Making movies out of famously ‘unfilmable’ novels is a path trodden only by the bravest of writers and directors. From The Unbearable Likeness of Being to American Psycho via Naked Lunch and Life of Pi, books deemed impossible to translate to the screen have had a mixed reception in their filmed versions, some improving on the their originals, other falling foul of difficult narratives.
Back in 1972, George Roy Hill, riding high on the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, (he’d make The Sting after this) gave Kurt Vonnegut’s allegorical, non linear anti-war story a go. Still a highly influential and much read novel, how does the cinematic take on Slaughterhouse Five look today?
Billy Pilgrim’s life is that of an everyman. Like an observer of his times, Billy is neither remarkable nor is he unremarkable. He’s kind of just there. But what happens to him is extraordinary, not only in terms of the events he lives through, but how he lives through and with them. Because Billy is unstuck in time…
Billy is born into an ordinary family, becoming a POW in Dresden where he witnesses its annihilation by allied bombing. He marries into a wealthy family and has two children, enjoying material and social success. He survives a plane crash on the same day that his wife dies in a car accident, whilst rushing to see him. Eventually, he is taken by aliens to live as an exhibit in a kind of zoo with a Hollywood starlet called Montana Wildhack. On Tralfamadore, he learns that time is non linear, each moment existing as its own entity.
So, Billy’s life is presented as such, scenes revealing his life without following any traditional timeline. His past, present and future exist as one thing, so he is able to flit from one part of it to another, and the film cleverly reflects, in visual terms, how our own memories work, where experiences in the present reflect and remind us of ones from the past. Or in this case, from the past and the future, because Billy has lived all of his life as one, so he knows what *will* happen to him as much as he knows what has *happened to him. Kind of.
Confused? Don’t be, as the film has a lightness to it which makes this easy to follow.
Michael Sacks has to play Billy as a something of a blank canvas but there’s a great supporting cast, Superman’s Valerie Perrine being a standout, and the scenes set in Dresden in particular are beautifully realised and very moving.
But what it all means and whether it works as a whole is as open as a partly read novel…
SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE (1972) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: GEORGE ROY HILL / SCREENPLAY: STEPHEN GELLER / STARRING: MICHAEL SACKS, VALERIE PERRINE, RON LEIBMAN / RELEASE DATE: 26TH JUNE