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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S . Thompson (1972)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas directed by Terry Gilliam (1998)
I have read this book before, but it was about ten years ago now. I have also seen the movie multiple times, but the last time I watched it was in 2013 so it’s been a while.
I used to love this book and movie, and in general found Hunter S. Thompson to be a fascinating person. I no longer have much interest in him, so this made for an interesting reading and watching experience.
There is no denying the impact Thompson and this book/movie in particular have had on society. It has become iconic. You see it referenced throughout pop culture-in music and music videos, in other movies, in cartoons, in artwork, and you see his quotes posted all over the place.
Thompson was a journalist, who started what he coined “gonzo journalism”, which means he mixes fact with fiction. Even though it is about him and his attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, he doesn’t use his real name, and makes his character seem more like a kind of alter ego. He calls himself Roahl Duke and Acosta is referred to as “my attorney” or Dr. Gonzo. In this book, he tells us of a week he spent in Las Vegas with Acosta while they were both on a cocktail of drugs.
The book for which Thompson gained most of his fame had its genesis during the research for “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan”, an exposé for Rolling Stone on the 1970 killing of the Mexican-American television journalist Rubén Salazar. Salazar had been shot in the head at close range with a tear-gas canister fired by officers of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department during the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War. One of Thompson’s sources for the story was Oscar Zeta Acosta, a prominent Mexican-American activist and attorney. Finding it difficult to talk in the racially tense atmosphere of Los Angeles, Thompson and Acosta decided to travel to Las Vegas, and take advantage of an assignment by Sports Illustrated to write a 250-word photograph caption on the Mint 400 motorcycle race held there.
Hunter S. Thompson
“Thompson’s output declined from the mid-1970s, as he struggled with the consequences of fame, and complained that he could no longer merely report on events, as he was too easily recognized. He was also known for his lifelong use of alcohol and illegal narcotics, his love of firearms, and his iconoclastic contempt for authority. He often remarked: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
“Thompson died by suicide at the age of 67, following a series of health problems. In accordance with his wishes, his ashes were fired out of a cannon in a ceremony funded by his friend Johnny Depp and attended by friends including then-Senator John Kerry and Jack Nicholson. Hari Kunzru wrote, “the true voice of Thompson is revealed to be that of American moralist … one who often makes himself ugly to expose the ugliness he sees around him.”
That quote right there put this book and Thompson in general in a new light for me. I guess it helped me appreciate his work more
“Years of alcohol and cocaine abuse contributed to his problem with depression. Thompson’s inner circle told the press that he had been depressed and always found February a “gloomy” month, with football season over and the harsh Colorado winter weather. He was also upset over his advancing age and chronic medical problems, including a hip replacement; he would frequently mutter “This kid is getting old.” Rolling Stone published what Douglas Brinkley described as a suicide note written by Thompson to his wife, titled “Football Season Is Over”. It read:
“No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your age. Relax — This won’t hurt.
“Thompson’s collaborator and friend Ralph Steadman wrote:
… He told me 25 years ago that he would feel real trapped if he didn’t know that he could commit suicide at any moment. I don’t know if that is brave or stupid or what, but it was inevitable. I think that the truth of what rings through all his writing is that he meant what he said. If that is entertainment to you, well, that’s OK. If you think that it enlightened you, well, that’s even better.”
Thoughts on the Book
One of the reasons I had liked this book when I was younger (late teens/early 20’s) was in part just because it was weird. I have always been drawn to weird stuff I guess lol. Then when I eventually got into drugs (nothing too heavy, just weed, psychedelics and things of that sort) I then liked the book and movie because it was about drugs.
Reading it now, honestly I got bored. It is a book with no plot when you get down to it. Both Thompson and his attorney are annoying; not to mention sexist, racist and just in general selfish and inconsiderate.
Thompson did have a unique writing style, and is able to capture the absutdity of what goes on and what drugs make you feel. He also contemplates the counterculture of the 60’s and the way it failed to do what it set out to achieve.
The book also has the subplot of him looking for the “American dream”. There is a chapter that is just transcription of a recording between him, his attorney and a waitress, directing them to what they think is the American dream. That whole chapter seemed pointless, though I suppose it’s supposed to make a point about how American’s don’t even know what this “American dream” is. Nonetheless, this whole part of the book seemed unnecessary.
I can’t talk about this book, and not bring up the illustrator Ralph Steadman. His artwork is has a messy, yet detailed look about it. Just like the book, his artwork isn’t for everyone. I love his work because it’s so out there and distorted. It is also a very fitting look, for the type of thing Thompson would write. Back in the day I had a t-shirt with his drawing of Thompson from this book, and at point also had the poster of the famous image from the book cover. Plus, when I loved in student housing we could pain muriels on the walls, and I got permission to paint the image of Thompson.
After the release of this book, at various times multiple directors tried to get a movie off the ground; however, it just never worked out until Terry Gilliam came along. He directed as well as adapted the script. Gilliam said of the movie, “I want it to be seen as one of the great movies of all time, and one of the most hated movies of all time.”
Before we get into the main actors, there are so many cameos in this movie! First off, we have Penn from the famous Las Vegas magic act Penn and Teller. Then we have Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, Cameron Diaz, Gary Busey, Mark Harmon, Debbie Reynolds (though it is just her voice, but she recorded it specifically for the movie), Harry Dean Stanton.
Tobey Maguire plays the hitchhiker they pick up and on his shirt is a Ralph Steadman cartoon.
Gary Busey plays the cop that pulls Duke over, and he improvised the line where he asks for a kiss. Gilliam thought it was hilarious and kept it.
Johnny Depp plays Hunter S. Thompson and in preparation for the role he spent a lot of time with Thompson. Bill Murray played Thompson in a previous film; when he heard Depp was taking on the role he called and said, “Be careful, or you’ll find yourself ten years from now still doing him…Make sure your next role is some drastically different guy.” When Murray played Thompson, he followed it up with working on Saturday Night Live. Apparently, he had a hard time breaking out of the Thompson character.
Watching this now, this movie has a lot of characteristics that are now associated with Depp. I think he kept a bit of Thompson and really applied some of that weird quirkiness to Jack Sparrow.
Also, much of the clothes worn by Depp were Thompson’s own clothes that he gave Depp to wear.
Benicio Del Toro is well cast as “Dr. Gonzo”, aka the attorney. He is great in this role, he and Depp both show the craziness and the comedy also comes off well between them. The serious scenes are equally well done. The movie really rests on their shoulders, though there are a lot of side characters who are all excellent, but Del Toro and Depp are fantastic in this.
Regardless of how you ultimately feel about this book and movie, I think everyone can agree that the beginning of both is amazing. I mean that opening line, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” Is such a great start to a book. It’s followed by, “I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive.…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas.”
The movie includes a lot of quotes from the book because they rely heavily on narration. For the most part I don’t mind here because I think to turn this book into a movie, you really couldn’t do it without a narrator. Though there were times I felt it was used more than necessary, since we were seeing what was happening and it didn’t really have to be describes to us. Such as the scene when they are on ether and going into the Circus Circus. The book describes what it is happening, and the movies depicts this, but then adds the narration on top if it.
While watching this movie, I often thought of A Scanner Darkly. The two are very different, but what’s similar is that they are both about drugs. In my review for Scanner, I said that the movie seemed to rely heavily on hallucinations to get the vibe of being under the influence. Whereas the book really got in your head and made you feel the effects of drugs in a deeper way. This movie does the same, where it relies more on the visuals to make you feel the drugs. One scene in particular is when Duke has a bad trip from taking andrenichrome (which is a made-up drug). The book doesn’t mention hallucinations so much, but the movie has this weird scene with crazy camera angles. It’s a well-done scene, and I get movies have a hard time showing someone on drugs without relying on visual effects. Charlie Kauffman, I think actually does a great job of feeling like you’re on drugs with how weird his movies are, without relying on crazy visuals. He can create the weird atmosphere and just gets you in that vibe.
Thompson can describe the way drugs feel, but I didn’t feel like I was on drugs while reading it. For example, Philip K. Dick does a great job in Scanner, really putting you in the characters shoes and making you feel what they feel.
This movie also isn’t a movie or book about addiction, even though Thompson and the attorney are alcoholics and drug addicts. The story is shown in a funny, entertaining way, and Thompson and the attorney seemingly show no remorse for their actions. If anything, this is the kind of book and movie people like when they are currently into drugs. Whereas Scanner is kind of a warning of drug use. Fear and Loathing does have passages such as, “How many more nights and weird mornings can this terrible shit go on? How long can the body and the brain tolerate this doom-struck craziness? This grinding of teeth, this pouring of sweat, this pounding of blood in the temples … small blue veins gone amok in front of the ears, sixty and seventy hours with no sleep.… “ But even that isn’t really making you feel the danger so much of what all these drugs can do to you.
I can’t say how someone who hasn’t used drugs views this movie or book, I can only speak for myself and my experience. When I was into that lifestyle, I loved this book and movie for how wild and weird it was. Now watching it, even though the movie is funny at times, and is well acted and well made-I just didn’t enjoy it as much. Both book and movie they are just so irresponsible and selfish. They harass three separate women, one of which they give LSD even though she is under 18 and has never done drugs and then just dump her off somewhere. Not to mention all the damage they cause.
Taboo kept in
There were a few things from the book that were said that I assumed wouldn’t be in the movie. Books can get away with saying some pretty risky stuff (epically back in 1971) but I thought it would be something that wouldn’t fly in a movie. But they kept it in! Duke often marginalizes the attorney due to his race. Saying things like, “despite his racial handicap…” and things of that nature. You can say that he wasn’t serious and it was all in good fun. But too often white men make offensive jokes “all in good fun” when truth be told, the person doesn’t like it! They just put up with it because it is the easier thing to do. Back in the 60’s and 70’s people got away with those racial remarks more often.
He also has a line where he is talking about using the teenage girl to make money. In both, he isn’t saying seriously, but to get the attorney to get rid of her. Still, seemed pretty taboo, yet the movie included it.
The American Dream
The movie talks about the “American dream” aspect of the story, but it doesn’t spend as much time on it as the book does thankfully. The book talks about how Circus Circus is the main nerve of the American dream. After dropping his attorney off at the airport, he goes back there and dwells on it more. In the movie we have the scene where they are at the Bazoka Circus (Circus Circus didn’t want to be affiliated with the movie) and they have that line where the attorney is getting the fear and it’s because they are in the main nerve.
Even though the movie was more entertaining in some ways, even here I started to get a bit bored near the end and was checking to see how much longer I had.
Oscar Zeta Acosta
One change from book to movie, is the scene in the movie where he drops his attorney off at the airport at the end. The crazy drive to the airport is the same in both, however the movie adds the narration of Thompson saying, “There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. Some kind of high-powered mutant never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” This quote was not in the book but is actually from the forward written by Thompson for Acosta’s own book titled, Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. At the time the forward was written, Acosta had gone missing and was assumed dead.
In the past, I never looked into Acosta. This time around, I found it really interesting to learn more about him and I even read Brown Buffalo. It helped flesh him out more, because based on Fear and Loathing you just get a crazy look into who he was.
His books are highly regarded, though not nearly well enough known. He was a lawyer in the Bay Area and was a civil rights activist.
Book or Movie
The book covers some serious subjects but has a lot of comedy within it. However, I think the movie plays up the comedy more while touching on some of the subjects Thompson writes about. Overall, I think I would say I like the movie better. The book dragged near the end, whereas for the most part, the movie wraps things up quicker. Considering this is a story with no plot, it’s impressive if can keep one’s interest at all!
The movie also has some small things that are done that make all the difference. For example, when he is watching the race, it is super dusty so he has a bandana over his face. There is a slit in it though for his cigarette which was a great touch. Then when Lacerda is in their hotel room talking about the motorcycle check in, Duke is watching news on the Vietnam War. He then hallucinates that Lacerda is a military man, listing off these motorcycles as if they are war machines or something. Then later, they are running back to the room, and the way Depp ran with his back up against the wall was a great touch.