Lem Vs. Tarkovsky: The Fight Over ‘Solaris’
#language & literature
default, Lem Vs. Tarkovsky:
The Fight Over ‘Solaris’, Still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ (1972), photo: Capital Pictures / CAP / PLF / Forum, center, andriej_tarkowski_solaris_1972_forum_2.jpg
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Cannes-lauded 1972 film ‘Solaris’, based on Stanisław Lem’s novel of the same name, is considered a masterpiece. But here’s the paradox: the Polish author felt very negatively about the Russian director’s adaptation of his novel – Lem quarreled with the Russian director about the script and badmouthed it for the rest of his life. Culture.pl’s Igor Belov gives us the full story.
A novel about cruel miracles
Stanisław Lem’s famous science fiction novel Solaris came out in 1961. It put many complicated questions before readers without giving straight answers, and at the same time was written so engrossingly that its magnetism has not been lost to this day. In the book, Lem presents his ideas of what contact between earthlings and an extraterrestrial lifeform beyond their understanding would be like, using incredible imagination and philosophical depth.
Lem transports readers to some time in the future. The distant planet Solaris is covered by a living sentient ocean – more precisely, this intelligent ocean appears to be the only inhabitant of the planet. One day, at the research station orbiting Solaris to study it, Dr Kris Kelvin arrives to join his fellow earthlings – he has been tasked with getting to the bottom of a series of strange and sinister phenomena occurring at the station. Kelvin soon ascertains that the sentient ocean has the ability to read minds and infiltrate their subconscious. It seems to be trying to establish contact with the astronauts by materialising their most shameful and innermost experiences, fears and intrusive thoughts. For the ocean, there is no difference between dreams and reality, sleep and waking. It communicates with people blindly, conjuring phantoms in the space station every night, phantoms that come to people from their own subconscious and painful memories.
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Only a few years after its original publication, a Russian translation of Solaris appeared by Dmitry Bruskin. It is still considered to be canonical to this day, despite some deviations from the Polish original. One in particular is that the name of the planet, Solaris, was now a masculine noun as opposed to the original feminine in the Polish, and this somewhat shifts the emphasis in the book: it’s easier for readers to imagine that this mysterious planet-ocean is viviparous if female. A pair of female translators corrected this injustice – in 1976, a more complete translation was released by Galina Gudimova and Vera Perelman, where the original gender of the planet was restored, though in Russian discussions the masculine gender is still used by force of habit.
As for the English translation, one was released in 1970 by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, but notably it was based on a French translation and has been much maligned due to this fact. Like the Russian version, it too had some unusual changes from the original, including different names for half of the characters (admittedly, two out of four), which can be jarring for readers coming to the film from the English book. In 2011, the highly-respected Bill Johnston tried to remedy these grievances with a new direct translation, but due to the length of copyright contracts, his version is only available in e-book and audiobook form, while print copies continue to be the Kilmartin and Cox version. Both do still manage to capture the eeriness and depth of the original Polish though, which is the most important thing.
Back in the USSR, despite the fact that the first reviews from Soviet critics were generally negative (or perhaps, thanks to it), Lem’s novel quickly became a cult classic throughout the state. Solaris was so unlike the dismal literature of socialist realism and the Soviet fantasy writing of the time, that during Lem’s visits to the Soviet Union fans literally carried the author in their arms. He recalled:
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Solaris invoked such burning emotions that you could see smoke; apparently I had quenched some sort of metaphysical thirst, that’s what it looked like. […] They honoured me […] greatly over there in Moscow.
It’s not surprising that a novel in which everyone sees something different was just begging for a film adaptation. The temptation to interpret Lem’s masterpiece into the language of cinema was strong.
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Today few people remember that the very first film based on Lem’s novel was not the one by Andrei Tarkovsky. In 1968, a television movie of Solaris by Boris Nuremburg came out in the USSR and went virtually unnoticed. But Tarkovsky’s film of the same name, by all appearances, has been guaranteed immortality – so deep, vivid and piercing was his Solaris.
Like many in his generation, Tarkovsky knew and loved Polish culture well. However it wasn’t simply this fondness that made him want to adapt Solaris. His first two feature-length films – Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev – sang of the greatness of the human spirit, and this was the feeling the director got from Lem’s book. Tarkovsky also subsequently stressed that the idea to make a film out of Solaris had nothing to do with his interest in science fiction. The director read the novel on his own, and saw in it the moral problems that troubled him. ‘The deep meaning of Lem’s novel is not limited to the categories of science fiction,’ said Tarkovsky. ‘This book is not only about the clash of the human mind with an alien one but is also about the moral conflict connected with new discoveries in science.‘
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But there was certainly also an element of artistic competition compelling him. In 1968, US director Stanley Kubrick captured the attention of movie-goers all over the world with his monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey, which totally revolutionised the realm of cinematography. The film made a strong impression on Tarkovsky – this is clearly visible in the allusions and direct quotes from Kubrick’s film that attentive viewers will easily pick watching Solaris. It’s also curious that the leadership at Mosfilm studios, which usually put up all kinds of barriers for Tarkovsky and hounded him, instead played along with the wayward director on this project, providing him with the most modern film equipment available in the USSR at that time. The studio executives’ calculation for the movie was simple: the Western public has loved his Andrei Rublev and Tarkovsky was being viewed as a filmmaker with the potential to become the Soviet response to Kubrick.
Tarkovsky was joined in working on the script for Solaris by author and screenwriter Friedrich Gorenstein, whom the director held in high esteem. Gorenstein was already an experienced screenwriter at the time, and though his prose was almost never printed in the USSR, many famous members of the Soviet artistic intelligentsia, including Tarkovsky, considered Gorenstein to be an ingenious writer (and they weren’t wrong). The scenes belonging to Gorenstein’s pen were those that did not appear in Lem’s text and were the film’s embellishments, particularly the scene where Kris Kelvin bids farewell to his family home before he leaves for Solaris. Tarkovsky was very pleased with how Gorenstein put his ideas on paper – all they needed was to corroborate them with the author of the book. That was when the filmmakers were met with an unpleasant surprise.
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The spat at the Peking Hotel
Stanisław Lem came to Moscow in October 1969 – it was his third visit to the Soviet Union. The situation obliged Tarkovsky, who was working on the script for Solaris, to meet with the novel’s author. A group of Soviet fantasy writers organised a meeting between Tarkovsky and Lem at the Peking Hotel, where the author would be staying. Tarkovsky didn’t come to the meeting alone – he was joined by critic and literary expert Lazar Lazarev, who had also been the artistic editor for Andrei Rublev (and consequently both Solaris and Mirror). Friedrich Gorenstein was not invited to the meeting. As Lazarev explained in his memoirs:
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If Tarkovsky was not always sufficiently diplomatic, then Gorenstein could be called the living embodiment of […] anti-diplomacy. He was easily irritated, often at something trivial and other times without any reason at all… when the two-hour conversation with Lem, which was very difficult for both Tarkovsky and me, ended and we left the Peking, at the same time as if on command, we loudly exhaled ‘Phew!’ […] The same thought had popped up in our heads. ‘Imagine what would’ve happened if we’d had Friedrich with us,’ said Andrei, and we burst out laughing…
This meeting had not exactly been a peaceful conversation between sophisticated people. Lem received Tarkovsky and Lazarev coldly and carried himself in an arrogant and unfriendly way. Lazarev’s presence irritated him – he couldn’t understand why this person, who was neither a director nor a screenwriter, was participating in the meeting, and most likely took Tarkovsky’s colleague as some Mosfilm crony or snitch (though one does not preclude the other).
Tarkovsky made a tactical error from the very beginning, as he began to tell the author in detail and with unseemly enthusiasm about the changes he had made to the plot. Lem grimly said that his novel already had everything needed for a movie so there was absolutely no need to supplement the story. Tarkovsky’s arguments that his film experience meant he better understood how to make a movie had no effect, and when Lazarev asked if Lem would like to watch one of Tarkovsky’s films, the writer coldly responded: ‘I don’t have the time for that.‘
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‘We, Tarkovsky especially, were very offended to hear what Lem said and how he said it,’ Lazarev recalled. ‘We were full of respect for him, we liked his novel – the writer’s hostility and harshness seemed undeserved and unjustified. But now that all this time has passed, I think that Lem may have had some grounds for his irritation and distaste. Why should he believe that this director – who he was seeing for the first time, who without the slightest respect was taking his famous book and changing it around, adding to it in his own way – would make a good film?‘
Tarkovsky, however, did not surrender, and was ready to argue to the very end. But Lem suddenly softened his anger into mercy and waved a weary hand: he said that it wasn’t in his principles to forbid something. He then added:
Do what you want, make the movie.
Lazarev took Tarkovsky away almost by force, realising that if they stayed there any longer, the more likely the whole project would fall apart. The fallout from the meeting was unpleasant, especially since Lem’s dismissive permission to shoot the film showed undisguised disdain.
The writer was also unhappy about the meeting, recalling:
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Tarkovsky and I had a healthy argument. I sat in Moscow for six weeks while we argued about how to make the movie, then I called him a 'durak' [‘idiot’ in Russian] and went home…
The principal objections
Ten years after the release of Tarkovsky’s film, which Lem still had never fully watched (in 1974, the film was shown on Polish TV, but half-way through Lem said he turned off the TV because he ‘couldn’t stand it’), the author finally spoke up about his ‘principal objections’ to the film adaptation in a conversation with literary critic Stanislaw Beres.
According to Lem, Tarkovsky hadn’t made Solaris:
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...but rather 'Crime and Punishment'. After all, in the film this foul Kelvin drives Harey to suicide and is then tormented by remorse, which is strengthened further by her sudden reappearance, as well as the strange and incomprehensible circumstances that accompany it. The phenomenon of her subsequent appearances was, for me, the embodiment of a concept which could be derived almost from Kant himself. After all it is the ‘Ding an sich’, the unknowable thing-in-itself, the other side you can never cross over to. Yet in my prose all of this was manifested and orchestrated completely differently.
From ‘Tako Rzecze… Lem: Ze Stanisławem Lemem Rozmawia Stanisław Bereś’, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2002, trans. KA & AZ
Tarkovsky already had something to say about this. Foreseeing Lem’s reaction, the director formulated his approach to the problematics of the book in an interview with the Polish daily Tygodnik Powszechny not long after the release of his film:
For me, what happened on the space station between Kelvin and Harey is simply a question of a person’s relationship with his own conscience.
Clearly, Tarkovsky was completely uninterested in ‘Solaristics’ and the sentient ocean, both much expanded upon in the original book. Instead he was concerned about the problem of ethical and moral imperatives – and that is what he made his movie about.
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And what was absolutely terrible was that Tarkovsky introduced Kelvin’s parents and even some aunt into the movie. But most of all, his mother. [...] The mother is Russia, the Motherland, Earth. That just enraged me. [...] My Kelvin decides to stay on the planet without the slightest hope, but Tarkovsky painted this sentimental picture of an island with a little house on it. When I hear about the island and this little house, my skin crawls with irritation.
From ‘Tako Rzecze… Lem: Ze Stanisławem Lemem Rozmawia Stanisław Bereś’, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2002, trans. KA & AZ
The writer, of course, has every right to be angry, but we shouldn’t forget that a movie is not a book, and cinema has its own genre laws. If viewers know nothing about the character, then following his wanderings through the empty rooms of the scientific research station (as the novel begins) would soon become uninteresting for cinemagoers. It might be permissible in literature, but in film, not so much. The addition of scenes at the family home introducing us to Kelvin at the beginning of the movie were completely justified from a film point of view.
Incidentally, Steven Soderbergh used the same trick in his adaptation of Solaris, which showed viewers Kelvin and Harey’s past on Earth. However, Lem didn’t like Soderbergh’s version much either. Having watched the American movie, the author grunted irritably:
And I thought Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ was bad.
Read or watch?
Tarkovsky’s adaptation, which was awarded the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, and its inconsistency with its literary source is still a topic of fierce debate. Some even, to the fury of Lem fans, declare that Tarkovsky went even further in his analyses, turning not to the extraterrestrial mind, but to man, and making the planetary ocean into a ruthless mirror of our existence. You could say that of course, and it’s important too. Before us are two absolutely different, independent works, each of which is a definite masterpiece.
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Stanislaw Lem wrote a novel about the impossibility of and how doomed attempts at contacting alien intelligence are likely to be, as well as the heroism of man trying to establish this contact again and again. Understanding the Other is of course very complicated, nearly unrealistic, even when we’re talking about another person – what can we say about an alien intelligence that is guided by completely incomprehensible logic. Solaris materialises the astronauts inmost latent desires (often erotic), fishing these images out of the human subconscious in the hope of finding a topic for conversation close to the person, maybe even to toy with him. After all, we often begin conversations in an unknown language by copying the speech of our conversation partner. In this way, the planet Solaris creates copies of the people who rule the thoughts of the inhabitants of the space station. These phantoms are just intermediaries in the dialogue since man cannot manage such a conversation, because the Other will always be the Other.
But in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the ocean manifests the earthlings’ sins. The director made a film about sin and retribution, and the contact between the humans and the ocean of Solaris is a model for Doomsday, with repentance and atonement. Both stories can tell us a lot about this world and ourselves – each in its own way.
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Writer Aleksander Genis best dotted the ‘i’ in this debate when he rightly remarked:
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Lem entered 20th-century literature in the rarest capacity – not as the creator of a new style, but creator of a new world. We are so familiar with the planet he invented that we have included it in that catalogue of imaginary worlds alongside Atlantis, Utopia and Laputa. His parable of a sentient ocean has a laconic and multi-layered character, allowing the fiction to live outside the text that generated it. Having ceased to be exclusive property of the author, which cannot help but annoy him, Solaris has become a source of the most varied interpretations. They all, of course including both film adaptations, cut off from the novel what they considered to be superfluous, leaving only the core idea.
And this core idea is the reflection of Stanislaw Lem’s characters on what makes a human a human.
Originally written in Russian, April 2019, translated by Katherine Alberti, April 2020