Solaris: Book vs. Films

The 1972 film Solaris has long been one of my favorite science fiction movies.  Mainly because of the concept of Solaris itself, but also because of the oddities of Russian filmmaking and its extreme length, both of which made the set of people who have watched it something of an elite club.

This last week, I finally set out to read the original book by Stanislaw Lem, and re-watch both of the films based on it.  I had somehow never got around to reading the book before, and when I last saw the 1972 film I was too young to fully understand it.  By the time of the 2002 film, I certainly understood it but was left with the feeling that it really diverged from the original vision, which is what prompted me to eventually do this comparison of the three.

There is a big difference.  Lem was upset with the first film and I can see why. Both film adaptations use the trappings of the book to tell a different story, and largely miss what the book was about.  The films are two different versions of the same love story, set in space, with Solaris simply being a setting that enables the strange situation of a man being confronted with what seems to be his dead wife, and all the mystery and angst that comes out of this apparent second chance.

I’m not saying the movies are bad.  They’re both excellent films that tell engrossing and touching stories, but they’re not the original story.  These are stories about people, which is fine since those tend to make for good movies, but they ignore the seven hundred billion ton elephant just outside the room.

Solaris, the book, was about questioning what humans as a race want from the universe.  Science fiction is full of humans zipping around space, fighting and colonizing and meeting aliens and having a good time or getting eaten by monsters.  Those are all pretty familiar and easy to understand things because they’ve happened on Earth in the past – we’ve gone zipping around the oceans, fighting and colonizing, meeting other flavors of humans and having a good time or getting eaten by tigers.

In Solaris we meet something truly alien – and what I love about Solaris is that it’s by far the most credible alien I’ve encountered in my life of reading the watching science fiction.  Here’s a life form the size of a planet, larger than Earth.  Apparently intelligent.  Not an organism as we understand it – it’s not made of cells, but instead is a planetwide ocean of chemicals. Have you ever flown over the ocean and looked down at the endless deep water with its tiny waves? Imagine all that water was part of a giant brain.  What commonality do we have with a being like that?  How could we possibly communicate with it, and should we even bother trying?

Part of the setting in the book is about this – humans have been studying Solaris for decades already and making exactly zero progress.  Solaris is certainly active – it reacts to their presence.  It also manifests structures out of its soup, some of which appear to be models of things it knows about, including humans and mathematics, but these appear to be part of its thought process rather than communications.  Human attempts at communication go nowhere – it may not know what communication is or may not have any motivation to communicate, or it may be trying to communicate and we just can’t recognize it.

After smacking their heads into this wall of alienness for so long, the characters in the story articulate how the communication effort reflects back on humanity: We don’t really know what to do with other planets and other beings, except convert them into more of the same – more Earths, more varieties of humans.  The first time we run into something that can’t be hammered into any of the familiar pigeonholes, we don’t know what to do.  The characters end up speculating to try and satisfy themselves, but it gains them no additional truth or understanding.

Best of all, there is no conclusion.  Both of the movies have an ending that says what happens to the protagonist from then on, but the book is open-ended, and I prefer it that way.  The story is meant to cause contemplation, and putting a bow tie on it removes the trigger for contemplation, which is the act of wondering what happens next.

I’m also disappointed that neither of the films attempt to render the visual richness of Solaris – making the films character stories certainly cut the effects budget by a lot.  Solaris as described in the book is full of visual richness, with a wide variety of forms appearing on its surface ranging from barely comprehensible to completely incomprehensible.  The hard science fiction nerd in me wants to see those things – I wanted a film about the what rather than the who.  A future-documentary about Solaris would be just the thing.

To sum up, all three versions are great, but only the book is the true Solaris – the films are relatively pedestrian people stories in which the one truly special thing about the book is ignored and could be replaced with some other plot device, like a capricious wizard or standard little green men from Mars.

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