American writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is considered by many to be one of the most influential literary figures of the 20th century. Over the course of an illustrious career that spanned over 50 years, Vonnegut produced several masterpieces like Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions among others.
The combination of his brilliant philosophical power and black humour mesmerised his contemporaries as well as newer generations of readers. For his invaluable contribution to the genre, The Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame inducted Vonnegut in 2015 (eight years after his death).
In one of his last interviews, the writer said: “It used to be people would wonder what the hell they were going to do for the winter. [Laughs.] Then a big book would come out — a big, wonderful book — and everybody would be reading it to pass the time. It was a very primitive experiment, before television, where people would have to look at ink on paper, for God’s sake. I myself grew up when radio was very important. I’d come home from school and turn on the radio. There were funny comedians and wonderful music, and there were plays. I used to pass time with radio. Now, you don’t have to be literate to have a nice time.”
He added, “It works like a dream. It’s a way to hold attention, and it’s awfully good at that. For a lot of people, TV is life itself. Churches used to provide people with better company than they had at home, but now, no matter what your neighbourhood life or family life is like, you turn on the television, and you get relatives, family. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but scientists have created baby geese that believe that an aeroplane is their mother. Human beings will believe in all kinds of things that aren’t true, and that’s okay. And TV is a part of that.”
To understand how Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s writings have been translated to the visual medium, we look at the six best films based on his writings.
Best films based on works by Kurt Vonnegut:
Happy Birthday, Wanda June (Mark Robson – 1971)
Based on the 1970 play by Vonnegut, Mark Robson’s 1971 film adaptation is more theatrical than cinematic. It follows a hunter who returns from the Amazon Rainforest to find that his life has changed. His ideas of masculinity are threatened by the people he sees around him, undermining his patriarchal mindset.
It opens with the ominous lines: “This is a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing and those who don’t.” Vonnegut even worked on an opera adaptation of the play as well, which debuted in 2016, nine years after Vonnegut passed away.
Slaughterhouse-Five (George Roy Hill – 1972)
The most famous adaptation of any of Vonnegut’s writings, George Roy Hill’s 1972 sci-fi film, was an admirable attempt at capturing the source material’s brilliance. It starred Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim, a man who comes unstuck in time and no longer experiences his existence in a conventional way.
Hill’s film won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Palme d’Or.
Vonnegut said: “I love George Roy Hill and Universal Pictures, who made a flawless translation of my novel Slaughterhouse-Five to the silver screen. I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.
Who Am I This Time? (Jonathan Demme – 1982)
The fourth episode of the television series American Playhouse, Who Am I This Time? is a commendable adaptation of Vonnegut’s eponymous 1961 short story. It stars Christopher Walken as a hardware store clerk who is an excellent actor but is terribly anti-social off the stage.
Demme recalled his entry into the film industry, “My dream was to be a veterinarian, but I flunked out of chemistry. I was an obsessive film buff and completely broke. When I went home to Miami and resumed working in animal hospitals, I found a little paper needing a film critic. I couldn’t have been happier, and I then had the opportunity to become a publicist.”
He added, “I’ll never forget having my directorial one-hour luncheon at a spaghetti joint on Sunset Boulevard, around the corner from New World Pictures, where Roger [Corman] gave me all the rules. There were a number of things that struck me hard. He said you have to think in terms of the human eyeball at all times. It’s a visual medium and our eyes are what keep our brains engaged in the movie. If you start boring the eye, then the brain will get bored.”
Harrison Bergeron (Bruce Pittman – 1995)
Set in a dystopian future, Pittman’s film adaptation presents Vonnegut’s vision of an alternate America where the authoritarian government forces people to wear headsets to decrease their mental capacities. However, things get complicated when it is discovered that a young man is still capable of intellectual activity.
Filmed in Canada as a television film, Harrison Bergeron explores the anxieties and the fallacies of a society where everyone is supposed to be equal. The film was nominated for four Gemini Awards, including Best Director and Best Production Design nominations.
Mother Night (Keith Gordon – 1996)
Mother Night is a romantic war drama that stars Nick Nolte as a recurring character in Vonnegut’s works: Howard W. Campbell, Jr. He is an American who becomes a high-ranking official in the propaganda ministry of the Nazi party. While the film received mixed reviews, Nolte was praised for his brilliant portrayal of a complicated character.
Gordon said, “I wish there was more politics in film. I wish there was more politics in most of art. I don’t think there’s much politics left in our theatre, in our film, in almost anything. But the problem is there’s not much politics left in our society. I think that that’s both a cause and a reflection.”
Breakfast of Champions (Alan Rudolph – 1999)
This 1999 adaptation of Vonnegut’s best novel proved to be a critical and commercial failure, but it remains relevant due to the fantastic source material. The film stars Bruce Willis as a car salesman who tries to commit suicide daily. While referring to the adaptation, Vonnegut described it as “painful to watch.”
In an interview, Rudolph stated: “Yesterday I had to write a list of films that influenced me. I don’t think in terms of lists, but it was my homework assignment and I wrote in my little intro that if it’s for sheer impact, Invaders from Mars in 1953 when I was nine years old probably had more influence on my life view than any other piece of film that I’ve ever seen. How do you quantify that? How do you talk about it?… Maybe people will get to see things they haven’t seen before or maybe it will make them appreciate another film—not even a film of mine, but just a film.”