It’s always a challenge to adapt a much-loved book to the screen, and George Roy Hill’s adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five is a prime example of this. It’s an extremely flawed adaptation, but it’s a film with ambition, inventiveness and does to a large extent succeed to adapt one of the most “unfilmable” novels ever written. Kurt Vonnegut gave his approval to the final film,which is high praise; he also approved of the pitch-perfect adaptation of Mother Night, which is not only my favourite Vonnegut novel but quite possibly my favourite novel full stop.
The film, like the book, deals with Billy Pilgrim, a hapless soldier during the second world war who has become “unstuck in time” due to trauma. The time periods shift during his time as an optometrist in the then-present day and the time he believed was abducted by aliens and kept in an alien zoo on the planet of Tralfamadore with his mate in the movie, Scarlett Montana Wildhack. It’s Vonnegut’s way of dealing with the PTSD soldiers encountered on their return, but for the most part the alien abductions are intended to be true and not some kind of hallucination.
Vonnegut, like Pilgrim, was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the bombings that were the Allies’ biggest war crime. Vonnegut himself actually appears in the novel, but this is cut from the film adaptation. It’s been hotly debated in sme quarters whether firebombing Dresden was a war crime and Vonnegut actually used the David Irving (yes THAT David Irving) book on the subject, which is mentioned in the film as grossly increasingly the body count to 130,000 (in reality it was still a large count, but closer to 25,000.)
George Roy Hill was an excellent director, best known for his collaborations with Paul Newman like Butch Cassady & the Sundance Kid, The Sting and my personal favourite Slap Shot which I believe is one of the five best screenplays ever. Hill was however an extremely odd choice to helm this film. He was, like most men of his generation, a veteran so the war story aspect may be what attracted him, it’s worth noting that a lot of the most fantastical stuff from the novel, such as the UFO, is either toned down or, as in the case of the aforementioned UFO, cut entirely from the film. The much-loved Vonnegut creation of the unsuccessful sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout, who appears in most of his novels, was also cut, Albert Finney plays him in the messy but somewhat enjoyable adaptation of Breakfast of Champions.
Overall Slaughterhouse-Five attempts the do the impossible of adapting a novel that shouldn’t have been attempted, but it captures much of its spirit, message and humour. Guillermo Del Toro announced a few years ago that he would be directing a new adaptation of the novel , with Charlie Kaufman writing the script of—probably the most perfect meeting of minds, especially since they share many of the same sensibilities as Vonnegut. The disc is totally barebones: and so it goes…