Thursday, July 14, 2011

Slaughterhouse-Five: Book vs. Movie

After stumbling across it on NetFlix, I stayed up late last night watching the 1972 film version of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.  It was an interesting experience because I just finished re-reading the book earlier this week and its details were still fresh in my mind.

I was happy enough with the way the scriptwriters (Vonnegut, among them) adapted the book to fit the big screen, but was once again reminded of how much more powerful a book almost always is when compared to its movie cousin.  Slaughterhouse-Five, the movie, is more notable for what it left out of Billy Pilgrim's story than for any major changes it made to the book's contents.  What you see in the movie is pretty much what you read in the book, with a few relatively minor exceptions.  For instance, in the book, Edgar Derby is executed for stealing the teapot he found in the firebombed ruins of Dresden; in the movie, it is for stealing a small figurine that reminds him of home.  Same result, different device to get there - perhaps changed simply to justify Derby's theft via his homesickness.

There are so many things missing from the movie, that it is difficult to know where to begin.  Let's start with the fact that the movie focuses only on the Billy Pilgrim part of the story, and does not address the idea that in the book, Pilgrim's story is a novel within a novel.  Also omitted from the movie is Kilgore Trout, the science fiction writer Billy learns to love while in the hospital recovering from the trauma he experienced in World War II (a man Billy later befriends).  I wish, too, that the movie had included the scene in which Billy comes unstuck in time while watching an old war movie and ends up watching it run backward - a beautiful experience as the bombs, smoke, and flames appear to be sucked back up into the bombers and carried away (it even appears as if the bombs are taken back into factories where they are dismantled and disposed of safely).

But what I missed most of all was the narrator's observational phrase, used at dozens of key points in the novel: "so it goes."  That would have made an excellent punctuation point for many of the scene breaks in the movie, but since no narrator is used in the film, those words were never heard.  And what a great opportunity was missed when the director and scriptwriters did not end the movie the same way the novel ends: with a little bird saying "poo-tee-weet."

Slaughterhouse-Five, the movie, is another example of how, against all odds, the written word is indeed more powerful than cinematic images.  This is true even for a relatively slim book like Slaughterhouse-Five.  While I did enjoy both the book and the movie, I doubt I would have enjoyed the movie nearly as much without first having read the book; the opposite cannot be said.


  1. I've always believed that mediocre books make the best movies. Not bad books, but books that are good, sometimes very good, but not great. Think The Godfather. A perfectly good book, but not great literature. Having read the book first might actually improve your reading experience.

    There are a handful of exceptions to my rule. David Lean's version of Great Expectations and David Copperfield. It turns out Charles Dickens had W.C. Fields in mind when he created the character of Mr. Micawber. ;-)

  2. That's an interesting theory, C.B., and I think you're examples are spot on. I'm going to have to think about this one...

  3. Hi, guys! Your story is definitely incredible! Thank you so much for spreading the word! James, I agree with you that mediocre books make the best movies! At least, I believe that it is so! Nevertheless,click on to see the difference between reading and watching!