Wednesday, January 6, 2010

1973 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation and 1972 Saturn Award – SLAUGHTERHOSUE-FIVE (Kurt Vonnegut)

Slaughterhouse-five is the film adaptation of one of my favorite books by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s not an easy book to film – Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse-five as a memoir of his time in Dresden as a POW during World War II. He was held prisoner by the Nazis at the time Allied forces carpet bombed the city, killing tens of thousands of civilians (Vonnegut liked to use a more controversial figure of over one hundred thousand to argue that the bombing was worse than Hiroshima). It’s only half memoir though. Vonnegut figures into the story, but it’s really about Billy Pilgrim, a fictional fellow POW who eventually spends several years in a zoo run by aliens called Tralfamadorians. Pilgrim also happens to be “unstuck in time;” he does not experience time in a linear fashion. One moment he’s in Dresden after the bombing, the next he’s getting married, the next he’s dying, and then he may find himself in the alien zoo before popping back to Dresden before the bombing. The novel, by the way, was nominated for a Hugo in 1970.

Vonnegut received to other Hugo nominations for his novels. In 1960, another weird romp, The Sirens of Titan, was up for the prize. In 1964, my favorite Vonnegut novel, Cat’s Cradle was nominated. Cat’s Cradle discusses the invention of a potentially world-ending new form of ice discovered by scientists. This ice-9 ends up on a Caribbean island ruled by a cruel dictator (an analogue of Haiti under Papa Doc Duvalier) and influenced by an odd religion called Bokononism. It’s chock full of Vonnegut’s cynical and absurd humor.

Vonnegut also created a brilliant lampoon of the hard-luck science fiction short story writer, Kilgore Trout. Science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon was apparently the main inspiration (thus the fishy last name). Trout appeared in several of Vonnegut’s novels, including Slaughterhouse-five, and a lot of past Hugo winners and nominees probably would have sympathized with him.

So, this film has a lot to overcome – Vonnegut’s dark sense of humor, non-linearity, and an oddball plot. It does an admirable job, for the most part. The film manages to recreate Vonnegut’s brilliant use of time-skipping to advance the story with thematic linkages in Pilgrim’s life rather than your typical plot development. It also takes Vonnegut out of the story, which does simplify things. Still, it left me kind of cold. I’m just not sure this novel was meant to be filmed.

In the end, I would not recommend it. The novel is a book that everyone should read; the film, not so much. I would highly recommend any of Vonnegut's Hugo nominated fiction though, and several of his novels (Bluebeard and Breakfast of Champions are particularly good, though I wouldn't start with them). In high school, I read through all of his novels chronologically, and had a great time with almost all of them.

The Saturn awards, by the way, are a set of genre awards (science fiction, fantasy and horror) for television and film. I’ll probably review some of the sci-fi films as a counterpoint to the Hugo Dramatic Presentation winners (when they differ).

Grade: B-
(the novel's an easy A)

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