Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Sh!#ting on the Classics: Kurt Vonnegut Adaptations

Usually I use this space to shit on bad movies that have inexplicably become classics For the next few weeks, I would like to shit on the geniuses in Hollywood who take works of classic literature and turn them into bad movies. See, it is either a fun, new twist on my regular column or a sneaky way to get my Bachelor’s degree in English to finally pay off. So fuck pharmacy school, and fuck you too, Dad.

I recently finished Charles J. Shield’s new biography And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, which I eagerly anticipated ever since its publication date was announced about a year ago. What a letdown. Maybe the book was poorly written. Maybe Vonnegut’s private life was just not interesting. Or maybe – just maybe – it is because the author suggests that Vonnegut was both an overrated writer and a sometimes horrible man. Vonnegut had been my favorite author since I was a teenager, and maybe I just did not like the stars being forcibly removed from my eyes.

At one point my parents actually forbade me to read any more Vonnegut. They thought that his novels might make me “too cynical.” Too late. Why were my parents not prescient enough to see that, 30 years later, that very cynicism would make me one of the most beloved commentators on the internets?

Five major motion pictures have been made from Kurt Vonnegut novels. Four of them stink on ice-nine. (Vonnegut in-joke! Look it up on the Wikipedia.) Vonnegut’s books rarely translate to the screen because the movies are always missing the one element that makes the books unique: Vonnegut.

TANGENT:  I remember what a depressing affair the film version of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes turned out to be. I wondered why the book had been so popular. Then I read it. The movie had ironed all the wit and sauce from McCourt’s narrative voice, which was the only thing that made the book more than a grim series of tragedies. Roger Ebert, in his review when the film was first released, suggested that the studio should recall all the prints and have McCourt himself re-record the movie’s somewhat stern narration, replacing it with his lovable, sparkling brogue.

Breakfast of Champions and Slapstick of Another Kind, two of the worst movies ever made, are both based on Vonnegut novels. The books are far superior to the bastard, mutant offspring they spawned. BoC was Vonnegut’s first number-one bestseller. Slapstick is held in high esteem by Vonnegut fans for its long prologue, where he memorializes his sister with writing that is tender and funny and sharp.  Both movies are live-action cartoons featuring shameless overacting, supposedly comedic fast motion, and people falling down a lot. I think the spectacular failures of these two abysmal films have scared producers away from other Vonnegut classics, such as The Sirens of Titan or Cat’s Cradle.

God, would I love to see a decent film version of Cat’s Cradle.

I first ran into Breakfast of Champions while visiting a college campus, where it was playing at a local theater. There was no advertising. It had not really been officially released. I am convinced that was the only theater in Illinois that was playing the film. Could the studio have thought that the only audience for this misbegotten piece of shit was college students who, because they were college students, had actually heard of Vonnegut?

The movie is a mess, miscast and misdirected. Given his track record with wild, sprawling, novelistic narratives (Welcome to L.A., Choose Me, Trouble in Mind), one might think Alan Rudolph would be the perfect director for this material. One would be wrong. Everyone in this movie overacts hysterically, as if they are in some bizarre competition with each other to see who could most spectacularly ruin the reputation of a major author.  A hyper Bruce Willis was a strange choice for the lead role; a growling Albert Finney was an even stranger choice to play Kilgore Trout, one of Vonnegut’s most beloved recurring characters.

Want to know how odd and off this film is? Only Nick Nolte seems to know just what kind of movie he is actually in. Only the Germans have the guts to post a trailer on Das U-Tubes.

The problem is that the movie is just a little live-action puppet show of all the events in the book. But no one reads Vonnegut for his intricate plots; we read his books to find out what he has to say through his intricate plots. We come for his take, his karma, his aura, his voice.

Tragically, that is the only thing from the book that the movie version of BoC leaves out.

Even worse is the film adaptation of Vonnegut’s Slapstick. The book concerns a grotesque set of twins who are drooling idiots when separated but become geniuses when they are together. The film’s first fatal error was casting Jerry Lewis as one of the drooling twins. The film’s second fatal error was casting Jerry Lewis as his own father. Audiences get two Jerries for the price of one: the spastic “Hey Laaaady!” man-child of the 1950s, and the Brylcreemed pontificator of the annual MD telethons. The film’s third fatal error: Jerry Lewis.

The film was retitled Slapstick (of Another Kind) and rescored to play up its science fiction elements. I am not sure if anyone got the reference to Close Encounters (of the Third Kind). I wish this film were not real. I wish I were making this all up, the tragic result of a lost weekend involving crystal meth, grain alcohol, and syphilitic Peruvian whores. No such luck

This malignant polyp of a film was directed by Steven Paul, the adult genius who later gave the world Baby Geniuses. Steven Paul also gave the world The Karate Dog, A Million to Juan, Bratz: The Movie and Ghost Rider.

Orson Welles’ last-minute voice over narration insures that this would be the worst film he was ever associated with. The film also represents career lows for Madeline Kahn (as the other twin) and Marty Feldman. Pat Morita makes an appearance as a mysterious Asian. Because typecasting.

The most worthwhile parts of the original novel were Vonnegut’s warm memories of his sister, with whom he was very close. She died quite young from cancer, and Vonnegut adopted her four children. Now, that would be the material for an interesting movie.

Again, the movie jettisons Vonnegut’s point of view and genuine humanity. All that is left is cartoonish cacophony. And Jerry Lewis acting like an idiot.

I could not find a single positive review of this film anywhere. Various critics describe it as “horrifying,” “tragically bad,” “unforgiveable tripe,”  “wretched,” “excruciating,” and “a freak show.”

BETTER YET: George Roy Hill’s adaptation of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the best literary adaptations ever and one of my favorite movies. Hill, screenwriter Stephen Geller, and editor Dede Allen were able to find a way to capture Vonnegut’s point of view on film. The movie features superb performances by Michael Sacks, Ron Liebman, Eugene Roche, Valerie Perrine, Kevin Conway and Sharon Gans. The score by Glenn Gould is perfectly suited to the material, both beautiful and sad.

F-HEADS!  Which authors do YOU think have been ill served by the movies? Comment below, send us e-mail, post your responses to the Facebook, or just shout them out the window. I am listening.


  1. Author who's been ill served by films? Probably Michael Crichton. Other than "Jurassic Park" which I enjoy, some of his other books weren't well adapted enough for the big screen. "Congo", "The Lost World: Jurassic Park", "Sphere" and "Timeline" ended up becoming huge messes all around.

    1. The Andromeda Strain rocked my world. It still does.

  2. Could not agree more on Congo and Lost World. I remember seeing The Andromeda Strain (based on Crichton's first book) when I was about nine and being really impressed (and scared!) by it. I wonder if it would hold up to "adult" viewing?

    1. Like you, I watched Andromeda Strain as a kid & was terrified by it. I re-watched it a couple of years ago & still found it very enjoyable. I think it's held up surprisingly well.

  3. Timeline wtf was that.

  4. Shields' V bio seemed downright antagonistic. Just watched BoC film by Rudolph, who after that and Trouble In Mind is now anathema to me. He's like a precocious brat whose attention-seeking is one step ahead of his talent. What did you think of Mother Night, the film? I recall it was neither terrible nor great.

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  6. Hello — I love the film adaptation of Slaughterhouse Five, especially for the editing by Dede Allen and the Glenn Gould score. And the acting — it seems like ALL the actors actually read Vonnegut’s book … and understood it, because they are totally invested in their roles, as evidenced by their stellar performances. In fact, it appears to me that director George Roy Hill, editor Allen, and musician Gould all read the book and understood what Vonnegut was saying about war and about the nature of humanity nearly as well as Tralfamadorians do, even without the advantage of their nonlinear chronology. I don’t know why the rest of the civilized world doesn’t love S5 as much as I do, but I’m reassured in knowing that Kurt Vonnegut did. (If I were from Tralfamadore I would say “does” … and so it goes.) — Goodbye