KURT VONNEGUT'S MONKEY HOUSE: EPICAC
Produced by Jonathan Goodwill; directed by Stan Daniels
Produced by Jonathan Goodwill; directed by Brad Turner
Volume 21 Number 3
These two screen adaptations of stories from Kurt Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House (Dell, 1970) both explore the peculiarities of human nature, underscoring the old adage that appearances can be deceiving.
Epicac deals with a familiar Vonnegut theme - the negative effects of technology on human relationships. In the screen interpretation, Eric Noval (Garwin Sanford) plays a workaholic computer programmer madly in love with a colleague whom he has known since graduate school. Unfortunately, the attraction is not mutual. Lisa (Ally Sheedy) has an artistic, passionate side to her nature and "longs to view the world from the perspective of the poet"; Eric is narrowly focused on his work and has little time or enthusiasm for other pursuits.
Epicac, a state-of-the-art computer with virtually unlimited memory and a prodigious appetite for raw data. The computer digests, assimilates and spews out information at an incredible rate. ("Ipecac" is the name of a medicinal preparation designed to induce vomiting, and the metaphor is not lost on Vonnegut.) He (the computer has a distinctively male voice) can also respond to oral or written input, and makes astonishingly accurate political predictions. He's also kind of cute - he's shaped like a pyramid, has lots of flashing coloured lights, and makes funny little noises when he gets excited. When Eric feeds the computer Lisa's entire security file, Epi comes up with a fool-proof plan to make her fall in love - with him!
In The Foster Portfolio, John Cryer plays "Slippy" Carter, an arrogant investment counsellor who is tired of "nickel and dime accounts" and dreams of being on Nelson Rockefeller's payroll. Instead, he has to content himself with the likes of Hebert J. Foster (Nick Blake), a mild-mannered produce clerk living in a modest neighbourhood with his strait-laced wife and a young daughter. Carter and his assistant (Katie Wolfe) are in for a surprise when they discover that, appearances to the contrary, Foster is really a millionaire. The upstanding citizen and model husband and father has been concealing his true circumstances from his wife in order to be able to justify his weekend job - playing jazz piano at the "Bluebeat Cellar," a smoke-filled, slightly seedy dive.
Kurt Vonnegut, who acted as story consultant for these made-in-Canada productions, has been quoted as saying that "these adaptations are like champagne at the end of my life." And, in fact, the episodes are very well done. Much depends on the leading actors, who are well cast and give superb performances. The stories never take themselves too seriously, and the plot twists are deftly handled. First-rate production and careful attention to detail are evidenced in both selections. References to Ceausescu's Romania, Saddam Hussein, and Tiananmen Square give an updated feel to Epicac, while some black-and-white shots, period clothing and vintage automobiles provide a 1940s feeling in The Foster Portfolio. A minor complaint would be that some of the "modern" dialogue in the latter adaptation seems out of sync with the carefully created atmosphere of an earlier era.
Vonnegut's novels and short stories enjoyed considerable popularity in the 1970s; these light-hearted screen interpretations could be used to introduce a new generation of readers to his work. Both episodes would fit in well with most secondary English literature programs. Highly recommended.
MaryLynn Gagne is a reference librarian with the Education Library, University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
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