Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

Slaughterhouse Five: film and book

Slaughterhouse Five won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1973, with only three competitors - Silent Running, which I have not seen, and two TV films that I had not even heard of, Between Time and Timbuktu which is based on other works by Kurt Vonnegut, and The People, mostly based on a novella by Zenna Henderson, "Pottage". IMDB users rank Slaughterhouse Five 25th and 27th of all films of 1972 on the two systems; Silent Running does better at 12th and 18th, while the other two are a very long way down. Iwonder why there were only four finalists? The previous year with less than five was 1965 and the next was 1977. I haven't seen Tarkovsky's Solaris, but I think it has shown the best staying power of any sfnal film from 1972, despite being overlooked by Hugo voters. It's also a bit surprising that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes didn't get a look-in.

Anyway, here's a trailer for Slaughterhouse Five.
I had seen it long ago, and am also familiar with the book. A lot of people really rave about this film, whose director, George Roy Hill, went on to my next Oscar-winner, The Sting. I was not quite so grabbed; I think I can be politely positive, but not a lot more. The central character, Billy Pilgrim, is played at various ages and degrees of make-up by Michael Sacks (who dropped out of acting and went into tech ten years later). None of the other actors seems to have appeared in other Hugo-winning films, or Oscar-winners or Doctor Who, so that gives me one less thing to write about.

The plot concerns Billy Pilgrim's voyages up and down his personal timeline, including his time as a PoW in wartime Germany, experiencing the Allies bombing of Dresden, and then suburban unfulfilled family life, with a phase of being kidnapped by aliens who hook him up with a beautiful young porn actress who has his baby. I don't remember seeing a single non-white actor even as an extra in the entire film, and the few women characters are pretty but stupid (I don't think it passes Bechdel Two). I also wasn't really persuaded by 24-year-old Michaels Sacks made up to look older, and frustrated that we don't really get much sense of what Billy Pilgrim actually thinks about the bizarre things that happen to him; he is a very passive protagonist.

There are some good bits too. The horrors of war, and the alienating effect of combat on the participants, are well brought home, and there are some very nifty transition points between different parts of the timeline. Eugene Roche (who I remember as a lawyer in Soap) is great as Pilgrim's friend Edgar Derby who gets shot for looting, and Valerie Perrine is tremendously energetic as Montana Wildhack, the porn starlet. But I have to say I found it one of the less engaging Hugo-winning films I've seen so far. Still, if you want, you can get it here.

As usual, I went back and reread the book, which is quite short. Vonnegut felt that the film was a faithful adaptation, and I would agree with him there. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
The dog, who had sounded so ferocious in the winter distances, was a female German Shepherd. She was shivering. Her tail was between her legs. She had been borrowed that morning from a farmer. She had never been to war before. She had no idea what game was being played. Her name was Princess.
When I last reread this in 2009, I wrote:
Rereading this classic, which combines the horrors of the 1945 bombing of Dresden with the sfnal captivity of the hero by the aliens of Tralfamadore. Having first come to Vonnegut via Cat's Cradle and The Sirens of Titan as a teenager, I wasn't really sure what to make of this. Coming to it again a quarter-century later, I have a much deeper appreciation of Vonnegut's savaging of the surrealism of war, and of how trauma throws the rest of your life into a weird perspective. But I also find his attitude to women much more annoying - at least, to the women in the main part of the story, the mothers of Billy Pilgrim's children, Valencia Merble and Montana Wildhack (and Pilgrim's daughter Barbara). Having said that, the sanest character in the book is probably Mary O'Hare from the ostensibly autobiographical foreword; and it must also be admitted that most of the male characters are pretty unpleasant too.

Anyway, I can't think of many other sf novels which take the Second World War as their subject, and this is probably the best in that rather small set.
Scanning the SF Encyclopedia entry on WW2, I think that last comment still stands - J.G. Ballard, Jerry Kosinski and Primo Levi all wrote sf and all wrote about the war but as far as I know, none of them combined the two themes at novel length. Edited to add: I have been reminded of Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear, which I had successfully been trying to forget.

This time around I found I appreciated Vonnegut's success in keeping the narrative pace balanced between the various parts of the story line, all of which have different climaxes at different times. I found his drawings annoying though, and I think I still prefer Cat's Cradle. Still, if you want, you can get it here.
Tags: bookblog 2020, films, hugo and nebula winning films, sf: hugos, writer: kurt vonnegut

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