As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book and movie; rather, it is to examine how the book and movie relate to the meaning of life.
Slaughterhouse-Five is one of Vonnegut's most popular books and it is easy to see why. It is a poignant and darkly comical reflection of humanity—especially because at the time the book was written, the senselessness of World War II was still in everyone's mind, and the senselessness of the Vietnam war was ongoing. Doubly so when one remembers that Vonnegut was a prisoner of WWII and a survivor of the infamous Bombing of Dresden. Originally, Vonnegut thought he'd write a famous history book on the subject, but for whatever reason, he just couldn't come up with enough words to write the book. So we got Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (the full name of the book). So it goes.
An article by the New Yorker, written by Salman Rushdie, points out that Vonnegut's phrase, "So it goes" kind of took on a life of its own after the book was published. While Vonnegut only uses the phase after someone has died—a sadness for which there are no words—a way to face death, people started to use the phrase to shrug off whatever crap the universe threw their way.
The story is about a man named Billy Pilgrim, who joins WWII not to fight, but rather as an assistant chaplain. He has no gun and is portrayed as aloof, humorously dressed in a woman's jacket and silver boots, and doesn't have much of a will to live—yet, the irony here is that Pilgrim, despite his lack of desire for self-preservation, would be one of the few to survive the horrors of Dresden. Pilgrim's life is given to us in bits and pieces. He's at war, he is on an alien planet named Tralfamadore (which appears in several of Vonnegut's books) living in a zoo, his wife dies, he is getting married, he has children, he's finally born, the birds sing Poo-tee-weet! ... all out of sequence for the most part, because you see, Pilgrim's problem is that he cannot keep linear time straight. This could be for a few reasons:
1) he has a mental illness, such as PTSD
2) he actually timeslips
3) the past, present, and future are just a matter of perspective
Whatever the cause, Pilgrim jumps around to different times in his life. He's seen his own death and knows there is nothing he can do to change it, as this is what the aliens on Tralfamadore taught him. That is, they taught him that we're all just bugs caught in amber. Everything from Pilgrim's perspective that will happen, has already happened. You see, the Tralfamadorians are fourth dimensional beings, and can see all time simultaneously. Just as we beings in three spatial dimensions can look right and see what's there, so is everything on the left—we just have to turn our heads and look. Time for the Tralfamadorians is just a matter of focusing their attention on the right direction—the past, present, and future have no real meaning for them. They already know how the universe will end, and facetiously its demise is the result of an accident of the Tralfamadorians own making—to which they cannot and/or will not do anything about, because that is how the moment has always happened.
After serving in the war, Pilgrim finishes optometry school, but not before he has a mental breakdown or two, marries a slightly overweight woman who promises to lose weight for him (which never happens), and eventually his wife dies rushing to the hospital after he's in a plane crash. Yet, he knows his life will be alright, and his marriage to the woman will at least be bearable, so he doesn't object to any of the events that will happen from a traditionally linear perspective. He'll also have a few children with two different women on two different planets, and event mate with one for the amusement of the Tralfamadorians.
There are some articles on the web which talk about Slaughterhouse-Five being about the meaning of life. Rather than the story being about the meaning of life, it is more so a bleak reflection of humanity, finding the absurdity in what appears to be both senseless and meaningless, and the solemn resignation to accept the things we cannot change. Vonnegut says some of this in the following, (Rosewater and Billy): They had both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war.
In another passage, Pilgrim asks the Tralfamadorians if everything that will happen has already happened from their perspective, then what of free will? The Tralfamadorians respond to Pilgrim, telling him that they have visited 31 inhabited planets in the universe, and only Earthlings talk about free will. Vonnegut would even go on to quote a Catholic prayer towards the end of the book, God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. Courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.
Stephen Hawking also talked about how our lives are predetermined within the multiverse. Interestingly, both Hawking and Vonnegut come to a similar conclusion on how to still find some meaning in such a world. Hawking said we could find meaning in such a universe, as it is personal to ourselves, while Vonnegut says, Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt. Finding beauty in what we can, remembering the good times and ignoring the bad, is sometimes about all we can do. If there is no free will, we may still be able to find meaning, to find beautiful through observation—and the solemn resignation to accept that there is nothing we can do to change this. For example, when we sit and watch a movie, we cannot change the story or the outcome, but it does not mean the experience is meaningless.
Alan Watts once said the following: Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.
Another famous author that survived the atrocities of WWII is Viktor Frankl, who wrote the book Man's Search for Meaning. It is interesting to see how Frankl makes sense of the senselessness and meaninglessness of the war vs. Vonnegut. Frankl ends up dedicating his life to the psychology of meaning, and concludes that humanity can create meaning in the following ways:
1) by creating a work or doing a deed
2) by experiencing something or encountering someone
3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering
Now to the movie.
The movie was directed by George Roy Hill and for the most part, very closely follows what was in the book. Starring in the movie and playing Billy Pilgrim, we have Michael Sacks in this first major role. In relation to the meaning of life, we don't have anything significant to add.
As for the experience of watching the film vs reading the book, we have to conclude that reading the book was more enlightening, went more in depth—which is natural and should be expected. We liked that the the film didn't deviate too much from the book—wished the film makers would have tried to of portrayed the green plunger shaped aliens known as the Tralfamadorians, but instead, in the movie, the Tralfamadorians were invisible. The movie, like the book, was bleak and darkly comical in light of the myriad deaths of war. So it goes.
If we're being honest, watching the immediately after reading the book was a bit of a sleeper. We rate the movie the following:
Overall - 6
Meaning of Life Relevance - 3
Uniqueness – 5
If you read the book and/or watched the film, what did you think? What did we miss? Comment below and let us know.