Movie Review: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Posted: July 6, 2012 in Movie Review, Reviews
Tags: , , , , , , ,

There are books that are difficult to translate into movies, and there are books that are more easily translated. I’m not exactly sure where Fear and Loathing fits in there, but it was at least fairly accurately translated. Not 100%, several things prevent it from reaching the full and complete accuracy that fans were hoping for. While some of them are choices made by Gilliam, many of them are just rights and budget concerns. However, as an adaptation of the book, it works. As something to get you interested in the greater works of Hunter S. Thompson, it is an excellent device. How does the movie hold up compared to the book? Let’s find out together, shall we?

The book itself is little more than a series of episodes, vignettes that have little to no connection to each other besides the fact that Duke and Gonzo experience them. Because of time constraints, several episodes are deleted. A lot of digression, one of the things that the book is possibly best remembered for, is also removed. However, several of the lines from those scenes do show up from time to time, as overheard side conversations. The movie does continue the episodic storytelling, shifting emotional gears often as each of the vignettes start and end.

The chief difference between the book and the movie is the 1971 setting, but not like you might at first think. The movie is still played out as a historical work, taking place in ’60 or ’71. However, the book is far more direct about who it’s talking to. Thompson’s book is written as a contemporary work for those people who were alive in America at that time. Gilliam’s take on the movie is for a wider audience, looking for its audience among kids who weren’t even born when the book was first published. As a result, several of the more direct references to things happening at the time were deleted, in favor of giving the movie a slightly more universal feeling. Albeit, a universe that still exists in 1971, but one that can be accessed by those who are living in the late 90s. The book also changes the focus slightly, making the story less about finding the American Dream and more about taking a journey into the wilderness. So explicit is Gilliam’s idea that he even has an angel with a flaming sword standing by as Duke and Gonzo leave LA.

What is the same though is that feeling of two people representing a lost part of a generation. Duke and Gonzo are the drug culture in miniature, on an odyssey through the insanity that is Las Vegas, trying to somehow be as insane and outrageous as the town itself. The paranoia of the book is present, although not as deeply understood as just paranoia. But then, paranoia is a hard thing to get right in movies, since they often give the subject of the movie a good reason to be paranoid. The other feelings, like those of rage, fear and loathing, are more accurately represented. The feeling of surreal reality is well translated when put on the screen, that idea that Duke is far more a real human being than the cops at the drug conference is presented perfectly. The problem there is that you’re never given enough reference points (until nearly the end) to remember that these are not normal or good people.

The climax for the book and the movie are different places. In the book, it’s the chapter Breakdown on Paradise Blvd, in which the book goes from being and interesting novel and becomes literature. At chapter 9, the book becomes a slog and I stop enjoying it. Going to be totally honest, after that, you’re just working, fighting to the end. The movie doesn’t reach a climax as such, it reaches a low point. The scene in the diner, where Gonzo threatens the waitress, that’s the lowest point they hit. After that, the story has to end, because they’ve gone too far. At that point, it’s just a question of escaping Las Vegas, of getting away before the town causes the pair to destroy themselves.

In the end, it comes down to a couple of questions. Is it a good movie? Yes, I think so. Does it accurately represent the book? More or less, yeah. Do I enjoy watching it? I wouldn’t want to watch it every day… but I wouldn’t want to read the book every day either. It is certainly interesting, and there is something being said here. There is something very interesting being said about the youth movement, about the fallacy of aspects of the drug culture, and about so called normality. If you can get beyond the excess of their drug use, and get beyond even the madness they create around them, there is something representative about these two. Anyone who ever felt they were on the outside looking in, either ends up observing like Duke, or goes mad like Gonzo. Both the pro and the con of drug use are presented, and where you feel it comes down is going to have a lot to do with how you felt going in.

As a movie, it’s directed by Terry Gilliam. He gets a ton of beautiful shots and amazing performances. Depp was just getting to that point where he didn’t actually act anymore, just opting for impressions. Fortunately, his impression here was actually of Thompson. Del Torro gave a magnificent performance that nearly killed his career because some people thought he must have been really crazy to do the part the way he was. Some people in Hollywood have never actually heard of “Acting” and think it’s weird or unnatural. It’s odd to see some of the people who are in this though, and odd to see how they act. Gilliam movies always get an interesting performance though, so we shouldn’t be surprised.

Official Score:
61 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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