“All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote in “Cat’s Cradle.” Vonnegut, a novelist, essayist and frequent public speaker known for his wry satire and distinctive literary voice, died Thursday (April 12) at age 84 from complications due to head trauma.
And all the true things we’re about to tell you are lies too. In all, five films have been adapted from Vonnegut’s work, with at least two more on the way. But while the make-believe fantasies about aliens who use humans for their own ends, or soldiers who become “un-stuck” in time, for instance, are all marked with elements of science-fiction, Vonnegut’s stories also taught people how to “live for the foma,” screenwriter James V. Hart reflected, referring to Vonnegut’s word for “harmless untruths that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”
“It’s like losing an uncle or a good buddy,” said Hart, who is writing adaptations of both “Cat’s Cradle” and “Sirens of Titan” with his son Jake. “You never thought of Kurt as old. His eyes were like E.T.’s eyes — filled with all the wonder of everything.”
Some of Vonnegut’s frequent collaborators spoke with MTV News about how that wonder was translated to the big screen.
Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel told the story of Billy Pilgrim, a soldier who witnessed the fire bombing of Dresden, Germany. Due to an encounter with an alien race, Billy is able to move fluidly through time, savoring certain moments while passing through others. Directed by George Roy Hill, the film won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. “I asked him what his favorite movie of his work was and, of course, it was ’Slaughterhouse-Five,’ ” Hart recalled. While he possesses knowledge of future events, Pilgrim is unable to change the future. “He gave us ’So it goes,’ ” Hart said, referring to the phrase Vonnegut uses in “Slaughterhouse” whenever someone dies (over 100 times). While ostensibly cynical, the phrase and the book offer a resigned and peaceful vision of hope, Hart said. “Anybody who tried to put hope into [his or her adaptation] fails. Vonnegut was not a great believer in hope, yet there is running through all of his work that glimmer,” the screenwriter contended. “We’re attracted to the bleakness and the sadness and the absurdity of his stories, but we always come out of it with hope.”
“Slapstick (Of Another Kind)” (1982)
Vonnegut used “Slapstick,” an oft-forgotten movie about telepathic twins starring Jerry Lewis, to espouse his theory that people can only be happy through extended families, where the “terrible disease of loneliness could be cured,” he wrote. As a famed humanist, it was a philosophy Vonnegut lived by his whole life, collaborators insisted. “He was very open to people. He welcomed people in. He was so interested in people, in the human race,” said “Mother Night” director Keith Gordon. “As much as he despaired of human beings, he equally rejoiced in the side of humanity that was able to do something more. He was incredibly uncynical on the nature of the human heart in and of itself.”
“Mother Night” (1996)
Vonnegut’s story of an American broadcaster who joins the Nazi Party as an undercover spy, only to be put on trial for war crimes based on his incendiary broadcasts, was one of the writer’s most straightforward narratives. “That was why we picked it,” said Gordon, whose film adaptation of the novel starred Nick Nolte. “His material is very difficult to translate to the screen because it’s very literary. ’Mother Night’ had a more conventional style.” The novel is famous for containing the line, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be,” which Gordon called a “timeless moral.” “It transcends any moment in history. It’s George Bush, it’s the politicians, it’s the people leading our world, it’s the kid at 15 who has to pretend he’s something he’s not — pretending he’s straight when he’s gay, pretending he’s strong when he’s vulnerable. It’s all of us,” Gordon said. “In a way to me, this story is a plea to honesty in who we are and what we believe. When we get trapped up in playing roles, we lose the core of who we are.”
“Breakfast of Champions” (1999)
Written when the author was 50, “Breakfast of Champions” was Vonnegut’s way of cleansing himself, he wrote, and releasing his characters (like the oft-used Kilgore Trout). More a hodgepodge, vicious satire on American culture than a plot-driven narrative, “Breakfast” ostensibly followed Dwayne Hoover (Bruce Willis), a man led to mental breakdown when he learns he’s the only creature in the universe with free will. Absurd? “He had that kind of macabre, funny way of looking at life and portraying how bad it is but also how funny it is,” Hart said of Vonnegut. And that humor was how he kept the absurdities of life at bay, friends remembered, using laughter to center himself (and his characters) during times of great strife. “He was a beacon of hopeful chaos in a land of faulty order,” “Breakfast” director Alan Rudolph added.
“Cat’s Cradle” and “Sirens of Titan”
“Cat’s Cradle” and “Sirens of Titan” — being written by the father/son team of Jim and Jake Hart — are the next two films to be adapted from Vonnegut novels. Both were worked on and approved by Vonnegut himself. “If it’s going to get made, it’s got to have Kurt’s fingerprints and his voice,” Jim Hart demanded. The story of a post-apocalyptic world where everything is destroyed by the fictional ice-nine, “Cat’s Cradle” is in development with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way studio. The book’s title came from the string game. “No damn cat, and no damn cradle,” Vonnegut wrote. “[He taught us] to stop listening to grown-ups, stop listening to the people that are in power. Stop listening to the people that tell you they know more than you do and that you don’t have a voice,” Hart said. “Keep questioning. Start doing something about it.”