Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: our three copies plus the film

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream

  • Author:  Hunter S. Thompson
  • Rank:  #26
  • Published:  1972
  • Publisher:  Random House
  • Pages:  204
  • First Line:  “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
  • Last Line:  “I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger . . . a Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident.”
  • ML Edition:  1996  (gold cover Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Other American Stories)
  • Film:  1998  (***.5 – dir. Terry Gilliam)
  • First Read:  Spring 1996

The Novel:  “As true Gonzo Journalism, this doesn’t work at all – and even if it did, I couldn’t possibly admit it.  Only a goddamn lunatic would write a thing like this and then claim it was true.”  Those are Hunter Thompson’s words in the jacket copy he wrote for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  “To actually get paid for writing this kind of manic gibberish seems genuinely weird;” he continues, “like getting paid for kicking Agnew in the balls.”

But it’s damn good that he wrote it.  As a piece of writing, he described it as something he would do to unwind while working on the more serious story about racial issues in Los Angeles.  But to read it is also to unwind, to find yourself in that Freak Kingdom and get an idea of the crazy trip that you will never take.  Just look at those brilliant opening lines.  We kick right into the story (and how many novels have as good an opening line? – it ranks up there with A Tale of Two Cities, The Princess Bride and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) with that opening line: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”  But, then, of course, we get that whole list on just the next page of exactly what those drugs entail:

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers . . . and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

And if you think that inventory is frightening as all hell, just look what happens just a few days and 100 pages later, when he takes note of it again:

The stash was a hopeless mess, all churned together and half-crushed.  Some of the mescaline pellets had disintegrated into a reddish-brown powder, but I counted about thirty-five or forty still intact.  My attorney had eaten all the reds, but there was quite a bit of speed left . . . no more grass, the coke bottle was empty, one acid blotter, a nice brown lump of opium hash and six loose amyls . . . Not enough for anything serious, but a careful rationing of the mescaline would probably get us through the four-day Drug Conference.

It is all one hell of a strange trip and there are so many who look at this book as the ultimate drug trip.  And it’s not just that they use the drug, and all the hallucinations and insanity that follows.  But Hunter is first and foremost a journalist, and this book appeals to those people because he does such a brilliant job of describing exactly what the hell happens on the trip: “This is the main advantage of ether: it makes you behave like the village drunkard in some early Irish novel . . . total loss of all basic motor skills: blurred vision, no balance, numb tongue – severance of all connection between the body and brain.  Which is interesting, because continues to function more or less normally . . . you can actually watch yourself behaving in this terrible way, but you can’t control it.” or “But nobody can handle that other trip – the possibility that any freak with $1.98 can walk into Circus-Circus and suddenly appear in the sky over downtown Las Vegas twelve times the size of God, howling anything that comes into his head.  No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs.  Reality itself is too twisted.”

But it’s not the drug excess that pulls in many of us.  It’s the reminder that Hunter was actually the foremost journalist of his time.  When he says things like “The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war.” it’s not just hyperbole.  He’s making an observation on the world around him.  “Some people say they like it,” he says about Vegas, “but then some people like Nixon, too.  He would have made a perfect Mayor for this town; with John Mitchell as Sheriff and Agnew as master of Sewers.”  Hunter gets right to the core because he observes everything around him and then dives right into the middle of it.  Thomas Wolfe’s New Journalism that observed the drug and hippie culture before Hunter became a big name on the scene never could have tolerated such closeness in a scene like this.  Can you ever imagine Wolfe in his starched white suit being in a situation which ends with this line: “The only hope now, I felt, was the possibility that we’d gone to such excess, with our gig, that nobody in a position to bring the hammer down on us could possibly believe it.”

There, of course, is a great deal to laugh about in the book.  Think of the scene early in the book (that becomes absolutely pitch-perfect in the film thanks the magic of editing):  “It seemed like a reasonable place to park, plenty of space.  I’d been looking for a parking spot for what seemed like a very long time.  Too long.  I was about ready to abandon the car and call a taxi . . . but then, yes, we found this space.  Which turned out to be the sidewalk in front of the main entrance to the Desert Inn.”  It’s the slow realization that he comes to, that allows us to discover it as well, or when he is explaining why he can’t stop sweating: “When I went to a doctor and described my normal daily intake of booze, drugs and poison he told me to come back when the sweating stopped.”

And then, of course, there is the wave speech.  It is two pages of pure magic, a love poem in a sense to a very specific time and place.  It is probably the single most well-known piece that Hunter ever wrote, made more famous by Johnny Depp’s recitation in the film version.  And in Gonzo, it is that speech that receives so much attention, and deservedly so.  As I have said before, I will not quote it in part, because it deserves to be read in full.  Pick up a copy of the book (page 66 of most versions).  Find yourself slipping into the words “San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of.”  Then follow that wave through the crest and roll on through to the high-water mark.  Then you will truly have an idea of the clear insight that Hunter had.

The poster for the 1998 Terry Gilliam film

The Film:  Some adaptations can strip the novel clean of the actual narrative.  The Jane Austen and Henry James novels work so much better for me as films because I am dragged down by their prose, but the story and characters can still shine through.  But other novels depend so much on that narrative voice.  There was never any possibly way that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could have been made without a voiceover.  You need that narration – that distinct Gonzo voice of Hunter Thompson.  It is a novel like no other, not because of all the craziness that goes on in the book, but because of the stark, clear way that Thompson makes this come through.

So, right away we are in good hands with Terry Gilliam.  After the brief introduction scene of the time period, complete with a soft, calming version of “My Favorite Things”, we get the Ralph Steadman designed title card (the first great sign that the film would make prominent use of Steadman’s vision – a vital part of the novel), complete with the epigraph to the book (hell, how many films actually make us of the epigraph from the source novel), then comes that line that every fan of the book was waiting for, every fan knew must come right away if this were going to be any sort of success at adapting such a work of crazed and determined art.  And there it is, complete in Johnny Depp’s eerie Hunter impersonation: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

Now, if you want to look around at other reviews, you will find that this film was disliked by many and savaged by more than one prominent critic.  But here I am talking about how brilliant it is, how perfect an adaptation it is.  So what the hell are you supposed to believe?  Well, it comes down to several questions.  The first is whether or not you have ever read the book and if the book had any impact on you at all.  This is a review, after all, to pair along with my review of the novel as one of the 30 greatest novels of all-time.  And I love the book and I love the film.  More importantly, I know several other people who love the book and without fail every person I know who loves the book also loves the film (especially Terry and John).  They go together.  And if there are many film critics who can’t seem to find anything worthwhile in the film, I wonder if they found anything worthwhile in the book (or if they even read it).

The film makes the novel come alive in ways I never would have thought possible.  Reading about all those lizard hallucinations, the insane things you can see on acid (“after a while you learn to cope with things like seeing your dead grandmother crawling up your leg with a knife in her teeth,” Hunter writes in the novel) and the crazed levels of excess I always wondered how it could ever be a film.  But the wonders of CGI make those lizards come to life in the way that acid will bring it screaming into your face (in fact, this might be one film that really would be worth adapting to 3-D – can you imagine that receptionist morphing into a lizard and coming out of the screen straight towards you?).  And in Johnny Depp, Hunter found a kindred spirit, with a perfect voice to match, and Johnny’s audio recordings of Hunter’s work (especially his narration of various pieces in the documentary Gonzo) are some of the best I have ever heard.

Most amazing is the wave speech (preceded by the incredibly hilarious scene where Depp sees Hunter himself in the Matrix).  The clips are perfect, the music in the background is perfect (“Get Together”) and the way Johnny says those words, one of the most amazing pieces of writing that Hunter or anyone else ever put down on paper, is exactly the way to take two pages of a novel that don’t seem like they can really be filmed and make them come to life.

Then there is the way that the film makes perfect use of pieces not in the novel.  Those brilliant lines describing Dr. Gonzo, “There he goes.  One of God’s own prototypes.  A high-powered mutant of some kind who was never even considered for mass production.  Too weird to live, too rare to die,” aren’t from the novel.  They’re from the wonderful piece “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat” about Oscar Acosta, who of course is Dr. Gonzo, and in earlier pages of the same piece you can see the hilarious libel problems resulting from Acosta demanding to be identified with what Hunter himself calls “one of the most depraved and degenerate figures in American literature.”

And then there is the ending – that wonderful description of what it takes to get the hell out of Vegas, a drive I have done myself: “There is only one road to L.A. – US Interstate 15, a straight run with no backroads or alternate routes, just a flat-out high speed burn through Baker and Barstow and Berdoo and then on the Hollywood Freeway straight into frantic oblivion: safety, obscurity, just another freak into the Freak Kingdom.”  Those are lines straight from the book of course, but the middle of the book when Duke is first trying to flee Vegas.  The book itself, of course, ends with him flying back to Denver.  But this line, straight from Hunter’s mouth, is the perfect end to this road trip that so many of us love to take with this film.