Culture

Kurt Vonnegut vs. Hollywood: The Odd Crossroads of Film and Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut in ‘Back to School’/Still courtesy of Orion Pictures
Kurt Vonnegut in ‘Back to School’/Still courtesy of Orion Pictures

Kurt Vonnegut was the quintessential late twentieth-century American writer. He was also a bit of a weird dude. He infamously drew an asterisk in Breakfast of Champions and claimed it represented an anus and was known to give the same speech over and over again at public appearances, which he admitted to doing for money … in the speech. But his fans loved that about him. Being a Kurt Vonnegut fan means you collect the weird tidbits and odd trivia along with his books. And some of the weirdest anecdotes come from Vonnegut interacting with the strangest place in the world: Hollywood. Here are the oddest tales from Kurt Vonnegut and the movies.

The Rockstar Who Prevented “Sirens of Titan: the Movie”

Sirens of Titan is an essential book in the Kurt Vonnegut bibliography. It was only his second published novel, yet many critics cite it as the book that hit upon the Kurt Vonnegut voice. A pulpy sci-fi plot about the luckiest man in a futuristic world who becomes embroiled in a Martian invasion of Earth, Sirens is also one of the few Vonnegut novels with a pretty straightforward linear narrative. Readers often wonder why it hasn’t been adapted into a movie. There’s a reason for that.

In 1983, Vonnegut sold the movie rights for Sirens of Titan to Jerry Garcia. Yes, that Jerry Garcia, lead singer and guitarist for the band Grateful Dead. For the next twelve years, until his death in 1995, Garcia claimed to be working on some aspect of a Sirens movie. But in a 1987 interview, the rocker admitted that his motive was more to prevent anyone from making a bad film based on the book. “I'm maintaining as much control over it as I can … to make sure that it doesn't fall into the hands of a hack” Garcia said in the interview, adding: “That's the thing I fear most.”

After Garcia’s death, and before his own demise, Vonnegut supposedly gave the rights and his blessing for an adaptation to screenwriter James V. Hart to write the adaption, but there’s been little mention since. So it’s safe to say that Garcia successfully prevented Hollywood from making a film out of Sirens.

The Worst of the Worst

Jerry Garcia had a good reason to fear a horrible film adaptation of his favorite Vonnegut novel. There have been four major Hollywood movies based on the author’s novels and all of them have been awful box-office flops (though “Slaughterhouse-Five” is debatable). But “Slapstick (of Another Kind)” hands down wins the title of “worst Vonnegut movie ever” (and if you’ve ever seen “Breakfast of Champions” with Bruce Willis, you know that’s saying something).

On paper, this movie actually sounds like a good idea.  A comedy staring legendary funnyman Jerry Lewis with supporting roles played by Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman (of “Young Frankenstein” fame), “Slapstick” is based on the book by America’s wittiest writer about a twin brother and sister who are monstrous dolts apart but geniuses when they’re together. In execution, the film is a dismal failure. And even worse: It’s not funny.

http://youtu.be/kJicfFcO74E

Kurt Vonnegut, the Actor?

Authors commonly make appearances in film adaptations of their books and Vonnegut was no exception; he made cameos in the movies “Mother Night” and “Breakfast of Champions.” But the truly weird stuff comes with his additional acting credits.

Vonnegut loaned his voice to read actual letters and journal entries of historical people for Ken Burns’ “Civil War” documentary miniseries, which doesn’t seem that odd …. until the episode in which he reads from a letter from soldier recounting his visit with a prostitute. Then there’s truly the strangest role he ever played: himself in the Rodney Dangerfield 1986 comedy “Back to School,” which is about a wealthy middle-aged father who attends college with his teenage son.

It’s really a one-shot literary joke that gets pushed beyond its limits, but it’s funnier than anything in “Slapstick.”

What say you, Vonnegut fans? Did we miss any amazingly peculiar true tales from Vonnegut vs. Hollywood? Let us know. We’re always up for a newly discovered weird Vonnegut story.

  • http://www.dregstudios.com Brandt Hardin

    Vonnegut’s zany and surreal world reflects the absurdity of our own and really bent my mind to different modes of thinking. His work has inspired my own visual arts for quite some time and I created a tribute illustration of the author with the help of an old typewriter. You can see it at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/11/happy-birthday-mr-vonnegut.html and tell me how his work and words also affected you.

    • Alex D

      This is why Vonnegut will always be my favorite author. After reading Sirens of Titan I felt like I had gained not just a singular new perspective, but the understanding that there could be many different perspectives, and that none of these perspectives could really be considered "right" or "wrong". When you're a teenager, this ideal completely scrambles your understanding of life, and it's exactly what you need at that age. The semi-nihilistic view towards life is humbling, and leads to a greater respect for the beauty and absurdity of the world around you.

  • http://www.navgtr.org Paul

    As I have had written on my Amazon profile since the '90s:

    "All you ever need to know about the gap between the teaching of literature and the literature itself can be learned by watching the scenes involving Kurt Vonnegut in the movie 'Back to School.'"

  • Billy Pilgrim

    Interesting note, the music publishing company of the Grateful Dead is called "Ice Nine Publishing" One of the first things I noticed back in the late 60's when I started reading album liner notes, and reading Cat's Cradle. silly, silly, silly.....

  • Stacy Fowler

    You forgot "Never Down" from 2007

  • Jasper Haenen

    I still believe it is possible to make a great film out of Cat's Cradle. Would love to see somebody try.

  • Glenn

    You didn't mention Mother Night, which I thought was a fantastic adaptation of the book and very watchable.

    Directed, incidentally, by Keith Gordon who was the son in that clip from Back to School.

    • spiritualized

      the article does mention 'mother night' but not 'harrison bergeron'.

  • Keith

    I have read everything Vonnegut ever published (including a few of his plays!), and found his poignant insight to humanity both VERY funny and very touching. He truly was a genius as an author... as far as an strange fact.... his older brother worked for General Electric, and is credited with inventing "Cloud Seeding" to generate rain... and his daughter was once married to that wack-job TV reporter Heraldo Riverera, but the marriage ended badly... of course, he mentions both of these facts in his books...

  • Bob Larsen

    Ironically I've been thinking, again, of Cat's Cradle becoming movie. It's one of my favorites and has such a timeless sort of story about why things are like they are. Religion and science. Social engineering, manipulation, fear used to keep societies eyes off the real shit going down. If I was a big time movie producer I'd want this project. In my dream it would be a period piece, actually taking place in the post war late 50's, early 60's (popular time right now, Madmen, ect). I see a dry Will Ferrell in the title role, Vern Troyer a Newt. Pull out Clooney or Pitt to play Dr. Filex (better yet, Pitt and Jolie as the couple, the Crosbys, the duprass!)
    And Denzel HAS to play Bokonon! Sofía Vergara as Mona.

    It could be a great film if in the hands of good director or screenwriter, the key would be to keep it dry, play it straight, and let the absurdity speak for itself. Some cool special effects would be nice too, near the end, when the ice nine hits, make it beautiful.

    But Vonnegut is hard to put on film.

  • Paul Berendsohn

    Although I'm sure nostalgia is coloring my recollections, in high school I watched (a number of times) a production, by PBS I believe, of "Between Time and Timbuktu" which was some kind of Vonnegut mashup... I seem to recall it being quite good.

  • M. Szedon

    You neglected to mention a fine Vonnegut film adaptation...Mother Night, starring Nick Nolte as a CIA-planted Nazi propagandist.

  • Dave

    There is one good Vonnegut movie, Mother Night. I actually thought it was perhaps the best movie adaptation of a book I've ever seen. Highly recommend it!

  • Moose

    To be fair to Vonnegut's Hollywood legacy, the film adaptation of "Mother Night" was actually really really good, even if it didn't do great at the box office.

  • http://tumblr.whisperstrawberry.com Jade Mikaila

    Your forgot to mention the adaptation of Harrison Bergeron called '2081'. In my opinion, it is possibly the best adaptation done of Vonnegut's writing.

  • Withjezos

    "truly the strangest role he ever played"? Really?
    I thought Vonnegut's involvement in Back to School is one of the most brilliant punchlines in the history of Hollywood movies.

  • Jim Hoffman

    There is a great movie based on Vonnegut's work, which originally appeared on Public TV in 1972. It's Called Between Time and Timbuktu, and is based on several Vonnegut short stories. It's about a guy who falls into a "chrono-synclastic infundibulum" which just means he moves around in time and space (like a lot of Vonnegut characters) without any real control over his destination. A nice framing device for the various stories that comprise the piece. It can be seen on line, FREE, at http://www.ovguide.com/between-time-and-timbuktu-9202a8c04000641f8000000000170738.

  • David

    Also missing are the tv adaptations of stories from "Welcome to the Monkey House" - I think that may even have been the name of the brief-lived series.

  • Brady

    Personally, I thought the movie "Mother Night" rather well done. I recommend it so highly that I even bought the soundtrack, which I enjoy often. I haven't seen any others but the "Slapstick" trailer with Jerry Lewis looks bad even with the trailer.

  • http://www.twitter.com/timappelo Tim Appelo

    PBS American Playhouse "Who Am I This Time?" starring Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon, 1982, from a Vonnegut short story.

  • Michael

    WAIT A MINUTE! They made a movie from Slapstick, my favorite Vonnegut novel, and I didn't know?!? I don't care if it's the worst film ever made, I must see this. "Lonesome no more!"

  • Baz

    Another film for the list - Long Walk To Forever, a short film of the short story. Notable, I guess, for being the first acting role of Denis Leary. I saw it years back but can only remember that I didn't like it anything like as much as I liked the story.

  • don

    Kurt said that Slaughter-house Five was the best film adaptation of a novel ever; with the possible exception of Gone with the Wind .The director, George Roy Hill used the money he made from hits like Butch Cassidy ... to make his favorite film: Slaughter-house Five. Why are you bad-mouthing it ?

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