Hunter S Thompson on Film: Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

By | February 10, 2012

‘Terry Gilliam’s work is the most significant adaptation of Thompson’s fiction so far. Although the plot is very close to that of the novel, Gilliam is not afraid to depart from the book on the level of style to create his own interpretation. The movie opens with an ironically deployed showbiz number, ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound of Music, playing over newsreel footage of anti-Vietnam War protests from the Johnson presidency. The film’s title appears in red on a black background in Ralph Steadman’s familiar Gonzo font, then drips away like blood, revealing the novel’s epigraph from Dr Johnson: ‘He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man’. Thus the dangerous scrapes of the protagonists are put in the context of the far more destructive actions of the American government, especially in South-East Asia.

There are reflexive references to the book throughout: the hitchhiker picked up by Duke (Johnny Depp) and Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) is wearing a Ralph Steadman-designed Mickey Mouse top, a variant on the Mickey-Mouse-with-swastika t-shirt he sports in the original Steadman illustration (LV, p. 7). The “electric snake” that is seen by Duke after they have checked in at the Mint Hotel (LV, p. 27) is now no longer a neon sign outside their hotel room window, but a US Air Force bomber seen on footage of the Vietnam War on the TV screen; the bomber comes out of the screen and covers the wall, either due to Duke’s acid hallucinations or because the TV is projecting it onto the wallpaper. 

As in the book, Duke and Gonzo try to bluff their way into a Debbie Reynolds concert, but now Gonzo adds the lurid claim that he ‘used to romp with her’. Reynolds and her band are heard off-screen performing a crass showbiz arrangement of ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, as they do in the book; Duke and Gonzo, hysterical with stoned laughter, are thrown out of the theatre by the bouncer. The reference to the Circus-Circus as the ‘Sixth Reich’ is repeated from the book, as is the machine that projects your image over downtown Las Vegas for 99 cents; unfortunately we don’t see the effects of the machine but hear a barker extolling them.

The real Hunter S. Thompson appears in a non-speaking role when Duke recalls the mid-1960s in San Francisco. Walking through the Matrix nightclub when Jefferson Airplane are performing, Duke sees Thompson sitting at a table and, in an uncanny moment, recognizes himself – ‘holy fuck’. Thus the film presents us with a complex ontological game: we see an actor playing the persona of an author, meeting the flesh-and-blood author playing himself, or adopting the role of himself. Thus, both Depp and Thompson are playing at being Duke and Thompson: the film’s playfulness exposes Thompson’s original questioning of the role of the author (see Chapter 1). As Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride argues, Depp is a postmodernist actor who can foreground the sources of his work without parody; he is ‘able to be ironic in a role without mocking the person he is playing’. 

Homosexual desire is introduced explicitly to the film in an improvised departure from the script when the highway patrolman (Gary Busey) asks Duke for a kiss, as he is lonely. We don’t see the kiss, but cut to Duke driving away, thinking (in voiceover) ‘I felt raped’.

Thompson had had an acrimonious dispute with the original director Alex Cox over his proposal to render the ‘crest of a high and beautiful wave’ speech as a cartoon (see Breakfast with Hunter above). Not surprisingly, then, Gilliam’s interpretation eschews cartoons and is punctuated by live-action effects. The patrons of the Mint Hotel bar in the registration scene turn into a pack of vicious lizards that are busy eating, fighting and copulating. Duke’s paranoid fantasy of being arraigned for the statutory rape of Lucy is rendered as a courtroom sequence against a black background, with Lucy on a towering witness-stand above them. Duke and Gonzo appear in convicts’ uniforms, in a cage and in chains. When Duke is high on adrenochrome, he sees Gonzo turn into a buffalo-devil- woman, with horns, fur and breasts. Gonzo also has predatory, cat-like eyes as he tries to serve Duke cocaine on the point of his hunting knife.

Duke wakes up after the adrenochrome binge next to a copy of The Death Ship by B. Traven: this is possibly an allusion to the complexity of the relationship between Thompson’s life and his persona, because the pseudonymous Traven, like Thompson, wrote semi-autobiographical novels with radical political content, but his true identity was never discovered and remains the subject of controversy.

The attorney leaves. Duke, now alone, plays back his audio tape of the events of last night. The tape cues a series of flashbacks by Duke, rendered on screen, including the scene where the two men (clothed in the film, although naked in the book) fool the hapless maid Alice into thinking they are undercover cops; the sequence where Gonzo baits the red- neck tourists at the stoplight; and a new scene, not in the novel, where Duke and Gonzo appear to be trying to wreck their hired Cadillac convertible in a supermarket car park. The tape snarls up, and in trying to repair it, Duke finds Gonzo’s hunting-knife. The blade has blood on it. This triggers Duke’s recollection of the North Vegas Coffee Lounge, and Gonzo’s intimidation of the waitress there, in a sequence that closely matches the book.

Duke comes out of the flashback in his flooded hotel suite. We see him typing while Depp reads the main anti-Leary speech from the book in voiceover (see LV, pp. 178–9). As Depp gets near the end of the speech the room diminishes until, with the camera trained on it from above, it forms a square of light against a black background. Thus, Gilliam’s positioning of Thompson’s anti-Leary speech gives it much greater prominence than in the original.’

The above is an extract taken from William Stephenson’s book Gonzo Republic: Hunter S Thompson’s America.

This book discusses a wide range of Hunter S Thompson’s films, including: Art Linson, Where the Buffalo Roam (1980); Wayne Ewing, Breakfast with Hunter (2004); Wayne Ewing, When I Die: a Documentary on the Raising of the Gonzo Memorial (2005); Tom Thurman, Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride: Hunter S. Thompson on Film (2006); Wayne Ewing, Free Lisl: Fear & Loathing in Denver (2006); William Hicklin, Hunter S. Thompson – Final 24: His final hours (2006); Alex Gibney, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2009); Wayne Ewing, Animals, Whores and Dialogue: Breakfast with Hunter 2 (2010).

Until 14th Feb 2012 we are running a competition to win a copy of this exciting new book. Click here for more info!

Jenny Tighe

Marketing Executive

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