This is another of the essays on film adaptations that I wrote a few years ago and that came to nothing. This, of course, discusses the Kurt Vonnegut novel of 1969 and the George Roy Hill film of 1972.
Kurt Vonnegut’s novel could serve as a textbook example of early postmodernist techniques: the disordered timeframe, the breaking down of the distinctions between fiction and reality, between author and characters, the intrusion of the fantastic into an essentially realist story. It should, in other words, have been almost impossible to film. Yet George Roy Hill’s film version of 1972 must stand as one of the most faithful of all science fiction film adaptations.
It helps, of course, that it is a very short novel, barely a novella, already condensed to almost exactly the right amount to fit into a film of little over 100 minutes. More importantly, like much postmodernist fiction of the period, it took a lot of its structure from the cinema. The most notable aspect of the novel is the fractured timeline signalled, at the very beginning of the story proper, by the line: “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” (23) (a line that would be echoed in the first minute of the film’s pre-credit sequence and also in the film’s publicity). The novel is constructed of short paragraphs which sometimes continue the events described in the previous paragraph, but which just as frequently shift the scene abruptly to another point in Pilgrim’s life. The model for these time shifts is clearly the use of flashbacks and flashforwards that anyone who went to the cinema had long since become used to.
What makes Vonnegut’s use of this cinematic device somewhat different is that in film there is generally the spine of a coherent chronological narrative, which the flashback or flashforward will depart from and return to. Vonnegut’s story, however, has no such central spine; it is constructed of nothing but flashbacks and flashforwards. There is a coherent chronology that can be reconstructed by the reader, but it is not laid out within the novel. Though the novel makes it clear that the Tralfamadorians are not responsible for Pilgrim coming unstuck in time, their belief that all time is eternally present provides the philosophical basis for the novel’s structure. Billy Pilgrim does not remember events, or foresee events, from a stable present; instead he is, at all times, present in all the events of his life.
Since all of this is taken from the cinema, it should have been relatively unproblematic to translate the idea back onto the screen. However, although Hill goes some way towards reflecting the spirit of Vonnegut’s novel, the film is actually more conservative than the novel in its achronological structure. Hill takes the story of Pilgrim’s experiences as a prisoner of war leading up to the fire-bombing of Dresden, which is clearly the central concern of Vonnegut’s novel, and turns it into the narrative spine of his film. From the moment, during the credit sequence, when Billy Pilgrim and his three quarrelsome companions are captured in a bleak, snowy landscape, until the moment not far from the end of the film when Russian soldiers find him in a desolate city street, the PoW story occupies a greater proportion of the film than it does of the novel. What’s more, it is recounted in strict chronological sequence. Though this is largely true of the novel, it is not entirely so; there, the wartime narrative is disrupted.
The only occasion in the film that breaks away from this rigorous chronology comes during Pilgrim’s anniversary party when a casual line of dialogue mentions the execution of his fellow prisoner, Edgar Derby. Much is made of this in the novel; Edgar Derby’s death is foreshadowed so much that when it actually happens it seems strangely undramatic. This, of course, is in line with the way that the temporal nature of Pilgrim’s existence means that every event in his life is always known to him and nothing can come as a surprise. In the film, by contrast, other than that fairly unspecific reference, we know nothing of Derby’s death until it actually happens. When it does, we are shocked, we are meant to be shocked, by the speed, efficiency and casual brutality of the act. This runs counter to the intended affect of the novel, but works very well within the context of the film.
The effect of this divergence is that the film and the novel are telling two different stories composed of exactly the same events. The novel opens with a long chapter in which Vonnegut himself talks about his experience in Dresden and his attempts to make the story into fiction afterwards. Significantly, he recounts a visit to a fellow prisoner, Bernard V. O’Hare, to talk about his plans, and explains that he gave the novel the subtitle of ‘The Children’s Crusade’ to reassure O’Hare’s wife that he had no intention of glamorising war in his book. Throughout the Dresden passages, Vonnegut’s voice will be heard, like a cross between a Greek chorus and a movie voice over, saying things like: I was there, I saw this. Although we cannot, of course, know for sure that Bernard V. O’Hare existed or was Vonnegut’s fellow PoW in Dresden, the effect is clearly to suggest that this is a non-fiction book, a memoir, dressed up in fictional form.
Vonnegut (or the character of Vonnegut) does not appear in the film, there is no authoritative, experiential voice-over telling us that this apparently fictional scene really did take place. The film takes the novel at face value, as a novel rather than as disguised memoir, and therefore tells a fictional story, though one built around a real central event. Thus some of the more bizarre incidents, such as the musical greeting by the British PoWs, come across in the novel as showing how weird real life can be, while in the film they suggest a heightened sense of the fictional.
Anyone reading the novel without seeing the film will come away from it having read an anti-war story which makes its point by stressing that events are out of our control, we can only look on the bright side whatever horrors may occur. It is a point encapsulated in the repeated line that follows ever death in the novel: ‘So it goes’, and is in line with the lack of emotion insisted on by the Tralfamadorians when they relate that the end of the universe will inevitably come as a result of a mistake by one of their test pilots. Anyone seeing the film without reading the novel will come away from it having seen an anti-war story that makes its point by stressing how small we are in the face of appalling horror. The line ‘So it goes’ is never uttered in the film, the story about the end of the universe doesn’t represent the philosophical emotionlessness of the novel but the alienness of the Tralfamadorians.
Having said that this is one of the most faithful of all science fiction film adaptations (which it is, at least in terms of visually reproducing the events and the feel if not the philosophical underpinning of the novel), it is worth noting the two other significant ways in which book and film part company. There is little in the film that is not in the book, and the variations are usually of emphasis. For instance, Valencia Pilgrim’s manic drive to see Billy in hospital after the plane crash, a drive that will end in her death from carbon-monoxide poisoning, is a longer and more farcical scene in the film than it is in the book. While Billy’s relationship with his dog, and his first glimpse of the spaceship that will transport him to Tralfamadore, are made more wistful in the film.
But there are two elements in the novel that the film does leave out, both of which relate to its status as science fiction. One is the character of science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, the other is the appearance of the Tralfamadorians.
Kilgore Trout was a regular character in Vonnegut’s work who first appeared in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965, Eliot Rosewater also appears in Slaughterhouse-Five) and would go on to play a part in upwards of half a dozen other novels. Although his age and appearance change from novel to novel, he is always an unsuccessful but highly prolific pulp author. Billy Pilgrim is introduced to his work by Eliot Rosewater while in hospital after the war, then encounters Trout making a precarious living managing newspaper delivery boys and befriends him. Trout is present at a number of key scenes in the story, but is entirely absent from the film (the only thing we ever see Billy reading is a pornographic magazine featuring Montana Wildhack).
The Tralfamadorians also appeared in other novels by Vonnegut (they are introduced in The Sirens of Titan, 1959), and also take on different forms in different works. In Slaughterhouse-Five they are like green hands with an eye in the palm, in the film they are just a disembodied voice. It may well be that this was simply a practical decision on the part of the film makers, but it works to the advantage of the film. Vonnegut’s aliens are cartoony, and coupled with the presence of Kilgore Trout they tend to undermine the seriousness of the science fictional aspects of the novel. The novel very specifically states that Billy Pilgrim came unstuck in time in 1944, so the movements through time that follow can be presented as a psychological response to the war. In which case it is possible to read the Tralfamadore episodes as an escape into insanity fuelled by Pilgrim’s addiction to cheap science fiction. This is certainly what Pilgrim’s daughter believes when, following his wife’s death, he starts writing to newspapers about being kidnapped by aliens, but it is a reading that Vonnegut’s jokey attitude towards science fiction makes all too easy for the rest of us too. Erasing Kilgore Trout from the film also erases any notion that Billy Pilgrim was allowing his reading of cheap science fiction to play on his imagination, while disembodying the Tralfamadorians silly, comic aliens into spiritual figures. What they impart to Billy Pilgrim in the film may be as much a product of his imagination as in the novel, but it has more weight, more sense of truth, than a cartoon hand with an eye in the middle could ever convey (and the resonant, uncredited voice used for the Tralfamadorians certainly helps that impression).
Of course, the fact that we don’t take the Tralfamadorians too seriously is part of the affect of the novel, where we are not meant to take anything too seriously, where free will is irrelevant, where life is about facing the inevitability of catastrophe. On the other hand, giving the Tralfamadorians a spiritual aspect is part of the affect of the film, where free will is never questioned, where the horrors we see are wrongs to be put right. In both film and novel the story reaches a climax when Montana Wildhack gives birth to Billy’s child in their sealed environment on Tralfamadore. This is the last moment of the film, bringing it to a conclusion in a triumph of hope for the future. In the novel, it cannot be so triumphant, because there is no future just as there is no past, only an eternal present. The birth is not the last moment of the novel, we return for a final chapter to Kurt Vonnegut’s own voice, who begins by telling us that Robert Kennedy was killed two days before. There is no triumph of hope in the novel, only an endless struggle against despair.