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Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

November 4, 2009

7/10 Fortunate Sons

Not as good as the source material, but considering that adapting a near-unfilmable novel into a movie that actually makes sense is one hell of an undertaking, the final product is pretty solid.

Slaughterhouse-Five follows the story of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier taken prisoner by the Germans during WWII who survives the infamous fire bombings of Dresden. During his time as a P.O.W. – for reasons unexplained – he becomes “unstuck in time” and is warped to different periods of his life at the blink of an eye, from his married years after the war, to the day he dies, to the night he gets abducted by aliens, all the while figuring out what he considers to be the important things in life.

It’s based off the novel of the same name by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., which also happens to be one of my all-time favorite books by my all-time favorite author. So yeah, go read the book. But for those of you haven’t gotten around to reading this fine piece of fiction, I can see how one might find this synopsis beyond strange. Not too many war movies incorporate time travel and aliens, but it probably goes without saying that this your normal war movie to begin with.

Forgive me if this turns into a book vs. movie review, but you’re probably not gonna go watch this if you haven’t already read the book anyway.

Alright, the things it does right…

My hat’s off to director George Roy Hill and screenwriter Stephen Geller because I didn’t think the poor guys had any chance in hell of pulling this thing off. But thanks to a well-edited plot that compliments the way our man Billy blips in and out of different periods of his life, somehow it works. It doesn’t really follow a normal story structure as each consecutive scene is wildly unchronological (is that a word?), but it does well to keep the audience in the know about when in Billy’s life each scene is taking place by the inclusion of major details that change according to how they normally would (ie: the aging process). Ends up being a lot easier to follow than I thought it would be.

And Michael Sacks – the kid who plays Billy Pilgrim – is actually pretty good, too. Both he and the script to a wonderful job of capturing the subtleties about his character that made him so special in the novel. He doesn’t have a whole lot of lines and he’s always walking through life in a haze of awe at the simplest of things, remaining very calm and collected at times while those around him are ripe with emotion, and I’m really glad that came across. Does a good job of adding to the whole feeling that war, along with life in general, is way too crazy and way too serious for its own good.

It’s kind of hard to pin down what it is about the novel’s message that makes it so profound, but a lot of it leads back to its recurring mantra (which isn’t mentioned in the movie for some reason) of “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to always tell the difference.” In other words, “Do yourself a favor and remember to focus on the good things in life rather than spend time worrying about all the unavoidable crap in between.”

Luckily, this message does end up being a big part of the movie, and that is a-okay. Even though it isn’t all that effective as an anti-war statement as Vonnegut’s own words were, it works well as the bastard love child of a handful of different genres and still has a number of pretty bright things to say about life in general.

Rather than keep on repeating myself, I’ll just wrap this up and reiterate the obvious: read the book. If anything, Slaughterhouse-Five is a fascinating companion piece to a work that really changed literary conventions. It doesn’t manage to capture all the nuances and brilliant qualities that make Vonnegut such a compelling author to read, nor is it as funny as I was hoping it would be, but considering that this is probably an adaption most filmmakers wouldn’t even go near (especially nowadays), it does a damn fine job despite its shortcomings.


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