Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bonus Notes: Slaughterhouse-Five

 “You want to know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”

“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’” What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.

This passage from Slaughterhouse-Five is not one of Kurt Vonnegut’s more prescient moments. It’s terrifying that some forty years after Vonnegut wrote these lines, we live in a world where warfare is as healthy as ever, yet glaciers are terminally ill.

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I’ve thought that, where available, I would supplement my readings this year with film adaptations. To my knowledge, what film versions may exist of the Oresteia or Prometheus Bound are hopelessly obscure. (There is at least one film regarding Iphigenia, and perhaps Prometheus is depicted in Clash of the Titans or something like that? And no, the recent Ridley Scott opus, Prometheus, does not count.)

However, there was a movie version of Slaughterhouse-Five released in 1972, just three years after the book was published. I was surprised at the mere existence of such a film.

I’ve heard some people say that this or that book is “unfilmable,” for example, Lord of the Rings. But why would this be so? It’s just a bunch of orcs and men fighting each other, right? Before the age of the special-effects extravaganza, perhaps genres like high fantasy would come off as cartoony rather than compelling.

But I’m persuaded that it’s the more conceptually challenging books that are most difficult to turn into films. Something like Slaughterhouse-Five, because of its frequent time shifts and disjointed narrative, as well as potentially staggering pitfalls like how to play violence and mental illness for comedy (without trivializing the biting social satire), and how to portray the alien Tralfamadorian race, is an example of a book that could turn into a disastrously silly movie.

Indeed, in many ways, the film is laughably dumb. The Tralfamadorians, described by Vonnegut with whimsical physical details, are portrayed as invisible to Billy Pilgrim and his mistress, Montana Wildhack, and even creepily prurient, with very little of the four-dimensional perspicacity they displayed in the book. The Paul Lazzaro character, relatively minor in the book, chews up an undeserved preponderance of screen time, and the actor is much too tall and world-weary to capture Vonnegut’s description of an ugly, rat-like, resentful sociopath.

And yet the movie is not as bad as I expected. I was rarely bored, which is something of a feat for a now forty-year-old movie that has little action. They picked the perfect dumbass-looking actor to play Billy Pilgrim, and events and details are largely faithful to the novel, though the tone seems off, maybe because it plays everything too straight.

Where the book reveals the lack of human connection among soldiers thrown together in a sanity-deprived prison camp, the movie earnestly attempts to create relationships among these characters. In trying to provide conventional motivations for the key events of the story, the movie seems to betray the book’s pervasive anxiety formed by terrors that have no clear explanation.

Movie rating: 2.5 stars out of 4 on its own merits; 3 stars in terms of its fidelity to the book

Final word: It’s a curiosity that’s worth watching if you’re a fan of the book, but don’t expect to love it. 

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