It’s little surprise this adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s science-fiction classic has drifted into obscurity. As director George Roy Hill’s follow up to his breakout hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and preceding the even bigger success of The Sting, it might be seen as occupying similar territory to, say, Peter Jackson misfiring with The Lovely Bones between Tolkiens (give or take a Kong). The Slaughterhouse-Five novel was only three years old when the movie came out, and if the audience reception was muted, it nevertheless garnered the Jury Prize at Cannes (so it was certainly better received than Jackson’s unloved effort). Vonnegut was profusive in his praise (“… a flawless translation… it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book”). But as Stephen King has proved repeatedly, literary credentials don’t necessarily foster cinematic discernment. Slaughterhouse-Five feels a little too literal minded, lacking the point of view that would make it a strong movie in its own right. I’m also doubtful that it played to the director’s genre strengths, however effective certain sequences are.
Stephen Geller’s screenplay tracks the major plot points of “unstuck in time” Billy Pilgrim, shuffling between war-torn Dresden, his late 1960s patriarchal life, and a yet-further future sojourn on the planet Tralfamadore. There, living within a geodesic dome, Billy is given porn-star mate Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine) by the fourth dimensional Tralfamadorians, eager to witness human mating rituals. There’s no shortage of ideas, but something is clearly missing. Hill’s movie lacks personality, which you could never say about Vonnegut’s writing, and he evidently has no affinity with the science-fiction element. For the most part, the transitions between time periods lack energy and dramatic heft. Slaughterhouse-Five is also largely humourless – the twisted demise of 1960s wife Valencia (Sharon Gans) being a notable exception – which is odd, given Hill was far from a slouch in that department.
The best-realised sequences are undoubtedly those during World War II, their content largely autobiographical on Vonnegut’s part (the horrors of Dresden haunted him and would inform much of his political perspective). Even here, though, we can see quite starkly the problems an adaptation faces. Was Sachs cast for his resemblance to a young Vonnegut? Maybe. He was a decent actor before he went off to Wall Street, but he makes Billy Pilgrim rather passive (to be fair, reflecting the novel). Which in turn makes the movie rather passive. Sachs is additionally constricted by various layers of prosthetics as Billy ages.
Other production and casting elements are similarly variable in success. There are decent performances from Ron Leibman as Billy’s fellow POW and persecutor, and Eugene Roche as his protector (who dies in a bitterly ironic wave of the hand). The Glenn Gould score is strong, and Miroslav Ondricek’s cinematography effective during the war sequences (again, a different approach for the other time frames would have been more impactful).
It’s stating the obvious, but material that sings on the page can prove tone deaf on the screen, and there’s an essential conundrum Hill and Geller fail to solve with a narrative built on the illusion of free will. The Tralfamadorians hold this fatalistic position, owing to their ability to see beyond the illusion of time. Discussing the death of the universe, they report that it will end with one of their number, experimenting with new fuels, will press the fateful button. He “has always pressed it and he always will” (one wonders if Steve Gallagher was inspired by this when writing Doctor Who’s Terminus).
This kind of causally contortive idea has been better expressed by Terry Gilliam in 12 Monkeys and various Philip K Dick adaptations (and confirmed, then rebuked, and then confirmed again in the various Terminators). Here, the lack of authorial voice voids any bite the conceptual musing might sustain. Vonnegut is full of ideas and opinions, but Hill rather flattens them.
The overriding issue in translating Slaughterhouse-Five to the screen is not dissimilar to another problematic adaptation of two years prior, Catch-22. Both feature hyphens and numbers in their titles, both tell their story through fractured time frames, both were received as anti-war, and both possess a dark sense of humour. And both had mixed cinematic fortunes. Indeed, while both productions were doubtless spurred by the ongoing Vietnam War, which had boosted the novels’ reception or ongoing popularity, they were entirely eclipsed by another picture set during an earlier conflict. One that more acutely captured counter-culture irreverence: Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. Also based on a novel, but as is often the case when a movie catches the zeitgeist, entirely eclipsed by it. By comparison, Slaughterhouse-Five is stodgy and over earnest, as if Hill is nervously backing away from Vonnegut’s literary style.
While the novel’s anti-war ethic comes through in the movie – particularly with the post-plane crash 1960s Billy’s fellow patient dismissing his first-hand experience of Dresden: “The hell with him. Let him write his own book” – other elements are less certain. The freewill aspect only really foregrounds itself during the later Trameldorian sequences (largely moved to the end of the movie). Further, because Hill and editor Dede Allen (also a regular for Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet) are unable to crack the sequential interplay, Billy’s final fate carries little import.
Most of the rest is vague at best. Vonnegut’s politics have been painted in broad strokes by some, but this was exactly the kind of characterisation he objected to (“If you want to take my guns away from me, and you’re all for murdering foetuses, and love it when homosexuals marry each other… you’re a liberal. If you are against those perversions and for the rich, you’re a conservative. What could be simpler?”) That he favoured socialism and spoke positively about communism might suggest he did mistakenly buy in to certain Hegelian dualistic constructs, but it would be too easy to reduce him to simple soundbites. Likewise, his outlook on religion, while being a self-professed atheist, took many of its values from Christianity (he also characterised himself as a freethinker).
Charlie Kaufman was announced as to pen a new adaptation for Guillermo del Toro nigh on a decade back. Kaufman has the right kind of bent for Vonnegut, but I doubt another take could fare substantially better. The remake – often in mini-series format – has been popular of late, including such notables The Name of the Rose and Catch-22, but this boom in serialised TV has also sputtered somewhat, broadly around the time all the hopes and dreams for Game of Thrones fell apart for a vocal section of the audience. Movies like Slaughterhouse-Five tend to become cult classics; it’s telling that it hasn’t, and probably stands as a warning to any thinking they know better and determined to give it another shot.