Slaughterhouse Five; or the Childrens Crusade (1969) is often regarded as Kurt Vonneguts greatest work. (Ones personal favourite among Vonneguts books goes out to his extraordinarily savage Mother Night (1962) wherein Vonnegut manages to ridicule almost all ideological bents). Slaughterhouse Five recounts Vonneguts own true-life experiences as a captured POW of the Germans during WWII and his surviving the Allied firebombing of the city of Dresden in 1945 that killed some 135,000 civilians. (The title Slaughterhouse Five was the name of the meat locker where Vonnegut and several other POWs were sequestered and managed to survive). The book, with its strong anti-War theme, was celebrated when it came out at the height of anti-Vietnam War movement.
The film adaptation of Slaughterhouse Five was made by George Roy Hill, who was then riding on the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and would go on to make The Sting (1973) and The World According to Garp (1982). As a film adaptation, Slaughterhouse Five suffered from the usual need to have read the book for the film to make any sense, and it doesnt when you have gripes. Having not read the book when first seeing the film, I must admit no particular problems. However, when I did read the book some years later, it is only then that the films clumsiness becomes apparent. The films greatest crime is the trivialisation of the books issues be they Kurt Vonneguts dark irony, the very real tragedy of the bombing of Dresden, or the Tralfamadorian secret of happy life. Vonnegut wrote in a style that might be called absurdist fatalism, wherein he depicted events of overwhelming suffering and travelled throughout the space of his own life to arrive at an ironic shrugs of the shoulders So it goes. The film misses this by a mile there is no reaction to the misfortunes of Billy Pilgrims life or the War, there is not really any underlying reaction to anything, just a story with the quirky notion of a man flipping around in time and eventually ending up in an alien zoo. The film does occasionally come with a sense of black comedy that seems to be trying to ape Catch 22 (1970), another popular film of the era that also eviscerated its source work, but this seems to emerge in random bizarre bursts all over the place. One scene where Sharon Gans goes wildly out of control all over a highway in a car is so overblown that it becomes numbingly unfunny.
Slaughterhouse Five is not without its small successes some of the double-takes that occur when Michael Sachs flips from one period to the other are often amusing. Although where for Kurt Vonnegut the disjunctive non-linear narrative showed up true randomness the book is written in a patchwork style that flips between parts of Pilgrims life in the space of the same page or even a new paragraph for George Hill it is one of ironic counterpoint, an element that was not there during the book. A far better depiction of the random essence of the time flipping can be found in the Alian Resnais film Je Taime, Je Taime (1968), which in fact predates the publication of Kurt Vonneguts book.
The reconstruction of Dresden has been beautifully managed. There is at least one small moment of screen-telling magic that George Hill manages where the American POWs are led through the streets and start to relax to the jaunty music, dancing as the German children come out to join them. Glenn Gould delivers a nice score and the film is prettily photographed. However, the wider picture, especially Kurt Vonneguts notion of an elliptical, non-linear plot and his bleakly barbed pessimism, are light years beyond the films grasp.
Other screen adaptations of Kurt Vonneguts work are: Between Time and Timbuktu (1972), Slapstick of Another Kind (1982), Welcome to the Monkey House (1991), Harrison Bergeron (1995), Mother Night (1996) and Breakfast of Champions (1999).