Occasionally the film version of a novel is successful enough to make a comparison between the two helpful in understanding the strengths of both…. [Such is the case for] George Roy Hill's adaption of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Slaughterhouse-Five.
While [screenwriter Stephen] Geller has imposed a sense of order to improve the visual adaptation, director George Roy Hill … has wisely chosen to eschew any sense of sensationalism in what could have been misconstrued by some as nothing more than another, if somewhat bizarre, science-fiction film. The movie has a fluttering circle of white light grow out of the skies and pause outside Billy's bedroom window; then he is promptly pixilated off the screen. In the book Vonnegut describes the abduction as involving a saucer one hundred feet in diameter, complete with an imprisoning cone of purple light and zap gun as well. The Tralfamadorians in the movie are conveniently invisible because they exist in the fourth dimension…. Even the rifle that kills Billy is only a rifle in the movie, not the laser-gun Lazzaro aims in the book. Aside from obviously saving money on the special effects … avoiding the spectacle of real saucers …, which would have satisfied sci-fi buffs looking for visual tricks à la Douglas Trumbull or Ray Harryhausen, keeps our attention riveted without distraction on the more important story of Billy Pilgrim's pilgrimage in character. (p. 4)
Billy Pilgrim's character, of course, is the most important feature in both the film and the book, and Hill's interpretation … seems to be as just as it could be. The only danger is that in Billy's obvious passivity to the uncontrollable events that befall him he comes off as a bit too simple, at least compared to Vonnegut's treatment. (p. 5)
The movie may also oversimplify the underlying symbolism of the reason he is abducted to Tralfamadore late in 1967. The saucer comes for the second time after his wife dies from the exhaust of her Cadillac when she hurries in melodramatic mawkishness to the hospital where Billy is recovering from the plane accident. The chronological placement of his abduction suggests that his need for the consolation of life on another planet with the movie star Montana Wildhack … stems from his wife's death. But it is rather doubtful he could be grieving much for her when he admits later that what he misses most about his wife is her pancakes. The grief has a much broader base than the broad base of his wife. (pp. 6-7)
Significantly, when Billy's asked if he's happy on Tralfamadore, Vonnegut records, "'About as happy as I was on Earth,' said Billy Pilgrim, which was true."… But the Tralfamadorians and his strange family life with the naked Montana in the human zoo there give him the wherewithal to accept his life in its entirety. His mother's question in the old people's home asked only in the novel "How did I get so old?"… compares in a way with Billy's own remark later in the book—"Where have all the years gone?"… These are standard questions we all ask ourselves at one time or another, but the difference here is that Billy has been able to put time in a new perspective, whether the experience on Tralfamadore be interpreted as dream, symbol, or actuality…. [In] a way Slaughterhouse-Five is an exorcism of adverse experiences; Vonnegut implies as much when he confesses in the first chapter and once in the context of the story that he is Billy Pilgrim and actually underwent most of the same experiences. It is noteworthy that the novel ends with a symbolic scene in spring-time…. [Images] of spring intertwined with death imply rebirth, and the movie, without resorting to the symbolism of Vonnegut's conclusion, communicates that sense when it leaves us...
(The entire section is 1547 words.)