Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Slaughterhouse-Five Or The Children's Crusade!

Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut was all the rage when I was first dabbling in science fiction matters as a teenager. It was an era in which not that much science fiction material broke through to the mainstream and it seemed every little bit was glammed onto by fans and critics, sometimes out of proportion to its relative value. Vonnegut likely would've denied that his 1969 novel was a work of science fiction, despite his use of various motifs like time travel and alien abduction. He'd likely say he'd written a satire with its aim to decry the hideous nature of war and its malignant effect on the people who not only suffer it but prosecute. The United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War, a war no one quite understood then nor seem to have much of a grasp on even today. 

Our protagonist is the nearly always befuddled and bewildered Billy Pilgrim, a man who has come "unstuck" in time and so ambles back and forth across the decades inhabiting his own life at various points with little control. He's in the midst of World War II, near the end and has become a prisoner of war who ultimately ends up in the German city of Dresden before it is firebombed into to ruins. He and a few others survive the deadly attack tucked away in the titular and very real "Slaughterhouse-5".  


We also meet Billy as a successful optometrist in later years, a married man though he seems not to understand his rotund wife, a father though his children seem eager to get the older Billy into a safe place when he goes mad, saying things like he's been kidnapped by aliens. We meet a Vonnegut regular, Eliot Rosewater who loves the science fiction work of Kilgore Trout who he later meets. There is also Howard W. Campbell Jr., a Nazi ally and propogandist who shows up in another Vonnegut book. We slide up and down the totality of Billy's life and spend no small amount of time on the planet Tralfamadore where Billy was taken by aliens to be put on display for the entertainment and efficacy of the alien population. There he had sex with kidnapped porn star Montana Wildhack, who had his child. It's a heady brew as the changes come paragraph to paragraph at times.  The novel is a blend of real-life experiences from Vonnegut and furious imagination, all brewed together to expound on the futility of war and perhaps human ambition in total. 

They adapted the highly successful novel to film in 1972. The film directed by George Roy Hill is remarkably faithful to the novel, more so than I expected honestly. We follow Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) as he tumbles through time in his passive and haphazard way. The novel is small but still things are compressed. Very quickly he and his fellow soldiers are rounded up and shunted to a POW camp and later still to Dresden. At the same time, we follow him in his later life as he marries, has two children and pursues a successful career as an optician. I was very curious to see how much of the sci-fi angle the movie would pursue, and it did enough, though that clearly was an element they wished to compress and deemphasize. 

To that end Billy's encounters with writer Kilgrore Trout are absent. Lazzaro (Rob Leibman) is interesting in that his loathing for all people is so intense and fuels his tortured life. Billy's wife Valencia (Sharon Gans) is outstanding in a role that demands quite a bit from her. The wild car ride which ultimately spells her doom in the most outlandish way possible is actively hilarious. Poor Edgar Derby (Eugene Roche) is a sincerely good man who only wants to help and is rewarded with savage violence. I was very much pleased to see so much of Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine) as she was a gorgeous woman. All in all, a decent movie version that hews reasonably true to the source. 

Now as for recommendations, I'm a bit mixed on that. Slaughterhouse-Five is a difficult book to get into because of its hectic structure, and the payoff is somewhat meager. The film delivers much the same message with less effort, though to be fair without having read the novel, I might have been quite confused at times. The capricious nature of war, the way people die is not as if written in a novel, but a terribly random affair. It's difficult to swallow in a land in which white hats prevail and justice supposed wins the day. Sometimes the bad thrive and the good die. So it goes. 

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  1. I haven't read the book OR seen the film but I first heard of Slaughterhouse-5 in a book called Sci-Fi Now which I bought in 1978 and which covered the period 1968-78 in science fiction cinema so it's interesting to hear that the film of Slaughterhouse -5 actually downplays the science fiction!

    1. Vonnegut's relationship to sci-fi is a tricky one. He used the form almost from the outside, commenting on it as he used it. I think he didn't like his books having the label as it put them into the sci-fi ghetto.