Critical Essays Slaughterhouse-Five on Film


Only one movie has been produced from Vonnegut's novel: the 1972 film directed by George Roy Hill (who also directed the 1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), and starring Michael Sacks as Billy, Valerie Perrine as Montana, Sharon Gans as Valencia, Ron Leibman as Lazzaro, and Eugene Roche as Derby. While the novel's readers will undoubtedly follow the frequent switching between scenes in the movie better than viewers who have not read the book, the film's "plot" is accessible to newcomers of the cinematic version of Slaughterhouse-Five.

Certain elements in the film will stand out to the person who has both read the novel and viewed the movie. These include the lack of the narrator/Kurt Vonnegut figure as a framing device; Hill's creating visual scenes and settings by using music and the color white; and the visually successful segueing devices (not possible in a book) that facilitate the juxtaposition of scenes. In all, the movie is a fair and arresting representation of Vonnegut's novel about the bombing of Dresden.

What is most noticeable to the film viewer who has read the book is the disappearance of the first and last chapters of the book. There is no mention of Bernard V. O'Hare or his wife, Mary, nor does Hill film Vonnegut and O'Hare's traveling to Dresden after the war to revisit the site of the horrible destruction. Instead, the movie begins with Billy's daughter, Barbara, and her husband banging on Billy's front door, worried that something might be wrong. Billy is oblivious to them and is at his typewriter, composing a letter that recounts his being kidnapped by Tralfamadorians. The constant switching between scenes that occurs in the movie is explained by a close-up shot of what Billy is typing: "I have come unstuck in time."

Ironically, the movie's most recognizable framing device is Montana Wildhack, who does not appear in the first half of the novel. Ignoring Barbara's pounding on his door, Billy looks up from typing and envisions Montana. Although this reference to Montana so early in the film lasts only briefly, it is one of the first "trips" Billy takes. This scene contrasts with the last scene in the movie, when Montana is breast-feeding her and Billy's baby boy. The scene just prior to this one involves Billy getting stuck under a grandfather clock that Paul Lazzaro looted from a shop after the war but abandoned when Russian soldiers approached him. If we understand Billy's getting caught under the clock as his becoming stuck in time, this idea suggests that the final scene with Montana is one from which Billy will not travel; or, his future life with Montana will be more enjoyable than any life-on-earth experience that he has previously had. Certainly, the fireworks that end the movie suggest a festive celebration of Billy, Montana, and their baby together.

Two other differences are notable in the film: the importance of Paul Lazzaro and the absence of Kilgore Trout Whereas in the book Roland Weary and Billy are captured by the German soldiers and their dog, in the film version it is Lazzaro who is captured with Billy. Weary does not appear until later, when Billy continually walks on his feet while they are marching to the Russian prison camp, an offense for which Lazzaro will eventually kill Billy. In the film, Lazzaro is not depicted as the frail man that he is in the novel. In the novel, he is described as "tiny" and is referred to by the English soldiers as a chicken because of his small, spindly body. However, from the start of the movie, Lazzaro is the camp bully, who goes so far as to pick fights with German soldiers. He threatens not only Billy and Edgar Derby, but every person with whom he comes in contact. Ironically, the one redeeming value granted him is when he threatens Howard W. Campbell, Jr., who has come to the camp to enlist American POWs to fight for the Germans. When Campbell asks for recruits, Lazzaro gets out of his seat and walks toward Campbell. Bomb sirens sound, and we are left with the impression that Lazzaro is going to join Campbell. However, once the prisoners and their guards — including Campbell — are assembled in the slaughterhouse basement, Lazzaro informs a suspecting Derby that he was going to hit Campbell, not join him. The revelation hardly endears Lazzaro to Derby — or to us.

The absence of Kilgore Trout is understandable. In Vonnegut's book, the interplay between Trout and Billy highlights Vonnegut's commentary on the nature of writing. Trout is the device that Vonnegut uses to point out how unsuspecting and gullible readers can be, and how conceited writers and critics can become. Obviously, the film version of Slaughterhouse-Five makes Trout's role obsolete.

Whereas authors depend on readers to make a scene come alive when reading descriptions that the author provides, a film director has a much easier challenge. Hill integrates music and the color white to achieve depth in the scenes. Often, these two aspects are used in tandem. This coupling happens in the first war scene in the movie. Billy is lost behind enemy lines and appears to be wandering aimlessly. His isolation is heightened by the scene's background music, a classical piece by Johann Sebastian Bach that sounds very plodding, but is filled with many piano trills. By juxtaposing this baroque music with Billy's obviously hopeless state, Hill emphasizes the despair of Billy's situation. We would expect heavy, loud music in a movie about war, but Hill supplies the opposite. The white snow on the ground and the vast whiteness of the sky isolates Billy — there are no objects that locate him in familiar surroundings. He seems thrown onto a canvas of white, a color that symbolizes purity — which Billy is — but it also symbolizes isolation.

Contrasted to the effect that Hill creates in this scene is the later one in which Billy and his fellow prisoners arrive in Dresden and then march through the city. Again, Hill uses classical music, this time Bach's Fourth Brandenburg Concerto. The music is jubilant and uplifting, a joyous sound that the viewer associates with celebration and festivity. The music selection undercuts the solemnity of the situation and emphasizes the naiveté of the marching soldiers, as do the children who skip around the soldiers and tug at their hands. Against the white and hazy sky of Dresden — used by Hill to create a feeling of isolation of the city from the world — are close-up shots of carved statues that stand atop beautifully maintained buildings. The statues appear to be staring down at the marching soldiers; we are unsure whether the statues are condemning the soldiers, pitying their circumstances, or merely bearing witness. In all, the effect produced by Hill is masterful.

One reason why the film version of the movie is easier to follow than we might expect is Hill's use of "triggers," or devices that link scenes together, which Vonnegut obscured in the novel. One of the more obvious triggers in the film involves the election of Edgar Derby as leader of the American prisoners and the election of Billy as president of Ilium's Lions Club. In the scene when Derby is chosen as the leader, Billy is the lone prisoner who claps as Derby approaches a stage from which to address his fellow Americans. The scene then shifts abruptly to Billy's walking to a dais to speak and his fellow Lions Club members loudly applaud. Cutting back to the war scene, Derby begins addressing the prisoners, but the scene switches suddenly to Billy's speech: He begins his speech the exact same way that Derby does his. Although both men deliver their speeches at different times in history, Hill parallels the scenes by having Billy mimic the beginning of Derby's address as his own. The clapping and the speeches are triggers that link these two scenes together so that we can better grasp and appreciate Vonnegut's black humor and irony,

One other notable instance of triggers involves the American soldiers' emerging from the bomb shelter and Billy's retiring upstairs at his home after returning from the hospital. In each case, the trigger that links the scenes is a shot of legs ascending stairs. In the war scene, the prisoners climb the flight of stairs to discover the horror of a burning Dresden. We expect this desolation to carry over into Billy's life — he has just returned home from the plane crash and his wife is dead. However, what ensues after Billy takes a nap in his bedroom is the Tralfamadorians' taking him to their planet. Given the earlier discussion of Billy's apparently happy existence on Tralfamadore, the desolation of the bombed Dresden does not carry over into Billy's later life.

As one critic notes, the film version of Slaughterhouse-Five is more easily understood the more times it is viewed. And certainly, reading the novel before watching the movie helps. But all in all, Hill's repeating visual themes, such as the color white and the triggers that link scenes together, make the film accessible to a first-time viewer.

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