In news that is likely to excite both cineastes and literati alike, Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction classic Slaughterhouse-Five is set to be adapted for screen by a veritable dynamic duo of visionary filmmaking: Charlie Kaufman and Guillermo del Toro. This will be the second time the film has been adapted for the screen, the first having been a 1972 production directed by George Roy Hill, director of “The Sting.”
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, director del Toro (“Pacific Rim,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy”) said that an adaptation was in the works, and that he had tapped Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Synecdoche, New York”) to write it. Both del Toro and Kaufman have established well-deserved reputations for surrealistic but wholly entertaining high-concept films – terms that could also easily describe Vonnegut’s magnum opus.
Slaughterhouse-Five was Vonnegut’s fifth novel and although many more followed, it would be the book that established his career. In many ways, it was also his most personal work. Although it featured time travel and aliens as a principal plot element, Slaughterhouse-Five was also deeply biographical. The protagonist, a World War II soldier named Billy Pilgrim, is captured during the Battle of the Bulge and interned by German forces in the city of Dresden. After the city is firebombed by the Allies, Pilgrim is one of only a handful of people left alive to witness the horrific aftermath. The entire episode was taken from Vonnegut’s own life.
Vonnegut used metafictional devices in the novel to comment on his experiences there, addressing the reader directly and identifying Pilgrim as a fictional construct of himself. Screenwriter Kaufman is no stranger to the same kinds of techniques, having used similar ones to great effect in his film “Adaptation.” Billed as an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thief, the film is actually a film about Kaufman’s struggle to adapt The Orchid Thief for the screen. Like Slaughterhouse-Five, the film has its share of self-referential moments.
Director del Toro is highly qualified to handle the novel’s fantastic elements. Slaughterhouse-Five’s alien race, the Tralfmadorians, are described in the novel as around two feet high, green, and shaped roughly like plungers topped by a hand-like appendage with an eye in the middle. Although they are quite bizarre, the Tralfmadorians are unlikely to be too much of a challenge for del Toro, whose films all feature bizarre creatures, notably the Pale Man from “Pan’s Labyrinth”: a horrific child-eating monster whose eyes are in its palms.
There’s no release date yet for the movie adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five, and Vonnegut fans may want to temper their enthusiasm with caution: del Toro’s much-anticipated adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness met an ignoble death at the hands of studio executives after several false starts.
Hopefully Slaughterhouse-Five will fare better, but only time will tell. Unlike Billy Pilgrim, we will have to wait to see what the future holds.