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Why 'Slaughterhouse-Five' Would Be the Movie of Our Time

With rumors of a Guillermo del Toro-directed film adaptation swirling, today seems like the perfect time to revisit Kurt Vonnegut's famous novel.
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Just the possibility of a Guillermo del Toro-directed Slaughterhouse-Five sent the interwebs into a buzz, after his announcement to the Daily Telegraph. “The studio will make it when it’s my next movie,” del Toro said, “but how can I commit to it being my next movie until there’s a screenplay? Charlie Kaufman is a very expensive writer!”

Fair point, Guillermo. But beyond financial constraints, the time is ripe for a new Slaughterhouse-Five. In his piece (PDF) “Billy Pilgrim—Even More a Man of Our Times,” English professor David Vanderwerken argues that in post-September 11th America, the static meekness of protagonist Billy Pilgrim may be even more representative of the nation’s mood now than when the novel debuted in 1969.

Of course good things are always happening somewhere, but polls have a way of making you cringe.

A quick refresher (“spoiler alerts” expire 44 years later): Slaughterhouse-Five follows the life of World War II prisoner of war Billy Pilgrim, who is “unstuck” in time, which creates the novel’s disrupted narrative. A despondent man, Pilgrim witnesses the horrific bombing of Dresden, returns and suffers from what now would be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, and claims to a radio audience that, in 1967, he was abducted and taken to the planet Tralfamadore. There, the Tralfamadorians taught him their philosophy: Life is unlinear; when one dies, why mourn? He’s alive in a different moment.

To Vanderwerken, we are all Billy Pilgrim. Living in an environment of “seemingly endless wars,” an inexplicable economy, and disillusion with government prompts Pilgrim-esque defeatism. “America has adopted the Tralfamadorian philosophy that justifies apathy,” Vanderwerken writes. “We have lost our sense of individual agency and feel powerless and impotent, the ‘listless playing things of enormous focus.’” Apathy and an acceptance of helplessness make us seek refuge in distractions, become engrossed in apocalyptic-themed entertainment, and are symptoms of America’s increasing suicide epidemic.

While Vanderwerken takes a depressing outlook on things, it’s hard to make a generally compelling counterargument. Of course good things are always happening somewhere, but polls have a way of making you cringe. In August 2011, 46 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll stated that neither side was winning the War on Terror and expressed frustration with the way things were going. Yet another Gallup poll found 64 percent of respondents want their children to avoid a career in politics and that in the 2012 election white votes declined by two million—the first drop in numbers since 1996.

When the original Slaughterhouse-Five film premiered in 1972, the anti-war message was part of a larger national discussion, with Vietnam protests at a violent height. If Slaughterhouse-Five is to be made now, it’s entering a very different environment. Describing the mood of a small protest this spring, Wilson Ring of the Associated Press writes:

While the war in Iraq is over for the United States, the war in Afghanistan continues, largely off the public radar as it fades from front pages and the top of television newscasts. In a way similar to how U.S. service members continue to fight overseas, the small groups of protesters still regularly protest, their voices all but lost in the chatter of a country focused on other things.

Film has the ability to serve as a mirror to the times, possibly forcing the audience to acknowledge its own sense of morality through the experiences of a fictional character. Perhaps we will go to the theater, observe Billy Pilgrim, and be shaken from national apathy. Or, perhaps, us Tralfamadorians will watch, eat our popcorn, and go home to digest some more Netflix. So it goes.