Film of the Book: Slaughterhouse-Five

Directed by George Roy Hill (1972)

slaughterhouse-five-poster

From the book review:

The narrator, having survived WW2, intends to write a book about the bombing of Dresden, but can’t seem to think of anything to say. He visits an army buddy to share memories in a bid to get himself started, but his buddy’s wife is angry, thinking he will write yet another book glorifying war. He promises he won’t – and then he begins to tell the fable of Billy Pilgrim. Written during the height of the Vietnam War, Vonnegut uses his own experiences of an earlier war to produce a powerful protest novel, one that concentrates on the effects of war at the human, individual level.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

The film begins by showing us Billy typing a letter to a newspaper, explaining that he is ‘unstuck in time’, travelling backwards and forwards through his own life. This is quite an effective short-cut, though unlike in the book it’s not really expanded on later to show why Billy had decided to make his story public. In the book, we are told Billy’s story by a narrator who makes us aware that it’s a fable, a form he is using because he feels he wants to say something profound about the bombing of Dresden. This isn’t mentioned in the film, so that the viewer is put in the position of having to assume that Billy’s life is “real”, which in turn means that the events perhaps take precedence over the meaning – the reverse of what happens in the book.

Then the film starts to move through Billy’s life, concentrating on his experiences in WW2 as a prisoner of war first in the camps and then later in Dresden before and after the bombing of the city. Although it shifts in time, the film feels as if it takes a more linear approach to Billy’s life – more or less starting at the beginning and ending at the end, but with detours along the way. The book seems more jumbled, more fragmented, and therefore gives, I feel, a clearer picture of Billy’s disorientation.

slaughterhouse-five-arriving-in-dresden

When I look at the notes I took while watching, it turns out it’s primarily a list of things the film misses out. This is a pity, since I’d say it’s a brave and partially successful attempt to bring a complex and difficult book to the screen. Michael Sacks as Billy gives a good performance though I felt that somehow he made film Billy fit his life better than the Billy in the book did. He doesn’t seem as scared in his early army career, nor as disconnected in the later scenes, and he’s played a little more for laughs – and is perhaps more likeable, in fact. For example, in the book we know he doesn’t ever really love his wife – the major reason for him marrying her is that she happens to be the daughter of his boss. I didn’t feel that came across much in the film – she is made rather annoying, but we don’t get inside Billy’s head to know how he feels about her. I’m not normally a fan of having a narrator doing a voiceover in a film, but with a book that is so concerned with what’s happening inside the main character’s head, I began to feel it would have helped to fill some of the gaps.

While I don’t think the book is really science fiction, nonetheless Billy’s visits to the planet Tralfamadore are central, and I was surprised at how underplayed this aspect is in the film. For a start, Hill has wimped out of showing the odd-looking Tralfamadorians, turning them into an invisible species instead. And, rather annoyingly and completely in line with ’70s cinema (my unfavourite decade of film), Billy turns up on the planet in his respectable night wear, whereas the girl turns up nicely naked and with plenty of pert nipple action, so that the lascivious males in the audience have something to drool over while the lascivious females have to make do with their imaginations, unless they happen to have a dressing gown fetish. And then they wonder why we became feminists…

slaughterhouse-five-arriving-on-tralfamadore

The science fiction author from the book doesn’t appear either, though I didn’t feel this was a great loss since he seemed a bit extraneous anyway. Much more oddly, the phrase “So it goes” is entirely missing from the film. Anyone who has read the book will know that it’s used as a chorus every time a death occurs, as a sort of semaphore to mark both the inevitability and futility of war. I can see that, without a voiceover, it would have been quite difficult to shoehorn this in, but without it, I felt the point was left rather unclear. In fact, the film seems to send another message, focussing on a small (and rather trite) part of the Tralfamadorian philosophy, that life is made up of moments and we should concentrate on the good ones. Very little is made of the, to me, deeper part of their philosophy – the part that draws Billy into this particular delusion – that if one can travel backwards in one’s life, one can in a sense keep people alive by visiting them in the past, thus reducing the finality of death. Part of this message comes from another scene that’s also missing – where Billy sees old war movies running in reverse, so that it appears that the dead come back to life, and that the Germans, rather than shooting planes down, are in fact lifting them back into the sky. The omission of this central and moving scene is a strange decision indeed.

slaughterhouse-five-dresden-after-bombing

Unfortunately the film left me entirely unmoved in the end. While it’s quite entertaining in parts, and has its shocking moments, overall it lacks the depth and power of the book. It’s too linear, we don’t get a real idea of what’s going on in Billy’s mind, and I felt that some of the major points in the book were either omitted entirely or weren’t sufficiently explored. The rather odd “happy ending” that is tacked on therefore came as less of a surprise than it should have done.

★ ★ ★

So an easy decision this time…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

slaughterhouse-five

THE BOOK!

* * * * *

33 thoughts on “Film of the Book: Slaughterhouse-Five

  1. Wow, that was a comprehensive dissection, I loved it! I admit I haven’t seen either the movie or read the book but like the points you mentioned and I must say I’m not surprised the book wins, don’t they (almost) always do? 🙂

    • Thank you! Ha, yes – I think the book has only lost once since I started doing this – Moby Dick! But this book would be particularly hard to film, I think – I’d definitely recommend the book though, if you ever get the time to fit it in… 🙂

  2. I think it really would be extremely difficult to film this one, FictionFan. Films are much easier if one has a linear timeline and less disorientation. Still, I’m glad the film got a few things right. I’ll admit, I’ve not seen it, but I can see how you’d have some issues with it.

    • Yes, it was a brave attempt but I’m not sure I quite see the point. Some books just aren’t really suitable for filming and I’d say this is one of them. But at least he didn’t turn it into some kind of sci-fi blockbuster, which I was a bit apprehensive he might!

  3. I’ve been looking forward to this review! It would be a very hard book to capture on screen. I wonder how someone would find it if they’d never read the book.

    • You know, I wondered that while I was watching – I’m not sure how much of it I’d have got at all if I hadn’t read the book. I suspect it might be a bit like 2001: A Space Odyssey in that respect – that it’s really necessary to read the book first to properly understand it. But the film of 2001 added something to the book – I’m not sure this one does…

  4. I remember when the book came out. But I never read it. Nor did I see the movie.
    And I was in college. Where I would never be allowed to read it. So it was nice to know what I missed.

  5. What?! The film omitted the most notorious line: So it goes?! I object! I object! Very interesting dissection, FF. I loved the book, but I’ve never watched the movie, which apparently is a good thing! I admit, after reading this book, I overused the phrase so completely, I annoyed my family. But it does seem to answer every major question! Politics today? So it goes. Bad weather? And so it goes. (You can see how I got in trouble with this…)

    • I know! Isn’t it odd? I can see why they might not have put it in as often as in the book, but you’d think they’d have been able to get it in once or twice anyway! Haha! It does seem to be an appropraite comment on so many aspects of life… and if your family get annoyed by it, well, so it goes! 😉

  6. Can’t imagine this as a film: the book doesn’t just happen inside Billy’s head, it happens inside the reader’s. Think I’ll give the film a miss.

    • It is a good attempt and stays pretty faithful to the story – but so much is omitted that I wonder how it would have worked for someone who hadn’t read the book. No, not an essential addition to your To Be Watched list…

  7. I had no idea that this had been made into a movie. Touch undertaking. I really admire the book (hard to say I “love it” when it’s so sad. And I think Breakfast of Champions or Cat’s Cradle would be my top Vonnegut pick, of the ones I’ve read so far.) I enjoyed reading about the movie, FictionFan!

    • Thanks – glad you enjoyed it! 🙂 Yes, it’s a particularly hard one to make work on film, I’d have said, and though this is a brave attempt, I didn’t really feel it had succeeded. It’s the only Vonnegut I’ve read so far, but Cat’s Cradle is on my wishlist… once I get the TBR under control… 😉

    • Haha! I must admit this reminded me of why I hated 70s cinema so much – it was so sexist, all disguised under the pretence that it was so liberated. Plus so embarrassing to watch if on a date… 😉

    • Yes, I was deeply disappointed with the Tralfamadorian cop-out. And the lack of so it goes made it feel different in tone from the book somehow – not nearly so powerful. Oh, well, it was a brave attempt…

    • I think having recently read the book both helped and hindered me when watching the film. On the one hand, it meant I could fill in some of the blanks, but on the other hand, I got irritated by what was missing. I wondered whether I’d have liked the film more or less if I hadn’t read the book…

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