Arrow Video: Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five - Reviewed

There exists a certain type of bibliophile who likes to refer to certain kinds of dense, difficult, or structurally unique novels as “unfilmable,” with a not-so-subtle implication that film is somehow a lesser art that cannot hope to achieve the storytelling complexity of the more “pure” art of literature. And as someone who holds film and literature in equally high regard as art forms, and just sees them as fundamentally different modes of storytelling, neither of which is inherently superior or more capable of artistic depth than the other (except maybe in regards to length – although the ever-shrinking distinction between film and television as mediums has broken down that barrier too), I have always said that there is no such thing as an unfilmable novel. There are novels that are strongly resistant to adaptation, that require the right filmmaker who really understands the material at a deep level and is capable of translating it to a very different medium without losing the essential “soul” of the book, but there are no wholly unfilmable novels. That said, that is a very hard thing to pull off, for the right filmmaker to become attached to the novel, and for a studio to back that filmmaker with enough courage to let them execute their vision without interfering, when it often looks like better business for the studio to hedge their bets and make a “safe” film that loses too much of the core of the novel in the interest of marketability. And so most resistant-to-adaptation novels that do get made into films get made into not-particularly-good films because the stars didn't quite align for them to be adapted in the right way, and the myth of the unfilmable novel continues. New to blu-ray this week from Arrow Video is 1972's Slaughterhouse-Five, based on the iconic 1969 novel by Kurt Vonnegut; a film adaptation of an allegedly-unfilmable novel if ever there was one, albeit one that was made very, very quickly after the allegedly-unfilmable novel's release. It is a film that I had never seen prior to this blu-ray, and had always heard mixed things about, with some cinephiles holding it in high regard, and Kurt Vonnegut himself praising it as a “flawless translation,” while others see it as a not-quite-successful attempt to adapt a novel that defies adaptation. I have, however, read Slaughterhouse-Five (though I must admit, not for fifteen years), and have always been curious to see exactly how such a strange, postmodern, deliberately fractured novel with such heavy (if casually presented) philosophical themes could be adapted to the screen. Was director George Roy Hill (who made the film right between his two best-known movies, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting) able to pull it off? Arrow's disc provides the perfect chance to find out.

The film chronicles the nonlinear life of one Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks), who has the odd metaphysical condition of being unstuck in time: rather than living his life in sequential order, his consciousness flits back and forth between various points of his existence at random, so he essentially lives it all at once. The film follows his time-jumping consciousness back and forth across the events that left the biggest mark on his psyche – his time as a prisoner of war during World War II, when he witnessed the horrors of the firebombing of Dresden – as well as his strange and aimless post-war life, and a time when he is abducted by 4th dimensional aliens and made to live in their planet's zoo. As he lives all this out of order, often learning of pivotal events in his life and traumas that marked him before he actually lives those things firsthand, he is forced to confront questions of free will versus fate or determinism, and questions of morality and cruelty raised by his experiences in the war, all while drifting through it like an observer, outside of time. Some of the events just mentioned may sound like spoilers, but they're not; a peculiarity of the way in which Vonnegut's story is told is that it repeatedly spoils itself, and that is part of the whole point. It is at the beginning of the film that Billy, confined to a mental hospital post-war, learns from a doctor that his PTSD was caused by his surviving of the firebombing of Dresden, but his World War II-era self hasn't experienced that yet; with that future knowledge in his head but no way to stop himself from eventually getting there (after all, it WILL happen to him, because it did), his World War II timeline marches fatalistically towards Dresden with a deep narrative irony. This isn't a film about the long-term narrative, but about the moments, and how each moment impacts Billy as it happens, and reflects and contrasts other moments from his past or future, and how it all adds up to a tapestry of who he is across time, even as it raises troubling questions about whether he has any agency in any of it.

The film's nonlinear storytelling is fascinating, intricate, and impeccably executed. The structure easily could be unwieldy or confusing in the hands of the wrong filmmaker, but Hill understands Vonnegut's material and how to work with it to such a degree that the flow of the story back and forth across time feels rather organic. The time-jumps sometimes happen smoothly, as one scene flows directly into another using an aural or visual motif, they sometimes happen harshly in a way that underscores either ironies or parallels in the scenes, and sometimes two scenes that mirror each other in unexpected ways run simultaneously, with the audio overlapping and the visuals rapidly cutting between past and present (or is that present and future?). Considering what a difficult task it seems on paper to adapt the wildly unconventional structure of this novel, the film does it very nearly perfectly; it is a master class in how to do nonlinear cinematic storytelling very, very well. In that regard, Vonnegut was right: this is very nearly as flawless a translation from page to screen as any adaptation could hope to be, for the most part.

Of course by necessity the film can't be quite as postmodern as the novel can; at least, not without breaking out of its cinematic structure altogether. The novel repeatedly references the fact that it is a novel, and blurs the line between author and narrator as its author's-note prologue blends straight into the story without a line of demarcation; short of George Roy Hill being a character, the film can't really be about the ways in which it is a film. Perhaps, though, this is one of the strengths of Hill's adaptation: it knows just how much of the book's audacious structure it can adapt, and it knows what it can't, and rather than trying to go all the way at risk of self-destructing, it does what it can do to adapt the structure exceedingly well. And it does keep another crucial element of the book's storytelling: the use of a highly unreliable narrator. The first scene of the film finds Billy's kids concerned about his well-being and his mental soundness (they clearly think he is either mad or senile), while Billy himself sits at a typewriter writing about how he is unstuck in time. This plants the seeds of doubt that perhaps none of the story's fantastical elements are real; Billy could have lived a standard, linear life, but might now be imagining that he is living it all at once, with the plot thread on the alien world of Tralfamadore being imagined altogether. For that matter, there are several other places in his storyline from which he could be imagining the whole thing, including his odd and satirical post-war life: from a stretcher in the mental hospital as he receives electroconvulsive therapy, for instance, or while in shock in the ruins of Dresden. There is no way to be sure that all the moments we are seeing are real. But they are all important moments, that get at the core ideas of how much agency we have in our lives, and of the good and evil of which humanity is equally capable.

The film captures those themes faithfully and with an equal mix of satire and gravitas. The question of whether there is room for free will in Billy Pilgrim's existence, as he drifts through it as a passive passenger who knows a lot about what will happen but has no ability to influence it, is the most prominent, and is a very compelling question indeed. And since Billy is the very textbook example of an everyman character, average and not-that-interesting by design, the larger question is clearly whether any of us have free will, or if we are all just living out paths either fated or dictated by the momentum of the universe. Then there are the themes of human morality which stem mostly from the World War II plot thread. Billy entered the war as an assistant to an army chaplain, ostensibly a man of God, but is a cowardly and ineffectual figure without any real moral convictions about the war one way or another aside from the obvious “Nazis are bad.” His status as the token religious representative among his band of POWs holds absolutely no weight and he holds no influence, while the two figures who both seek to guide the group represent the best and worst of which humanity is capable: a kind, intelligent, nonviolent teacher-turned-soldier who came to the military out of pure moral conscience (Eugene Roche), and a sadistic and self-serving thug who came to the war because “the sweetest thing in the world is revenge” (a scene-stealing Ron Leibman, who sadly just passed away) Other characters throughout the story likewise represent sides of humanity's morality-vs-cruelty dichotomy, like an American who has sold out to the Nazis, or a right-wing historian who preaches that Dresden was totally justified, and refuses to pay attention to Billy's protests that he was there, and knows the cost. Kurt Vonnegut was also in Dresden as a POW when it was firebombed, and the story's portrayal of the bombing is haunting and harrowing, showing the mark that it left on the author, and making a strong case for it being just as horrific a war-crime as Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And thus the more serious aspects of the book are done great justice by Hill's film. But what it has more trouble capturing is the wry, sardonic wit of Vonnegut's prose itself, which is where a lot of the book's sly humor lies. As a result, the film a bit feels heavier and more straight-faced than Vonnegut's writing; or at least, Vonnegut's writing is funnier than the film. Despite how harrowingly the novel conveys Vonnegut's trauma from the horrors of Dresden, in the end it really is a satire, and often quite a funny one, in ways that the film struggles to capture. Strikingly, the movie never uses the book's frequent, sardonic refrain of “so it goes,” as though it wasn't quite sure how to incorporate it. As a consequence of this, some of the film's more over-the-top or absurd moments feel slightly out of place, because they occupy a version of the story that doesn't feel quite as satirical as the novel generally does. The present-day storyline is very stilted in a way that doesn't always work, and the film could have spent a bit more time developing the ideas of Tralfamadore; as it is, that plotline is very important in clarifying the story's themes, but gets more or less the bare minimum screentime. Which on the other hand might not be an altogether bad thing, as it presents a very kitschy brand of early-'70s sci-fi, in contrast with the World War II scenes that still hold up as superbly crafted.

There's also the unfortunate fact that the film's only two female characters, in the present-day and Tralfamadore threads, are basically broad caricatures without a ton of depth, which could be easily seen as casually sexist. It should be noted, though, that literally all of the side-characters in the present-day storyline are basically broad caricatures, lending credence to the interpretation that those plot threads might not even be real. There are basically only three fully-formed characters in Slaughterhouse-Five with significant depth to them: Billy Pilgrim, and the angel and devil characters in his band of POWs, Derby and Lazzaro. This makes a certain amount of sense, as they are the three characters most central to the film's themes, and as the World War II thread is the one part of the story that is definitely real, and is the emotional backbone of everything else. It would have made for a better film if more of the characters, and especially the women, had been better-developed; as a result, that and the struggles to adapt the book's more satirical elements are the two major flaws in what is otherwise an excellent adaptation.

In the end, those flaws mean that I can't quite agree with Kurt Vonnegut's assessment that the film is a flawless translation of his novel, but it is a very, very good one, which does as great a job of adapting such a difficult-to-film book as any movie could ever hope to. Emphasizing the darker and heavier among the book's philosophical themes may have been a good choice, as the World War II plotline absolutely steals the show, with the knowledge that Billy is marching towards a known outcome with troublingly unclear free-will with which to stop it. While the present and outer-space threads don't work quite as well, the construction of the whole is absolutely brilliant, with the nonlinear storytelling handled impeccably. It is way ahead of its time in how well it uses that type of narrative structure. I highly recommend Slaughterhouse-Five, and I say once again, with this as further evidence: there is no such thing as an unfilmable novel.


The Transfer:

Arrow Video presents Slaughterhouse-Five in a brand-new 4k restoration which they produced for this disc. It looks as fantastic as this film possibly could: a pristine transfer free of any noticeable defects or damage to the original camera negative, which was the source. Detail is as great as it possibly could be, and colors look as rich as they are supposed to – although that said, the World War II segments of the film are deliberately very drab and gloomy, so the colors shouldn't pop too much, and don't. The transfer has a very filmic appearance, with pretty heavy film grain present throughout. That said, this is a VERY grainy film indeed: the stock on which it was shot is simply a very grainy film stock, and as a result the details of the picture often look a bit softer than you might expect from a 4k remaster. Arrow did a beautiful job with their restoration; they just come up against the limits of the source elements they are working with. As a result the disc doesn't exactly look mind-blowing, but I can safely say that Arrow's 4k transfer is definitive, and literally makes the film look as great as it possibly could.

The audio is remastered in the original mono format in which it was mixed, and the same can be said about it as the video: Arrow has done a pristine job, and made it sound as great as it possibly could, but they are limited by the technical limitations of what they have to work with. It does sound great though: dialogue is very clear, sound effects pack a punch (especially in the Dresden sequence), and Glenn Gould's score sounds beautiful. The film may not look or sound particularly earth-shaking, but Arrow certainly can't be faulted for their stellar work here.


The Extras:

As always, Arrow has produced a solid spread of extras for the disc, but as tends to happen with older films like this, the extras lean heavily towards critical analysis of the film, and don't feature much input from people who actually worked on it. That's just the reality of it: George Roy Hill and Kurt Vonnegut are both dead, Michael Sacks retired from acting in 1984, supporting actor Eugene Roche is likewise deceased, and since Ron Leibman just passed away days after this blu-ray's release, it is entirely possible that he was in no condition health-wise to participate in the extras. As such, the only people who actually worked on the film who are included in the extras are actor Perry King, who has a small role as Billy Pilgrim's son, and filmmaker/producer Robert Crawford who did behind-the-scenes documentary work on the movie. There is also an interview with the son of executive producer Jennings Lang about the film's distribution, but otherwise all the other extras feature film critics and historians talking about the context of the film. Film music historian Daniel Schweiger talks about Glenn Gould's original score in an interview, film critic Troy Howarth provides an audio commentary, and film critic Kim Newman provides a very interesting and thorough video appreciation, analyzing the film and its relationship to Vonnegut's body of work. They are all very interesting, but focus much more heavily on analysis than behind-the-scenes information. It is a shame that Michael Sacks did not return to talk about the film, or co-star Valerie Perrine, but, as the novel says, so it goes. Still, for a film that is creeping towards 50 years old, Arrow assembled a very plentiful array of extras which fans will really appreciate.


Slaughterhouse-Five may not be quite perfect, but it is an outstanding film with rich thematic depth and a deeply compelling storytelling structure. It rises to the challenge of Kurt Vonnegut's slippery, eccentric novel very well indeed, and while I'm not sure I would fully agree with Vonnegut's assessment of it being a “flawless translation,” it is very, very close. It is without a doubt one of the best examples of a great film adaptation of an allegedly-unfilmable novel, standing alongside the likes of Orson Welles' The Trial and David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, which likewise work wonders with notoriously difficult-to-adapt books. I highly recommend it – and I highly recommend Arrow's special edition, which was assembled with commendable love and care.

Overall Score:

- Christopher S. Jordan

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