Commentary on Slaughterhouse-Five Hypertext Adaptation

The first chapter of Kurt Vonnegut’s “famous book about Dresden”[1] is an author’s preface, in which Vonnegut describes his reasons for writing the book and his connection to the firebombing of Dresden that killed 135,000 civilians before lamenting that “There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre.”[2] Vonnegut’s narrative is not an anti-war account, nor is it particularly visceral description of that terrible, deliberate massacre: it is the story of how a man copes with witnessing such horrors, “the interior trauma loop of a damaged man trying to recount his experience in the age of acceptable civilian losses.”[3]

My adaptation of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is founded upon this core theme of trauma and fragmentation. The adaptation is a heavily edited version of the novel, split across over 200 webpages navigable by hyperlinks placed throughout each page that divert and jump about the narrative upon being clicked. This edited version omits significant sections of the novel, from—in one instance—an entire chapter, to single sentences and words.

The decision to marry Slaughterhouse-Five with hypertext fiction was born out of both a love for the book, and a desire to experiment with the typical form of the hypertext novel. It is the aim of this adaptation to create an alternative to the often too fractured hypertext narratives by attempting to craft an engaging and largely linear narrative that utilised hyperlinks in a similar fashion to that of the pioneering hypertext fictions like Afternoon, a story and Patchwork Girl.[4] It is hoped that this exploration would reveal further ways of combining the lightness that hypertext fiction allows readers in the increasingly mobile world with the potency of a poignant and engaging story, especially as this fascinating way of navigating texts has failed to penetrate mainstream readerships.

My approach to using hypertext in my adaptation was inspired by the narrative structures found in open-world videogames such as Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto V and by the extraordinary depression simulating interactive fiction, Depression Quest.[5] The tendency for open-world videogames to feature a core quest or narrative alongside a number of side quests and nuggets of additional contextual and narrative information was something that I found incredibly liberating from the user’s point of view. I therefore set out to present Vonnegut’s narrative in a fairly complete form, including a number of slight deviations that would offer readers additional information along the way. While much of the edited text that I set apart for deviating links was trivial in nature, lots of it also offered illuminating thoughts and humorous distractions so that it would always feel as though exploration of the adaptation was being rewarded.

While planning this adaptation it was my intention to build the website and webpages myself from my knowledge of HTML and CSS. However, the enormity of the task soon became apparent when I began editing the book down, realising that I would need to be able to fully construct over 200 webpages that would be viewable on a variety of screen sizes. As a result of this pressure, I elected to build the website and the webpages on WordPress, which offered a number of suitable website templates that were viewable on numerous screen sizes and would take considerably less time to piece together. Due to copyright concerns, I have also made the website private.

I wanted the adaptation to be absorbing but also light and mobile for modern readerships. Vital to this was ensuring that the site was perfectly viewable on mobile devices, which I was able to do by using a WordPress template with this feature, built in. As a way of encouraging the reader to become absorbed by the text it was my intention that the narrative remained very coherent, which demanded vigilant and creative editing. Additionally, I endeavoured to let Vonnegut’s narrative speak for itself in a number of instances limiting the number of hypertext options to ensure readers remained focussed during these sections. Furthermore, by removing page titles from every page and making the maximum number of times any reader would have to backtrack once, I hoped to encourage readers to get lost in the narrative through a blend of blindness and simplicity of navigation.

Returning to the concept of the narrative being about the human striving to make sense of life in the wake of witnessing hell on earth, I also drew upon a seminal phrase from Vonnegut’s novel: ‘so it goes.’ By isolating this phrase every time it is mentioned in the book, and even using it to loop the narrative’s end with its opening, I hoped to place greater import on this distant expression of brutal fatalism. Through the various episodes of death, horror and senseless violence, this phrase becomes a mainstay, a rapid casting off of any negative dwelling on life’s most horrendous moments. This focus was also inspired by the protagonist’s imagined epitaph, which reads, “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.”[6] It was this wish to carry the core theme of the novel to the fore of my adaptation that drove me to name the adaptation after that imagined epitaph. As a contemporary review, originally published in 1969 by The New York Times, wrote of Slaughterhouse-Five, “It is very tough and very funny; it is sad and delightful; and it works.”[7]

In essence, I aimed to conquer one of the core flaws of hypertext fiction, while retaining its greatest strength. As Vandendorpe comments, “hypertext links give an incredible lightness to the reader, who can easily jump from one idea to another … this is not always a blessing, of course, since it distracts the reader from following a single thread of thought”.[8] Moreover, in retaining the core appeal of hypertext fiction, the reliance of the reader’s understanding of webpages “on the context within which they are grasped,” I was also able to edit Vonnegut’s novel in such a way that its most cutting and incisive theme was brought to the fore of almost every page of the adaptation.[9] I hope that by bringing an original approach to a genre and form that never truly flourished, I can inspire or at least remind readers and viewers of the merits of hypertext in an increasingly mobile world.

Due to copyright concerns, this adaptation is currently private.

Bibliography

[1] Vonnegut, Kurt Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. London: Vintage Classics, 1991, p. 15.

[2] Ibid, p. 16.

[3] Meaney, Thomas Slaughterhouse-Five: ‘So it goes’, 2012. [Online] Available From: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article988723.ece [Accessed 7 January 2015].

[4] Hutcheon, Linda A Theory of Adaptation. Oxon: Routledge, 2013, pp. 129-137.

[5] Quinn, Zoe Depression Quest, 2013. [Online] Available From: http://www.depressionquest.com/#top-section [Accessed 23 December 2014].

[6] Vonnegut, Kurt Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. London: Vintage Classics, 1991, p. 100.

[7] The New York Times Slaughterhouse-Five, Or the Children’s Crusade, 2013. [Online] Available From: http://www.nytimes.com/1969/03/31/books/vonnegut-slaughterhouse.html?_r=0 [Accessed 22 February 2015].

[8] Vandendorpe, Christian ‘Reading on Screen: The New Media Sphere’. In: Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens ed. A Companion to Digital Literacy Studies. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008, chap. 10. [Online] Available from: http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companionDLS/ [Accessed 5 April 2015].

[9] Ibid.

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