Kurt Vonnegut: Author's Influence Reached Beyond the Pages

I am in profound mourning. One of my literary heroes and one of the greatest authors of our time, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. has died.

I think I've read... no, make that devoured everything Mr. Vonnegut has written. Novels, plays, essays, articles, you name it. Out of sheer respect, I will not even try to hastily summarize this great man's literary achievements, or clumsily attempt to explain his genius. I could never do him justice or even come close to rivaling his ability with pen and paper.

I am prepared, however, to point out how Vonnegut's brilliance radiated off the pages of his novels and onto film (or in some cases, TV). Many of Vonnegut's stories and books were turned into feature films. Short of actually reading his work, it's a pretty good way to get into KV's witty, creative, brutally honest and sometimes disturbingly dark mind.

I'm sure everyone has heard of, or possibly even seen Slaughterhouse 5 (1972), based on what is arguably Vonnegut's most famous novel. Through a science fiction adventure, Vonnegut recounts his real-life nightmarish experience as an American prisoner of war in Germany in World War II, who witnessed the firebombing of Dresden. Were it not for his book, or the movie, many people outside of Dresden may never have known how that city was quite literally reduced to ashes and that thousands of civilians died, burned to death or suffocated by the flames.

But SH5 isn't the only KV you'll find on film. Here are some others worth checking out:

  • Mother Night (1996) -- Nick Nolte plays an American living in Germany during World War II, who is asked to spy for the U.S. by hiding secret messages in his anti-American propaganda radio show. Just one problem. When the war ends, no one knows he was working for the good guys all along. How's a "not-really-a-Nazi-hero" supposed to survive in New York after all? Nolte is brilliant and John Goodman is pretty good as the only government agent who knows his real identity.
  • Breakfast of Champions (1999) -- The story of a car salesman on the verge of a breakdown, a failing writer on a mission, and a town full of kooks, crooks, cross-dressers and ex-cons. Along the way we meet some of KV's best characters including Rabo Karabekian, Kilgore Trout, and the Creator of the Universe. It's a little hard to follow unless you've read the book, but it has a dynamite cast including Bruce Willis, Nick Nolte, Albert Finney, Glenne Headly, and an appearance by KV himself. (This might just be the one Bruce Willis film that fewer people have seen than Bonfire of the Vanities.)
  • Harrison Bergeron (1995) -- Based on a KV short story about a future society where the entire population is purposely made "average" in the name of equality. Sean Astin plays the title role of an exceptionally-bright fellow who hopes to get brain surgery to make him dumber... until he hatches a plan to save the world. This dark comedy also features Christopher Plummer, American Pie's Eugene Levy and Howie Mandel.
  • Kurt Vonnegut's Monkey House (1991) -- Seven of KV's best short stories, from his book Welcome to the Monkey House, turned into half-hour, Twilight Zone-ish episodes. Includes a story about a chess game played with real people as the pieces who are killed if they get knocked off the board. I'm not sure if this ever aired on network television -- but the seven episodes would be perfect for a Sci-Fi Channel mini-marathon. You can get it on VHS, but I don't think it's out on DVD (yet?).
  • Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971) -- Based on a KV play, starring Rod Steiger and Susannah York about a man who returns to his family after being presumed dead for seven years. This film was actually made before Slaughterhouse 5, but honestly I don't know where you might find it. Even the book is a little tricky to get your hands on.

I hope Hollywood isn't done with Mr. Vonnegut's work just yet. I think several of his novels have terrific potential for films, especially Timequake, Cat's Cradle and Player Piano. Maybe Jailbird and Bluebeard for the thinking crowd.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was 84.

R.I.P.K.V.

Ethan Morris: "Not always right, but never in doubt." Go ahead and write me.