Stream On: Kurt Vonnegut breaks out; so does ‘Harrison Bergeron’

By on August 5, 2021

“Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” in Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five.’ (IMDb.com)

Last week we looked at a treatment of a story from American author Kurt Vonnegut, Who Am I This Time? Writing since 1952, his breakthrough was his commercially and critically successful sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969). With its antiwar message and fresh writing style, it, and in short order, all of his books, became required reading among the counter-culture.

Who Am I This Time had been an outlier, an early romantic comedy; Vonnegut’s meat was social commentary, usually couched in science fiction, that invited comparisons to Mark Twain (whose story, Life in the Mississippi, Vonnegut introduced to TV viewers in 1980). Here are two of the best Vonnegut screen adaptations.


[IMDb.com] [trailer]
[Amazon.com; Prime Video; stream online] 1972 [R]

“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”

Vonnegut’s book had been called “one of the most enduring antiwar novels of all time,” and he wrote of the film adaptation, “I love [director] George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and Universal Pictures, who made a flawless translation of my novel Slaughterhouse-Five to the silver screen. I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.”

As it opens, a middle-aged Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks, The Amityville Horror) is at his typewriter, writing a letter to the editor of the Ilium, New York Daily News:

“In my last letter I didn’t fully explain what’s happened to me.

“I have come unstuck in time.

“I jump back and forth in my life and I have no control over where…”

Billy looks up from the typewriter and is twenty years old and evading a WWII German patrol in the snow behind enemy lines.

This is how the film proceeds, in a non-linear fashion similar to Christopher Nolan’s Memento, but while the protagonist of Nolan’s film is unable to make new memories as the result of a brain injury, Billy Pilgrim sees his whole life in a glance, due to his brush with aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who see in four dimensions.

The formative event in Billy’s life was taken from Vonnegut’s own experience as a prisoner of war in WWII. He and other POW’s were being held in an underground slaughterhouse in Dresden, a non-military target, when British and American air forces dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on the city, which leveled it and killed 25,000, mostly civilians.

Billy shortly finds himself, 40 years later, in a zoolike exhibit on the planet Tralfamadore in the fourth dimension, cohabiting with an actress, Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine, Third Watch). The Tralfamadoreans hope Billy and Montana will mate, and in the meantime, teach them that the universe is made up of random moments strung together; when one dies, they go back to another point in their life, and it is up to them to focus on good moments and ignore the bad.

The film manages to bring Vonnegut’s considerable charm to the narrative, with J.S. Bach scholar and interpreter Glenn Gould’s beautiful piano performances and more in a soundtrack put together by Gould. On Rotten Tomatoes it currently holds an 82% critics/68% audience score, the negative audience reviewers being apparently put off by the “trippy,” non-linear storytelling. In spite of that it’s well worth a look.


[IMDb.com] [trailer]
[Free with ads on YouTube; free on Vimeo] 1995 [R]

In 2081, equality laws dictate that no-one is allowed to stand out, lest others have their feelings hurt. Harrison Bergeron is unable to hide his intelligence and is marked by the authorities. (IMDb.com)

“THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.” (From Vonnegut’s 1961 short story)

Vonnegut was pretty prescient to have foreseen our era of participation trophies and toxic egalitarianism. In this 1995 Showtime film, an adaptation loose but faithful to the spirit of his 1961 short story, American society is in full crab mentality, such as is seen when crabs are caught in a bucket. One could easily climb out, but the others won’t let it. “If we can’t have it, neither can you.”

“Through a process of selective breeding, mankind is perfecting the perfectly average human being. What is not accomplished through arranged marriages is made up for through technological means, the most prominent of which are showing only mind-numbing TV shows, and a headband device worn by all citizens which modulates intelligence, dialing a person’s IQ up or down in order to arrive at a ‘perfect’ 100.

“There are limits to the success of the devices, however, and young Harrison Bergeron (Sean Astin, Lord of the Rings trilogy) is one such case. He is a total failure in school, consistently receiving A’s (C is the desired grade). Even though he has been held back four years and his headband is consistently modified to dampen his intelligence, he still continues to excel to the embarrassment of him and his family.”[^]

He is scheduled for “corrective brain surgery,” but first visits a “head house,” where illegal, device-free women are paid to play chess and have intelligent converations with the “Johns.” When the place is raided, he is given the choice of an alternative to lobotomization: Join the elite who actually run the country.

And it wouldn’t be Vonnegut without comedy. After watching a tape of King Lear, Harrison asks, “Who is that old guy?”

“King Lear,” he’s told.

“No, I mean the actor who plays him?”

“Macauley Culkin.”

Audiences have given it an 82% score on Rotten Tomatoes, but among professional critics only Walter Goodman of the New York Times has mentioned it. The movie was released to VHS in 1998, and as far as I can tell, is not streaming or available now save for the above-mentioned private uploads on YouTube or Vimeo.

In 2009 a remake entitled 2081 was released; that, too, is not streaming. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that the antagonists mentioned in the movie have suppressed them. Just kidding! And still…

Next time, fiction and nonfiction movies from the Vonnegut of law enforcement, Joseph Wambaugh.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

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