Slaughterhouse-Five is one of my favorite novels, as it happens to be for so many. It turned 50 years old this year. No author has had the same influence on my outlook or my writing. Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis and lived here. I had a family friend who knew him when he was young and compared my hair to his.
In college, I led a road trip to interview his youngest daughter, Nanette, in Massachusetts. We stopped by Vonnegut’s house where he lived while writing the novel. I have the interviews somewhere. They had had a complicated relationship. She cried during our conversation. We met again two years later at an event for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. She was very warm to me. I don’t know where the interview has ended up. It probably wasn’t any good.
When Aly and I got married a few years back, we had close friends read selections from novels and scripts in lieu of scripture. My friend Nick, who had introduced me to Vonnegut when I was a teenager, read a passage from Slaughter-House Five. I had met him in 2004, via a message board. At the time I was 14 and he was 21; when I was married, I was 26 and he was 33; now I am 31 and he is 38. The difference in ages between us and our outlooks on life continues to shrink, if it was ever large to begin with. In Vonnegut’s lingo, Karass would be used to describe our innate friendship.
“It would take an Earthling to explain it to you. Earthlings are the great explainers, explaining why this event is structured as it is, telling how other events may be achieved or avoided. I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all Time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber…If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever… if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I am grateful that so many of these moments are nice.”
The Tralfamadorian view of life as all happening at once helped me through a lot. The phrase, ‘So it Goes,” has too. “If the Accident Will,” as well. And, of course, my favorite refrain from Slaughterhouse-Five, which I use in reviews from time to time.
Slaughterhouse-Five was adapted into a movie in 1972, directed by George Roy Hill and written for the screen by Stephen Geller. It stars Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim, the World War II veteran who survives the Allied bombing of Dresden, Germany toward the end of the war. Dresden was a city with a large civilian population, and the firebombing decimated it. Vonnegut witnessed the bombing first-hand, although Billy is not his stand-in.
Another thing about Billy: He’s unstuck in time, uncontrollably fluttering between his past, present and future. He’s resigned to it, accepting of it. His birth, life and death are all known to him. He accepts them.
Hill and Geller’s adaptation strikes a tricky balance, as the novel is filled with Vonnegut talking directly to his reader as the narrator of the story. Difficult to pull off in a film. But Hill and Geller push their narrative to the limit, embracing Billy’s time-hopping in unique and interesting ways. Their cuts from one moment to another have been oft lifted in other stories since their film.
Slaughterhouse-Five successfully captures the futility of war and all the human tragedy that comes with it. The absurdity and banal evil of it. Billy begins the movie walking through snowy Germany, barely dressed, stuck behind enemy lines. He ends up a prisoner of war, witnessing the bombing and then the awful aftermath. Eventually he returns home to become an optometrist who is well-respected in his community. All the while, he’s routinely abducted by aliens from Tralfamador, who teach him that all life is now, that there is no reason to fear death. While there, he mates with a famous Hollywood actress. His journey is told through non-chronological moments in time as Billy hops around.
Although it doesn’t contain as much of Vonnegut’s humor as the book (and how could it?), Slaughterhouse-Five does show Billy’s journey dealing with PTSD and depression in a tactile, tragic way. It’s irrelevant whether the Tralfamadorians are “real,” and not worth debating. No matter what, they embody the set of beliefs Billy ultimately comes to accept as a way of dealing with loss, grief and full exposure to the futility of wars men will never stop waging. It’s a film that captures depression and despondency through quiet moments and cuts that compare one moment to another. My favorite is when Billy is carrying his beloved dog, Spot, up the stairs while also flashing into a POW line in Dresden. There’s such a deep, deep melancholy to Hill and Geller’s film. It is quite lovely.
This is as close to perfect an adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five will ever come. Its proximity to the war, and its cast and audience made up of veterans and their children, allow it to feel genuinely mournful and nervous. It was released toward the end of the Vietnam War, which just heating up at the time of the book’s publication. It, like the novel, is staunchly anti-war by way of telling the story of mere children caught up in conflicts beyond their control or understanding. Beyond anyone’s control or understanding. What happens when those children become adults, settle down, live quiet lives? I suppose it’s as jarring as being abducted by aliens.
Vonnegut’s writing has spoken to generations of young people because of the rawness of his human voice. He never puts on airs. Never sugarcoats. There have been many attempts to adapt his work, and all of them suffer by comparison to the actual texts. This one suffers less than others. It’s a companion piece, built at least in some small part from the hopes of a crew trying to adapt something impossible. They gave it their best shot.