ICFIFC: Slaughterhouse-Five

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Monday, October 7, 2013

ICFIFC: Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) is a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut about World War II experiences and journeys through time of a soldier named Billy Pilgrim.  It is generally recognized as Vonnegut's most influential and popular work.  Vonnegut's use of the firebombing of Dresden as a central event makes the novel semi-autobiographical, as he was present during the bombing.

Chaplain's Assistant Billy Pilgrim is a disoriented, fatalistic, and ill-trained American soldier, one who refuses to fight ("Billy wouldn't do anything to save himself").  He does not like wars and is captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge.  The Germans put Billy and his fellow prisoners in a disused slaughterhouse (although there are animal carcasses hanging in the underground shelter) in Dresden.  Their building is known as "Schlachthof-fünf" ("Slaughterhouse Five").  During the bombing, the prisoners of war and German guards hide in a deep cellar.  Because of their safe hiding place, they are some of the few survivors of the city-destroying firestorm.

Billy's near death is the consequence of a string of events.  Before the Germans capture Billy, he meets Roland Weary, a jingoist character and bully, just out of childhood like Billy, who constantly chastises him for his lack of enthusiasm for war.  When captured, the Germans confiscate everything Weary has, including his boots, giving him hinged, wooden clogs to wear; Weary eventually dies of gangrene caused by the clogs.  While dying in a railcar full of prisoners, Weary manages to convince another soldier, Paul Lazzaro, that Billy is to blame.  Lazzaro vows to avenge Weary's death by killing Billy, because revenge is "the sweetest thing in life."  Lazzaro later pays to have Billy shot and killed with a laser gun after his speech on flying saucers and the true nature of time before a large audience in Chicago, in a balkanized United States on February 13, 1976 (the future at the time of the book's writing).

A film adaptation of the book, also called Slaughterhouse-Five, was made in 1972.  Although critically praised, the film was a box office flop.  It won the Prix du Jury at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, as well as a Hugo Award, and Saturn Award.  Vonnegut commended the film greatly.  Guillermo del Toro has confirmed his intention to remake the 1972 film, originally hoping to release it in early 2011; but due to his previous involvement with The Hobbit, the date of release for a film adaptation was pushed back.  Although Guillermo del Toro has since dropped out of involvement with The Hobbit, the possibility of a new Slaughterhouse-Five adaptation remains in question since it is not among several projects Del Toro is said to be working on as of Summer 2013.'.


Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

  • Genre: Comedy | Drama | Fantasy
  • Directed: George Roy Hill
  • Produced:
    • Paul Monash 
    • Jennings Lang
  • Written:
    • Kurt Vonnegut (Novel “Slaughterhouse-Five”) 
    • Stephen Geller (Screenplay)
  • Starring: Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, Valerie Perrine
  • Music: Glenn Gould
  • Cinematography: Miroslav Ondrícek
  • Editing: Dede Allen
  • Studio:
    • Universal Pictures  
    • Vanadas Productions
  • Distributed:
    • Universal Pictures 
    • National Broadcasting Company 
    • MCA/Universal Home Video
  • Rated:
  • Release Date: 15 March 1972
  • Running Time: 104 minutes
  • Country: United States
  • Language: English

Slaughterhouse-Five is a 1972 film based on Kurt Vonnegut's novel of the same name.  The screenplay is by Stephen Geller and the film was directed by George Roy Hill.  It stars Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, and Valerie Perrine, and features Eugene Roche, Sharon Gans, Holly Near, and Perry King.  The scenes set in Dresden were filmed in Prague.  The other scenes were filmed in Minnesota.

Vonnegut wrote about the film soon after its release, in his preface to Between Time and Timbuktu:

"I love George Roy Hill and Universal Pictures, who made a flawless translation of my novel Slaughterhouse-Five to the silver screen ... I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book."

The film follows the novel in presenting a first-person narrative from the point of view of Billy Pilgrim, who becomes "unstuck in time" and experiences the events of his life in a seemingly random order, including a period spent on the alien planet of Tralfamadore.  Particular emphasis is placed on his experiences during World War II, including the bombing of Dresden in World War II, as well as time spent with fellow prisoners of war Edgar Derby (played by Roche) and the psychopathic Paul Lazzaro (played by Leibman).  His life as a husband to Valencia (played by Gans), and father to Barbara and Robert (played by Near and King respectively) are also depicted, as they live and sometimes even enjoy their life of affluence in Ilium, New York.  A "sink-or-swim" scene with Pilgrim's father is also featured.  The scenes of extraterrestrial life on Tralfamadore feature Hollywood starlet Montana Wildhack (played by Perrine).

In addition to the condensation, there are a number of differences between the novel and the film, including the following:

The entire prologue in which Vonnegut meets with his old war buddy and decides to name his story 'The Children's Crusade' is omitted to focus on the 'fictionalized' story of Billy Pilgrim.  The opening scene, which focuses many times on Billy typing a letter to the editor of the newspaper, is actually set much later in the novel.

Several elements of the novel are missing from the film. Two characters, Kilgore Trout and Vonnegut himself, are omitted.  The sequence in the novel where Pilgrim watches a movie about a bombing mission in World War II forward and then backward is also omitted because it would not have worked inside the time constraints of the film, even though Vonnegut regretted it.  The novel includes repeated references to insects in amber, which are missing from the film.  Pilgrim's abduction scene is shorter in the film and also misses details, such as the appearance of the flying saucer, said to be 100 feet in diameter, with purple light pulsating around the saucer's portholes along the rim.

In the film, Derby's execution happens immediately after he innocently takes a small porcelain figurine from among the ruins of Dresden.  In the novel, he is put on trial first, and is executed for taking a teapot.  The scene that sets up the significance of the figurine, where Derby mentions one in a letter to his wife, is also unique to the film.

The Tralfamadorian response to death and mortality, "so it goes", is not spoken once in the film despite being used one hundred and sixteen times in the novel.

Toward the end of the movie Billy helps some of his buddies to collect a huge grandfather clock.  When the Russians arrive, his friends leave him alone, buried under the clock.  Although the image created by this scene (the pressure of time on Billy Pilgrim) fits nicely into the plot, this part is also not found in the novel.

The bird that says "Poo-Tee-Weet" at the end of the novel is not in the movie.

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