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.

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.