations ever made.
While purists are sure to miss the inclusion of Vonnegut's opening chapter or the extended subplot involving pulp sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout, the film script remains remarkably true to the plot of the novel, all the way down to its jumbled narrative and unconventional structure. Granted, the film doesn't "spoil" the story quite as much as the novel does, and so certain parts--especially the introduction of the Trafalmadorians late in the movie--come out of nowhere, with very little warning or preamble. I can't pretend to know how I would have experienced the movie had I not read the book first, but I suspect it might be a bit too disjointed for casual audiences, that this might be a rare instance of a film adaptation that is actually improved by reading the source material ahead of time.
Still, like the book, the majority of the film concerns itself with young Billy Pilgrim in the war, as he is captured by the Germans and set to work in Dresden, which is then bombed in one of the most brutal moments of World War II. Removed from the rest of the film, these scenes would make up a fairly standard war movie, albeit a downbeat, dour one. The best scene is easily the introduction of Dresden (filmed in Prague) with the American POWs looking around in awe as the fourth Brandenberg concerto blares away. The actual bombing isn't shown, but the aftermath is sufficiently terrifying to convey the emotional impact of it.
The characters around Pilgrim are more interesting than he is
Pilgrim (played by the unknown Michael Sacks) is lead through one scene after another, but it is the characters around him who are more engaging. Whether it's the revenge-obsessed Paul Lazzaro (Ron Leibman), the noble but ill-fated Edgar Derby (Eugene Roche), the American traitor looking for Nazi recruits (Richard Schaal), or the ridiculously earnest British officer (John Wood), these characters offer competing outlooks on the war and feel ripped right out of Vonnegut's pages. The only real significant change is the way Derby's death is portrayed--or more specifically, Pilgrim's reaction to that death--in that the book gives off a sense of inevitable pointlessness to it whereas the movie plays it for pathos.
The rest of the plot is interspliced throughout, and though it is more truncated from the source material than the wartime scenes, the movie still manages to get across all the main story beats: Pilgrim's marriage to the weight-obsessed Valencia (Sharon Gans), their having kids, and then the tragic plane crash that kills Pilgrim's father-in-law and leads to his own brain surgery. Valencia's drive to the hospital, which itself proves to be fatal, is played just right: absurd, darkly comedic, and ending with mystifying heartbreak.
Then there's Pilgrim's later years and his feud with his remaining family over his published rantings about being unstuck in time, which are breezed over very briefly along with his future death at the hands of Lazzaro's still-burning grudge. His abduction by the Tralfamadorians alongside the former porn star Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine) is treated as the story's proximate climax. These scenes come and go rapidly, but not so rapidly that audiences don't get a feel for the kind of man Pilgrim is or what he learns from his experience with the Trafalmadorians.
Everything from both time periods is shot minimalistically, with a lot of medium shots and natural lighting, so as not to unsettle audiences. Even the Tralfamadore scenes, despite their otherworldly backdrop, aren't given too many stylistic flourishes. Hill is obviously going for realism to offset the unreal nature of the plot. It's not quite documentary-style, but it gets awfully close at times, striving to ground even the script's most ludicrous sci-fi-tinged moments in the familiar and mundane. This is similar to what I think Vonnegut was trying to do, albeit coming from the opposite direction.
The Tralfamadore scenes get pretty surreal
As a movie on its own merits, I daresay it was ahead of its time in a lot of ways, which is probably why it doesn't often get the recognition it probably deserves. While the early seventies were certainly a time of broad cinematic experimentation, I don't think mainstream critics or audiences really knew what to make of Slaughterhouse-Five, a movie that defies simple classification and refuses to explain itself in simplistic terms. It wasn't completely ignored, but before I set out to review the book a few months ago, I didn't even know this film adaptation existed, which is a testament to its repressed legacy.
It's not a perfect film--the low budget, unconvincing age makeup, and naturalistic flavor give it the worst kind of made-for-TV vibes--but as an adaptation, it's absolutely on-point. In fact, it's such a good adaptation that even the writer, the notoriously critical Vonnegut, absolutely loved it, calling it "a flawless translation" that is "harmonious with what [he] felt when [he] wrote the book." It fully captures the disturbing mix of emotions, of the horror and the farce of war, the apathy and the hidden joy of post-traumatic nihilism, the pain of loss but the hope that everything persists eternally. I wouldn't have thought it possible, but this movie does Slaughterhouse-Five justice.
-e. magill 8/20/2020
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