Why Aren’t There More Kurt Vonnegut Movie & TV Adaptations?

Why Aren’t There More Kurt Vonnegut Movie & TV Adaptations?

In today’s cinematic landscape, many filmmakers and studios are looking for any and all previously existing stories that audiences are already familiar with to adapt to the big screen. Young adult novels have had their moment in the sun, there’s a mountain of Stephen King movies, and the Lord of the Rings was recently announced to have a new series of films in the works, but what audiences really need are some Kurt Vonnegut movies! Vonnegut is one of the most beloved authors of the 20th century, whose deeply sarcastic works are almost always satirical, and either fall into or mix, the genres of drama, sci-fi, war, and comedy. His works are just grounded enough, while also having the perfect amount of genre infused into them, that modern audiences would have a field day with any of his books being brought to the screen. With classics like Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat’s Cradle to his name, just to name a few, Vonnegut’s works are a treasure trove ready to be mined for the movies.

Who Is Kurt Vonnegut?

Kurt Vonnegut was born on November 11th, 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana. On top of having written 14 novels, Vonnegut also wrote numerous short stories, eight plays, several nonfiction works, a children’s book, and even drew quite a bit of the artwork that appears in his books. The man was a true artist in every sense of the word. His novels, particularly, are laced with satire. Vonnegut often took aim at traditional American lifestyles, the rich, war, and religion, and he did so with a pitch-black, brutal sense of humor. His punches were never pulled, but regardless of how dark or uncomfortable some of his books could get, it’s undeniable how funny they often are. While his stories often satirized a number of different ideas, Vonnegut would do so creatively by telling these stories through a multitude of other genres, namely science fiction.

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Past Kurt Vonnegut On-Screen Adaptations

Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)
Image via Cinema International Corporation

They’ve never been done expertly, but there have been a number of Kurt Vonnegut adaptations already. Most notably, in 1972, a Slaughterhouse-Five adaptation was brought to the big screen by George Roy Hill, sandwiched between his films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. His Slaughterhouse film is nowhere near as well remembered or regarded as those two, but it was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, so that’s worth something! The problem with adapting Slaughterhouse-Five in the 70s is just the scope that the novel eventually goes for. It’s a largely grounded novel, but its sci-fi elements are so extreme and bizarre that it’s hard to imagine the film being a truly successful adaptation with the state special effects were in at the time. It’s also weird in a way that most North American films at the time weren’t willing to go for. A few other adaptations include an incredibly unsuccessful Breakfast of Champions adaptation from 1999, Mother Night, and Slapstick of Another Kind.

There have been only been a few Kurt Vonnegut adaptations, but that’s also understandable. Special effects have only recently really gotten to the point where some of his out-there ideas could properly be brought to the screen. Figures like the Tralfamadorians, a reoccurring race of aliens who look like a plunger with a hand on top and an eye in the palm of the hand, are just a glimpse of the kinds of things that modern filmmakers could bring to life with modern effects. They’re also one of Vonnegut’s many strange ideas that could be brought to the screen now, both because of how accepting audiences are of weird elements in movies and how willing filmmakers are to bring these things to life. Their planet, Tralfamadore, appears in many of Vonnegut’s books. There have been sci-fi movies ever since the invention of cinema, but only recently have these intergalactic worlds become convincing on screen.

Filmmakers Who Match Kurt Vonnegut’s Aesthetic
Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

Imae via Cinema International Corporation

Vonnegut’s way of telling stories, for the longest time, was singular. His oddball science fiction ideas, mean character descriptions, and deadpan sense of humor are blended in such a way that leaves readers either baffled or laughing hysterically. He’s a writer that clearly despised just about every one of his characters and rarely ever gives any of them a moment of triumph. His novels are, mostly, pretty short reads as well, so a lot of his stories get to the point fairly quickly. They don’t really leave much room for side plots or meandering, his narratives are a lot like his jokes – quick, punchy, and always entertaining. Recently, Vonnegut’s approach has very evidently been adopted by a number of writers and filmmakers.

Yorgos Lanthimos is probably the most obvious director with similar storytelling sensibilities to Vonnegut. His film, The Lobster, feels exactly like the kind of thing that the author would write. Its blend of dark comedy and an oddball sci-fi premise feels perfectly in line with novels like Cat’s Cradle and Galápagos. Speaking of Galápagos, Ruben Östlund‘s recent Triangle of Sadness plays out with an eerily similar turn of events to that novel’s plot. Both stories follow various characters whose paths cross aboard a ship at sea, and eventually, end up stranded on an island where they have to figure out a new social order. Vonnegut’s story ends up going sci-fi, whereas Östlund’s remains grounded in the present. The Daniels also bring the Vonnegut-ian touch of everyday life with heavy doses of ridiculous sci-fi in their film Everything Everywhere All at Once. Rian Johnson‘s experiences working in sci-fi with Looper and hilarious satire in his Knives Out movies also lend him to be the perfect candidate for a Vonnegut adaptation.

If movie execs are looking for something fresh and exciting to shake up movies, the worlds of Kurt Vonnegut would be the perfect jumping-off point. His books would be tricky to adapt, but with today’s embrace of high-concept movies like Everything Everywhere and a recent fascination with social satire, it’s hard to imagine anyone that would have better works to be put in the spotlight. The literary world is well aware of his accomplishments, so it’s about time that Kurt Vonnegut’s stories made the leap to the big screen!

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