In speeches and books written during the last years of his life, novelist Kurt Vonnegut urged people to appreciate the simple pleasures in life by exclaiming, "If this isn't nice, what is?"
Now fans of the recently deceased satirist have new reason to crow that phrase: His second novel, "The Sirens of Titan," has been adapted for the big screen, screenwriter James V. Hart told MTV News exclusively (see " 'So It Goes': Looking Back At Kurt Vonnegut's Big-Screen Impact").
" 'Sirens of Titan' was the gem in Kurt's little box, the one that he put it all out there on, his first real breakthrough. If Kurt's legacy is going to be represented, it's got to be done right," Hart said of the novel he is adapting with his son Jake. " 'Titan' was important enough to him where he is sharing screenplay credit with us. Jake had just typed the end on it. We were going to hand it to Kurt together."
"Sirens of Titan" follows Malachi Constant, the richest and luckiest man in the 22nd century, whose bizarre and seemingly random journeys take him from Earth to Mars to Mercury, and finally to the Saturn moon of Titan — where he learns a painful and absurd truth about the history of humanity.
" 'Sirens of Titan' is the story of the entire history of mankind on this planet being reduced. [Malachi learns] its whole purpose was for a one-word statement on a message being transferred across the galaxy from one civilization to another," Hart said of the novel's plot. "Earth just happened to be in the place where an alien broke down. It used all the history of mankind — wars, monuments, architecture, Stonehenge — to communicate this single-word message."
The ambitious story of thwarted free will and extraterrestrial manipulation resonated with Hart because of its particularly Vonnegutian perspective, he said.
"I thought it was the most brilliant thing I'd ever read. For me, it just reduced our entire meaning to an infinitesimal, tiny speck of an atom," he remarked. "It was such a strong, powerful message to put us in our place, show us how important we're not."
"I was a victim of a series of accidents," Vonnegut has a character say in the novel. "As are we all." It's a quote that could just as equally describe how Hart and his son got their hands on the screenplay. For many years, the rights were owned by Jerry Garcia (yes, that Jerry Garcia) before Vonnegut himself granted the option to "Curb Your Enthusiasm" producer Robert B. Weide. After several years, the story's rights were optioned again.
"I was pursuing the rights to 'Sirens of Titan,' which was my favorite, [but] the rights had always been owned or tied up somewhere. We just cracked it," Hart said. "Kurt was my hero. For years, you try to get to a place in your career where you can say, 'Now I can do Kurt Vonnegut.' "
Having previously worked with Carl Sagan on an adaptation of "Contact," Hart was insistent Vonnegut have a hand in the script's early development, a role he said the author approached with typical intelligence and humanity.
"Kurt was sharp as a tack and giving us solutions to problems in the book. He couldn't have been nicer. It was so collaborative," Hart recalled. "He basically said, 'I wrote the book, you go make the movie.' "
Hart particularly treasured Vonnegut's attitude, he said, because of how much the author's kindness meant to his son Jake, a co-screenwriter on the project. The father-and-son team is also writing a film adaptation of Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle." "At the end of the day, Kurt said, 'You know, Jim, I like you OK, but I want to marry Jake.' It made [my son's] life at this point."
It was a gentleness and generosity that Jake hoped to repay, Hart said, with an ending to "Sirens" that is meant to honor Kurt. (If you'd like to be kept in the dark about the script's ending, which differs from the book's, don't read on.)
"Jake wrote an ending to 'Sirens of Titan' that was a tribute to Kurt. It involves a little boy coming over to a bench where Constant is frozen to death, and in Malachi's arms is a book he wrote on Titan which is the key to the knowledge of the universe," Hart said of the scene, describing how it strikes a Vonnegut-inspired tone of hope for humanity amid loneliness and despair. "It really embodies everything that Kurt was about to my son."
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