"I love George Roy Hill and Universal Pictures, who made a flawless translation of my novel Slaughterhouse-Five to the silver screen," said Kurt Vonnegut in Film Comment in 1985. "I drool and cackle every time I watch that film because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book."
In 1971, I was just a kid on a bicycle riding to my grandmother's house in a maple tree-covered nook of Wayzata, Minnesota, when I came across a series of semi-trucks parked on my grandmother's lawn. How did those huge trucks make it through the narrow and tree-shrouded roads and why were the trucks now at my grandmother's? I was soon a witness to the making of the movie Slaughterhouse Five, and it showed me the power of inspired filmmaking and of a great adaptation. I drool and cackle, too, when I now watch the DVD.
Director George Roy Hill had grown up in Minnesota and gone to Blake School, the boys school I attended at the time. I was there at the same time as a kid named Al Franken, the future comedian and now Minnesota Senator. So it goes.
My grandmother handed me a copy of Vonnegut's thin book, which I'd never heard of, and she said, "Why don't we go over to the Snyder's and see what they're shooting?" The film was being shot at the lakeside home of her neighbor, John P. Snyder, Jr., a school chum of Hill's.
Two scenes were shot that afternoon, one where protagonist Billy Pilgrim is surprising his wife, Valencia, with a new Cadillac, and she's ecstatic and promises to lose weight. The other scene, supposedly years later at an afternoon party outdoors, is where Valencia tells Billy to show their guests one of his mementos from the war. Billy had lived as a prisoner of war through the fire-bombing of Dresden.
Both scenes seemed highly artificial and stupid to me. Whatever movie it was, it had to be bad. Before the film was released, there was a Blake benefit premiere of it at the Cooper Cinerama theatre, which was later demolished for the making of a freeway. The film blew me away. It was so out there, I had no idea where it was going, but it was an incredible ride. It transitioned back and forth through time--into the past in World War II where Billy was a prisoner, into the present where he was an optometrist in Ilium, New York, and into the future where he was a willing captive with soft-porn-star Montana Wildhack on the planet Tralfamadore.
Billy traveled randomly through the times in his life. Both the film and the book explore fate, free will, the crazy nature of human beings, including their need for war. The film moves from one time to another in an often stunningly visual or aural way. If something this good came from a book, how was the book?
It was another three years before I came across that answer. It was when I stumbled upon the book again on top of a toilet in Roskilde, Denmark. How I came to Denmark itself was unusual. I'd met a young Danish woman in Minnesota after I'd accidentally stepped on her toes at a party not far from my grandmother's house. She invited me to the prom at Blake School, where she was the first female exchange student at my former high school, which had gone coed.
I tuxed up for the prom, and over the next few weeks before she returned to Denmark, we fell in love. I moved heaven and earth to spend my upcoming junior year studying abroad in Denmark. It was only after I arrived that I learned she was living with another man, her new boyfriend, so she arranged for me to live with her parents. So it goes.
At a party in Roskilde, where I was deeply depressed because there was my former love with her new boyfriend, I came across Vonnegut's book in the bathroom. I started reading it. It was as great as the movie. I borrowed it, and it pulled me out of my doldrums. Such is the power of a good book.
There in Denmark, I plowed through all the Vonnegut I could find. His sometimes loose sense of storytelling--his sense of fun and his powers of observation--later helped drive me to write my own novels. In fact, I just turned into my agent my new novel about a guy going to Denmark after stepping on the toes of a young woman. I made him a physicist whose specialty is matter in the ultracold. It's called Love At Absolute Zero.
Vonnegut considered himself one of the lucky authors in the world because he felt the movie was flawless and maybe even better than his book. I love both.
(Christopher Meeks's book Love At Absolute Zero is now out as an eBook and comes out in print in September. Click here to read an excerpt.)
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