I’m going to throw out a bunch of words and phrases and I want to see what you make of them. Aliens, unstuck in time, Guillermo del Toro, Charlie Kaufman, Kurt Vonnegut. Anything there pique your interest? Taken together can you discern any particular meaning? If you read this and thought, “does that mean Guillermo del Toro and Charlie Kaufman are going to adapt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five,” then that’s exactly the point I’m getting at. And I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a pretty damn incredible prospect to me.
Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s most popular and influential book, which is saying something when you’re talking about one of the greatest American authors, sci-fi or otherwise. The story follows Billy Pilgrim, a World War II soldier who comes “unstuck in time,” drifting through history. Full of Vonnegut’s trademark biting satire, the novel was already adapted once in 1972 by Stephen Geller and George Roy Hill. While not a bad film, it doesn’t come anywhere near capturing the potential of the book. Overall, the attempts to translate Vonnegut’s prose into film haven’t been particularly great. Alan Rudolph’s 1999 take on Breakfast of Champions was, let’s just call it underwhelming, and leave it at that.
Because the timeline of the novel is so discontinuous, jumping around in time from end to beginning and everywhere in between, it’s a difficult work to adapt. But the inherent weirdness, and the intricately layered narrative, also sounds like it is right up Charlie Kaufman’s alley. Strange is kind of his jam. With films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless, Adaptation., and Being John Malkovich under his belt, it’s hard to imagine anyone more ideally suited to bring Vonnegut’s peculiarities to the big screen.
Throw del Toro, who has been talking about adapting Slaughterhouse-Five for years, into the mix, and you’ve got one of the better aesthetic matches I can think of for the material. Specifically I’m thinking about movies like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. Who better to depict an alien race that experiences all time simultaneously?
Charlie Kaufman and I 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 [the aliens of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’] — to be ‘unstuck in time,’ where everything is happening at the same time. And that’s what I want to do. 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!
With everything on del Toro’s plate, there are long odds against this happening any time soon. He’s got Frankenstein, Crimson Peak, The Strain, and more projects already in various stages of development. And he’s made noises about Pacific Rim 2, though we’ll have to wait to see if it’s a flop like some (not Kanye) believe it will be.
Whether it happens or not, sooner or later, a Guillermo del Toro, Charlie Kaufman, Kurt Vonnegut sandwich is an exciting possibility for us to drool over.
Del Toro did finish his talk on a positive note, adding, “I’ll work it out.”