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Ambiguous Aliens and the Narrative of PTSD: Slaughterhouse-Five and K-PAX

In both Slaughterhouse-Five (1969 novel by Kurt Vonnegut, adapted to film in 1972 by George Roy Hill) and K-PAX (1995 novel by Gene Brewer, adapted to film in 2001 by Iain Softley), the main characters experience delusions of extraterrestrials. (Billy Pilgrim encountering the Tralfamadorians and Robert "prot" Porter believing himself to be a K-PAXian from the planet K-PAX.) In both cases, it is hinted, though never stated out-rightly, that these are coping mechanisms in response to trauma experienced by the characters: Billy’s witnessing of the fire bombing of Dresden during WWII and prot’s having lost his wife and daughter and subsequently killing their murderer.

Discuss the thematic link between these two novels? In what ways have they employed this trope similarly to one another, and how has K-PAX (being the latter of the two) altered it or taken it further? Why has extraterrestrial life been used by both of these authors as their go-to psychosis? What may have influenced their mutual decision to leave a final verdict on the aliens ambiguous, both having planted a small seed of doubt that the aliens may be real – and therefore everyone BUT the protagonist is "crazy" for not believing him. Furthermore, how does this compare to other abstract depictions of mental illness in literature and film? Are there any other examples of works that use fictitious aliens to in this way to shield characters from hard truths?

  • I've not seen the film of Slaughterhouse Five, but I read the book. As I recall, Billy Pilgrim's experience with the aliens dances along the line between fantasy and reality pretty ambiguously. The book is less interested in the reader's trying to figure out whether they exist or not than in K-PAX (here I know the movie, sort of, but not the book), but rather using them as a means through which to explore the insanity of the time and place. K PAX is almost entirely about prot's psychology. In that sense, the Tralfamadorians are undoubtedly real TO THE STORY in a way that I don't think applies in K PAX. I think you'll want to stick to either a movie-to-movie comparison or a book-to-book, unless you're specifically interested in the way in which each is adapted. I'd say that aspect isn't particularly pertinent. – TKing 5 years ago
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  • You can read some alien books for the same. – imemilyalice 5 years ago
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  • Juicy topic. I'd snap it up, but I haven't read K-PAX and the Slaughterhouse film stinks. – Tigey 5 years ago
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