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TUESDAY, JULY 12, 2016
Slaughterhouse Five is a novel written by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., loosely based on the author’s experiences in World War II, and particularly the bombings of Dresden on February 13th 1945. This anti-war story traces the life of Billy Pilgrim, a bland, passive American, who comes unstuck in time and lives his life in a random order of events. In Vonnegut’s novel, war is like a force of nature we cannot control. Thus, Billy is caught and buffed about helplessly in the gale of World War II.

In 1972, George Roy Hill directed a film version of the novel that attempts to convey Vonnegut’s message of the unconventional nature of war. Hill’s version of Slaughterhouse Five falls short of relaying many of Vonnegut’s ideas. It excludes two important characters and removes the unique voice of the narrator, thus creating a different experience for a viewer without knowledge of the novel. However, the film is successful in delivering a cast that accurately depicts the characters of the novel, using music effectively, and transitioning through Billy’s time trips with an ease not present in the novel.

Michael Sacks’ performance as Billy Pilgrim was one of the most believable roles of the film. The passive, bland nature of the Billy Pilgrim created by Vonnegut is reflected in everything form Sacks’ childlike face and smooth blond hair to the monotone that he speaks in throughout the movie. Yet, the Billy Pilgrim from the film is slightly more animated than Vonnegut’s original version. This slight change in character is evident in scenes such as Edgar Derby, played by Eugene Roche, and Pilgrim’s talk in the English prisoners’ infirmary, where Pilgrim shows an energy that is absent in the original version. The scene where Derby is shot, Billy cries out and rushes to his side, which is uncharacteristic of the novel’s Billy Pilgrim. These slight emotional touches in the movie are absent in the novel and may have been added by the director to create a more entertaining movie that would appeal to a greater public. Even though these changes are slight they detract from the original version’s intent not to create characters that act in such a conventional way.

Some of Edgar Derby’s most moving scenes from the novel, such as his speech to Campbell, are completely omitted in the film. This ultimately detracts from the ultimate irony of his death and downplays the heroic way in which Vonnegut presents Derby. The most effective performance was given by Ron Leibman, who played Paul Lazzaro. Leibman is convincing in creating a character bent on revenge but does not suffer the physical maladies of the novel’s depiction of Lazzaro.

The movie succeeds wonderfully in using music to help convey the mood of many scenes, while the book simply cannot. In the opening credits a light, playful piano piece plays, as Billy trudges through the snow behind German lines. This effective use of music helps create an ethereal scene that is absent in the novel. The most dynamic use of music in the movie happens when the American prisoners arrive in Dresden. A high-spirited tune plays as they disembark form their train and are led through the streets of Dresden. Even though the Americans are prisoners of war, the people of Dresden stop to smile and wave, as children prance alongside the soldiers. This joyful portrayal of the beautiful innocent city elevates the loss of such beauty after the meaningless bombings of 1943.

The movie also smoothly transitions though Billy’s time trips by connecting certain objects or sounds in each event. For example, in the scene where Billy steps under the shower in the German prison, the camera panes down on to the head of Billy as a child, as he remembers how his father threw him into a pool in an attempt to force him to swim. The film version makes these transitions with an ease that the novel does not have. The viewer can more easily note Billy’s association with events from the war and his later life, in the film’s scene of Derby’s acceptance speech as leader of the Americans. The camera cuts back and forth continuously between Billy applauding Derby and a room full of men applauding Billy’s promotion to president of the Lions Club. The ability of the film to connect similar moments from Billy’s time in the war to his later life and then present them almost simultaneously, would be impossible to depict in a novel. Thus, such scenes are more effective on film.

Kilgore Trout’s absence in the film equals the absence of many of Vonnegut’s profound moral insights that he briefly presents through Trout’s novels, such as “The Gutless Wonder.” (Vonnegut, 168) The character of Kilgore Trout, in the novel, is that of a bitter man that cannot fully depict his shrewd ideas because of his terrible prose.

The absence of a narrator in the film version is most strongly felt with the omission of the novel’s most characteristic line: so it goes. In the novel, Vonnegut uses this line after a mention of anyone or anything that has died. Thus in the novel, even a glass of flat champagne is dealt with the same indifference as the death of 135,000 people in Dresden. The movie fails to grasp the point that Vonnegut’s point of death’s equalizing effect. Rather, it dramatizes the death of the civilians in Dresden, loosing the effect created in the novel.

The omitted narrative voice in the film, strongly affects the viewer’s perception of the events in the story. In Vonnegut’s version, the reader is emotionally removed from the events in the story and any suspense is done away with, as everything is revealed to the reader before it happens. Without an omniscient narrator the film fails in crating the detachment that Vonnegut intends in this version. Granted, in a few instances in the film, such as Billy and Valencia’s anniversary, the director attempts to inform the viewer of coming events. In this scene, Valencia tells her guests about the death of Edgar Derby before the viewer has seen it happen on film. But, without Vonnegut’s narrative voice, the stories behind the novel’s characters, such as Roland Weary’s, are not made known to viewers of Hill’s version.

The climax of the film version is the bombing of Dresden, and not Derby’s death as initially depicted in Vonnegut’s version. Vonnegut’s point that a real war does not follow its heroic conventions, is thus lost in Hill’s version. The book’s portrayal of an un-conventional war-story is not reflected in its film version, ironically following the stereotype that the novel attempts tries to break away from.

Ultimately, the movie was loyal to the novel through its casting, the performance of the actors, and its effective use of music. But, the ultimate superiority of the novel is made apparent in the film version’s failure to include the omniscient narrative voice of Vonnegut. The film does an admirable job of attempting to convey the message of Vonnegut through film, but ultimately falls short.

The critic Vincent Canby who wrote for the New York Times in 1972, when the movie was released made an interesting comment. He wrote that “the problem with the film… it’s really not outraged or outrageous enough.” This observation is very true of both the novel and the film. Vonnegut’s initial creation is a story that is not meant to live up to conventional expectations of a war novel, because he felt the presented a false reality. Thus, if the film was successful in creating such dissatisfaction, it most likely succeeded in delivering one of the messages that Vonnegut intended.



Reading this article made me think of Catch-22 - another WWII novel, that later became a film. Catch-22 had a very comedic look and approach, and it wasn't particularly a war novel, but rather a novel that happens to take place in a time of war. Very little of the novel was about the war itself, but rather what all the soldiers were doing when they weren't fighting - and their efforts to get out of the war.

The book itself is a rather atypical novel - each chapter being dedicated to one particular character, and each character becomes the means through which the overall story is told - though, there isn't really a story, instead an account of events - events where are not placed in chronological order. Point being the novel - while a great read, doesn't translate to film at all. One gets to know the characters of Catch-22 not by learning where they came from, where they are, and where they're going, but really just through their reactions of what's going on at that given moment - and usually, their reaction to Yossarian. This also makes it a lot harder for the movie viewer to enjoy the characters on screen. When I tried watching the movie I found it thoroughly unwatchable.

My reason for bringing up Catch-22 is due to the similarities between it and Slaughterhouse Five - the general absurd satire view of the war, both witty, and at times ridiculous. Based on your review of the movie, it seems both were difficult to translate to film. My guess is there was something particular about the sense of humor of those involved in WWII that allowed the authors to capture that feeling in their books. Afterall, both books had screenplays written by people who were too young to be involved with WWII.

Anyway, that's my 2 cents. Good read.

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