This stage version of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five sounds pretty good, but I worry when the reviewer says the play “gradually raises the sentiment slightly higher than the book does. So it goes. But then, this is the theater, which is supposed to awaken our emotions. Here it goes well.” I worry because more sentiment is not what the story needs. What is needs is understatement and a reserved exterior that lets us feel the emotions rather than getting batted over the head with them. In short, it needs exactly the kind of treatment it received in the 1972 film version directed by George Roy Hill and scripted by Stephen Geller, which is one of those instances in which a film adaptation significantly improves upon the source material. Vonnegut said he loved the film so much that he cackled to himself all through the screening.
Hill was able to use the commercial clout gained from his previous film, the blockbuster Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to make and enforce some pretty bold creative decisions: no big-name actors, a deliberately colorless and passive lead performance, and an all-Bach soundtrack (courtesy of Glenn Gould) that conveyed Vonnegut’s theme of philosophical resignation just about perfectly. The film was not a hit, to put it mildly, and Hill immediately made another crowd-pleaser, The Sting, to restore his commercial cred. He was an old school director who followed Burt Lancaster’s career formula: “One film for the bank, then one film for me, then one for the bank.” Hill continued to indulge his taste for difficult literary adaptations with The World According to Garp and The Little Drummer Girl, but neither film posed the sort of challenges he set himself in Slaughterhouse-Five.
The film’s greatest strength is the way Vonnegut’s central conceit — that its protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is “unstuck in time” and caroms helplessly around the events of his life — is put across with masterful editing by Dede Allen. The clip above offers one example: the older Billy, cradling his dog, walking up the stairs of his house, intercut with the younger Billy, a prisoner of war during World War II, climbing the stairs of a bomb shelter the morning after the firebombing of Dresden. At the top of each climb is a door that will open onto loss: in one case, a bed left empty by the death of a wife; in the other, a lunar landscape that was once a beautiful city. There is equally brilliant cross-cutting between Billy’s election to head a local Chamber of Commerce and the wartime election of his friend Edgar Derby to be the leader of his fellow POWs behind German lines. One man steps forward to a thundering ovation; the other steps up to a single man’s sarcastic hand-clapping. The book’s argument that all events exist simultaneously, impossible to change, is put across by the very structure of the film. As a bonus, most of Vonnegut’s twee conceits and all of his coyly ironic prose are drained away.
The film version of Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t just an example of how to do right by an author’s intentions, it’s a lesson in how to improve upon them.