Adam D'Arpino September 3, 2013
While the term “unadaptable” is probably thrown around a bit too frequently (hey, even the “Cloud Atlas” movie wasn’t half bad), you could make a solid argument the term applies to the caustic, sly humor of Kurt Vonnegut. Almost every film adaptation of his work aside from George Roy Hill’s totally serviceable adaptation of his time-bending war satire “Slaughterhouse-Five” has either flown under the radar or been a half-baked misfire.
If there’s anyone in Hollywood who’s proven themselves worthy of touching Vonnegut’s catalogue, it’s metaphysical mad scientist Charlie Kaufman and visual master Guillermo del Toro, who are said to be developing their own take on “Slaughterhouse-Five.” While we’re holding our breath, here are the five most bizarre Vonnegut film oddities we’ve been left with to date.
“BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS” (1999)
As a book “Breakfast of Champions” was a biting satire that touched on racism, mental health and consumerisms that prodded at everything America holds sacred or views as taboo. Much of the book’s dark humor was punctuated by Vonnegut’s crude drawings of anuses, headstones and everything in between. However, this same sense of pointed irreverence was noticeably missing from the 1999 film adaptation starring Bruce Willis as the mentally unstable protagonist Dwayne Hoover and Albert Finney as pulp author Kilgore Trout. Instead the book translated into a strange concoction of sight gags and non-sequiturs that became garbled when removed from Vonnegut’s understated prose style.
“MOTHER NIGHT” (1996)
Starring Nick Nolte as Howard Campbell, an American Nazi spy with shifting allegiances, “Mother Night” fell completely under the radar in 1996, making back a measly $400,000 of it’s $6 million budget. Critically, however, the movie earned some praise, particularly for the performances of Nolte and Alan Arkin as undercover Soviet intelligence agent George Kraft. Still, director Keith Gordon was unable to completely smooth over the abrupt tonal shifts that go hand-in-hand with Vonnegut’s writing, and the movie is mostly forgotten today.
“HARRISON BERGERON (1995)
You might remember “Harrison Bergeron” as the Vonnegut short story you read in high school that most people view as a critique of socialism, but might actually be a critique of straw man arguments made against socialism. (You clever Vonnegut, you.) What you probably don’t remember, however, was the Showtime-produced full-length movie adaptation starring everyone’s favorite hobbit/undersized football player Sean Astin as the titular character, who’s stuck in a society where equality is taken to uncomfortable extremes. In an effort to fill an entire 90 minutes, the movie incorporated subplot involving Bergeron being recruited into a secret underground committee of geniuses. A much more faithful short-form adaptation starring Armie Hammer, titled “2081,” was released in 2009.
SLAPSTICK (OF ANOTHER KIND) (1982)
The most infamously awful film Vonnegut adaptation, “Slapstick” was a masterclass in missing the point, turning Vonnegut’s highly personal meditation on oddness of the human experience, into a pathetic excuse for Jerry Lewis to fall down and make silly faces. The result is a scattershot movie that isn’t just bad, but an outright uncomfortable experience. (Really, just watch the trailer.) Instead of dealing with the book’s complex themes of loneliness and isolation, director Steven Paul tried to turn “Slapstick” into a crowd pleaser, converting it into a springboard for (attempted) broad comedy. If there’s one thing Vonnegut wasn’t, it was a crowd pleaser.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WANDA JUNE (1972)
Only Kurt Vonnegut could imagine a version of heaven that included Einstein, Hitler, Judas, and Jesus playing shuffleboard. That was the scene that closed out one of his lesser-known works, the play “Happy Birthday Wanda June” — an exploration of American notions of masculinity and the dehumanizing effects of war. Vonnegut wrote the play just after finishing “Slaughterhouse-Five” as a change of pace, and it would end up being his last stab at writing for the stage. The play was lated adapted into a film by “Peyton Place” and “Valley of the Dolls” director Mark Robson, which Vonnegut himself would later call “an awful movie.”
Categories: FeaturesTags: Adaptations, Breakfast of Champions, Charlie kaufman, Guillermo del toro, Kurt Vonnegut, Novels