Shame, shame to have lived scenes from a women’s magazine. —Kurt Vonnegut
In his introduction to Welcome to the Monkey House, a collection of his short fiction published in 1968, Kurt Vonnegut shows no compunction about throwing its most mainstream entry under the bus:
In honor of the marriage that worked I include in this collection a sickeningly slick love story from The Ladies Home Journal, God help us, entitled by them “Long Walk to Forever.” The title I gave it, I think, was “Hell to Get Along With.”
The simple tale, published, as noted, by Ladies Home Journal in 1960, bears a lot of similarities to events of Vonnegut’s own life. After WWII, having survived the bombing of Dresden as a POW, he made his way back to Indianapolis, and invited Jane Cox, the friend he’d known since kindergarten, who was engaged to another man, to take a walk, during which he suggested she should marry him instead.
Director Jessica Hester's recent, Kurt Vonnegut Trust-sanctioned adaptation, above, plays it pretty straight, as do several other unauthorized versions lurking on the Internet.
She ups Newt’s rank to corporal from private, and replaces the glossy bridal magazine Catherine is thumbing through when Newt knocks with a coterie of attentive bridesmaids and little girls, apparently getting a jump on their nuptial fussing.
The magazine's omission is unfortunate.
In the story, Newt asks to see “the pretty book,” forcing Catherine to bring up the impending wedding. Its physical reality then offers Newt a handy emotional refuge, from whence he can crack wise about rosy brides while pretending to read an ad for flatware.
Without that prop, he's preternaturally aware of the names of silver patterns.
And as an Indianapolis native who went to school in the orchard where the story is set, and who can confirm that it's in earshot of the bells from the Indiana School for the Blind, I found it jarring to see the action transposed to New York’s Westchester County. (For those keeping score, it was shot on location in Croton State Park and the Rockefeller State Park).
(Breaking Away’s rock quarry aside, the Hoosier State just doesn’t have those sorts of high-up water views.)
Hester honors Vonnegut’s dialogue—nearly everything that comes out of the characters’ mouths originated on the page, while providing a young female director’s spin on this material, half a century removed from its publication.
As she describes it on the storytelling platform Feminist Wednesday, the film gently satirizes the institution of matrimony and the importance placed upon it. It is also, she says:
...a story about courage, as the female has to face herself, her ideas, and her values… Catherine’s journey is so raw, terrifying in the most honest way, and heartfelt yet extremely funny because it is so relatable.
Something tells me the author wouldn't have put it that way … his Monkey House intro, maybe.
But his admiration for his less-than-traditional muse, avid reader and writer Jane Cox, from whom he split after 26 years of marriage, was immense.
Ginger Strand’s profile in The New Yorker quotes the household constitution Cox drafted after their 1945 marriage:
We cannot and will not live in and be hogtied by a society which not only has not faith in the things we have faith in, but which reviles and damns that faith with practically every breath it draws.
Hester’s crowd-funded film, which the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library included as part of a COVID-19 crisis Virtual Vonnegut Fun Pack—("Have a box of Kleenex at the ready!")—was shot in 2014.
Had production been delayed by a few years, one wonders if the filmmakers would have come under intense pressure to frame Newt’s refusal to take Catherine’s rejections at face value, his insistence that she continue the walk, and that unvetted kiss as something pernicious and intentional.
If so, we’re glad the film made it into the can when it did.
And we confess, we don’t really share Vonnegut’s avowed distaste for the story, though New York Times critic Mitchel Levitas did, in an otherwise favorable review of Welcome to the Monkey House:
This Vonnegut is obviously a lovable fellow. Moreover, he's right about the story, which is indeed a sickening and slick little nothing about a soldier who goes A.W.O.L. in order—How to say it?—to sweep his girl from the steps of the altar into his strong and loving arms.
Here's to future adaptations of this Ladies Home Journal-approved story by one of our favorite authors. May they capture something of his tartness, and forgo a sentimental soundtrack in favor of a chickadee whose cameo appearance after the School for the Blind’s bells prefigures Slaughterhouse-Five’s famous “Poo-tee-weet?"
"*chick-a-dee-dee-dee*," went a chickadee.
This adaptation of Vonnegut's “Long Walk to Forever” will be added to our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..
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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain is on COVID-19 hiatus. Follow her @AyunHalliday.