News Column

Guillermo del Toro May Lens 'Slaughterhouse-Five'

July 9, 2013

YellowBrix

I don't have much use for Hollywood. After more than two decades in Southern California, I've developed a healthy resistance (resentment?) toward the notion that our entire culture can, or should, be interpreted through the filter of the entertainment industry.

And yet, even I was excited yesterday by the news that there might be a Charlie Kaufman adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel "Slaughterhouse-Five" in the works -- if director Guillermo del Toro can figure out a way to get it done.

During an interview with England's Daily Telegraph, Del Toro acknowledged that he and Kaufman had "talked for about an hour-and-a-half and came up with a perfect way of doing the book. ... I love the idea of the Trafalmadorians -- to be 'unstuck in time,' where everything is happening at the same time. And that's what I want to do."

In the next breath, though, he qualified: "It's just a Catch-22. The studio will make it when it's my next movie, but how can I commit to it being my next movie until there's a screenplay? Charlie Kaufman is a very expensive writer!"

Typical Hollywood hedging, right? Float an idea and then back away from it as an expression of ego, or perhaps a negotiating ploy. And yet, could there be a better pairing than Kaufman and Vonnegut, two writers with an idiosyncratic sense of story structure and a habit of writing themselves into their own work?

Kaufman, after all, is that rarest of Hollywood figures: a screenwriter who imprints his scripts so deeply with his sensibility that they become Charlie Kaufman projects, more than that of whatever director (Spike Jonze, Michael Gondry) takes them on. Look at his films ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Synecdoche, New York," even "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind") back-to-back, and you see a body of work, not unlike that of an author, as if he were writing novels for the screen.

Kaufman's great theme is our inability to know one another, which he traces with a mix of humor and despair. In that regard, he's not unlike Vonnegut, who, transformed by his experience as a prisoner of war during the 1945 firebombing of Dresden, Germany, became a fatalist, his every novel and short story an expression of the essential absurdity of being alive.

"Slaughterhouse-Five," which is commonly regarded as his masterpiece, is a perfect case in point, a novel that takes Dresden as its center, then turns it, bringing in elements of time travel and science fiction to tell the story of a survivor of the bombing named Billy Pilgrim, who comes "unstuck in time."

For Billy, as for the denizens of the planet Trafalmadore, where he ends up, time is a fluid concept, not linear but simultaneous, in which everything that has ever happened and everything that will ever happen all occur in the same instant. Such a universe, Vonnegut explains in his 1973 novel "Breakfast of Champions," "is one half-second old, but that half-second has lasted one quintillion years so far. Who created it? Nobody created it. It has always been here."

That line can't help but bring to mind the opening moments of Kaufman's 2002 film "Adaptation," in which we shift from a Hollywood sound stage back to the literal origins of time. "Adaptation," I should admit, is my favorite movie, as vivid an explication of the writer's life as has ever been set to screen. Something similar might be said about "Slaughterhouse-Five," which is the book that made me want to be a writer, when I discovered it in my early teens.

"Slaughterhouse-Five" has already been filmed once; George Roy Hill directed a solid adaptation in 1972. But Kaufman doing Vonnegut? Be still, my heart. If, that is, the project ever comes to pass.

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