Thursday, June 18, 2020

Solaris, Solaris, Solaris, Solaris

I've watched three (count 'em, three) versions of Solaris now. If you're unaware (and if you've read movie reviews, you may well be), Solaris began as a highly acclaimed novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem. Having read the book, the only film I can recommend is the 1968 TV movie. Of course, the production values are lower, but this isn't a special-effects story (something forgotten by both Tarkovsky and Soderbergh). 

Something that absolutely pisses me off about the later two adaptations (and book-to-film adaptations in general) is the degree to which the director is willing to change the author's message into something else.  Stanislaw Lem himself complained about this with regard to the feature films. Tarkovsky's indignant response was proclaim that his "artistic vision" should not be constrained.

People watch movies based on books because they either liked what the author had to say or they haven't read the story and want to find out what it's all about. Of course, they're not going to find out from most movie adaptations. You'll find very few cases where someone has read a book and said that the movie is better. Very few. And in almost all of those, the author had a hand in the production of the movie.

If you've got your own message to tell, then the simple fact is that you can create your own story to tell it.  Of course this is harder. You don't get to ride the author's coat-tails that way. You don't get instant name-recognition and fame. But at least you get to present your vision without stepping on someone else's.

So why do they do it? Well, for one thing, they've been trained to. They have to film something that's film-able, and since millions of dollars are at stake, they have to maximize their chances of it being a commercial success. It's risky to put a lot of investment in something that no one's ever heard of. So they pay off authors to buy the name recognition. The culture among filmmakers normalizes the behavior. It's not just 'Hollywood', either. Tarkovsky was a Soviet. The rationalization is that the author was paid and now the screenwriter and director can have their own way with the story unimpeded.

I've heard the same arguments before. It's the sort of thing a misogynist says when he misuses a prostitute. "She's been paid" makes whatever they do alright and not at all demeaning. Why should they invest a loving relationship when it's so much easier to spend a few bucks and rape a hooker? To too many film directors, authors are merely hookers. Even when they pay lip service to being "faithful to the source material", they're not. They don't even know what "faithful" means. Some of the worst cases are when a dead author's name is plastered over the title as if you're about to see the real, original vision. News flash: you're not.

So I won't join with the teeming crowds that proclaim Tarkovsky a visionary genius. I'm not going to praise his disjointed use of color, or his slow, plodding style as artistic wonderment. It remains slow, plodding, and disjointed. I've read plenty of analyses of the film, and every one comes across as rationalization. If there's genius here, it's Lem's, and it's a poor, distorted shadow of what you get from the book. Lem engaged in a loving act of creation. Tarkovsky raped a hooker.

I won't praise Soderbergh's 2002 vision either. He copped out. He said he wanted to be closer to Lem's story than Tarkovsky; then having said it, directly proceeded to chuck that out and do whatever the hell he wanted to instead. Might as well depict Solaris as a magical fuzzball instead of an oceanic world. Might as well cap it off by having George Clooney live in an idyllic fantasy world where "everything we've ever done is forgiven". Bend over, Lem.

Lem's Solaris is not a love story. There is no happy ending. This is a story about what happens when humans encounter a truly alien entity. As Lem himself pointed out, the title of the book is not Love in Space; it's Solaris. That's what the story is about. It's not about people finding absolution, love, forgiveness, or the illusion of the same. I won't detail the story since you can just read the book. I will tell you that the book ends on a cliffhanger, and a good part of Lem's message is summarized on the last couple of pages. Chris Kelvin doesn't know what's going to happen next. Although he clings to hope, it's a desperate hope, with no guarantees. Only the 1968 TV movie had the balls to show it.

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