Have You Watched a Good Book Lately? – The Lathe of Heaven

Welcome to the next in our series of “Have You Watched a Good Book Lately?”

The series’ intention is to track a number of books’ progression from the printed page to the silver screen and assess how well or how badly the filmmakers accomplished each of the adaptations.

The Lathe of Heaven

Today we’re going to be discussing “The Lathe of Heaven,” written by Ursula K. Le Guin in 1971 and adapted twice for the screen, once for the Public Broadcasting Service in 1980, and once for network television in 2002. The two adaptations are considerably different; for the purposes of this post, we will be looking primarily at the 1980 adaptation. And for those of you unfamiliar with the basic premise, here is a brief synopsis adapted from the book cover:

“In a future world racked by violence and environmental catastrophes, George Orr discovers that his dreams have the ability to alter reality. After trying to medicate his dreams away, he is sent for treatment to Dr. William Haber, a psychiatrist and oneirologist (dream specialist), who immediately grasps the power George wields. Soon George must preserve reality itself as Dr. Haber becomes adept at manipulating George’s dreams for his own ends.”

From the Source’s Mouth

Let’s start our discussion with one of the main concerns of any story adaptation – how true is the film to the source material? It can be said that an adaptation is perhaps the most successful when it is true more to the spirit than to the letter of the original, and that is exactly what I believe is the case for the original film.

A picture of a woman eating popcorn
Pick up the book or pick up the popcorn/

Ursula Le Guin recounted in an interview with Bill Moyers that producers had approached her back in the late 1970s to ask permission to adapt one of her stories for PBS’ first-ever made-for-TV film, and she asked them, “Which one?” “The Lathe of Heaven,” they responded, and she laughed. “Why?” she queried. “Nothing happens.” While it’s not quite true that nothing happens, the story does take place in the same location throughout – Portland, Oregon. But the story and characters arcs are driven by a sequence of alternate realities generated from the effective dreams of a troubled but passive man (George Orr) under the care of an overbearing psychiatrist (Dr. William Haber). In the book, Le Guin describes their relationship by noting that: “There was an acceptant, passive quality about him that seemed feminine, or even childish. Haber recognised in himself a protective/bullying reaction toward this physically slight and compliant man. To dominate, to patronise him was so easy as to be almost irresistible. [And] as there was no visible limit to the power Haber wielded through Orr’s dreams, so there was no end to his determination to improve the world.”

The filmmakers cast two exceptional actors for the roles of Orr and Haber – Bruce Davison and Kevin Conway, respectively. Thin and slight, with a weak chin, Davison portrayed Orr as something of an anti-hero, a man who is not out to buck the system but rather a man whose only wish in life is to stop dreaming because his dreams continually change the world around him. When sent to Voluntary Therapy with Dr. Haber, he goes without hesitation or complaint. And, while there, he accepts the doctor’s cavalier manner about his predicament and bullying dismissal of his complaints. He accepts the treatments. He accepts the increasingly complex hypnotic suggestions. When he figures out that Haber understands how his dreams change reality, he tries to challenge the man, but he can’t hold his ground and submits to more treatments. When he sees how Haber is trying to play god, he tries again to confront him, but all he succeeds in doing is running away in an attempt to evade Haber’s clutches. He must rise to the occasion, however, when his unsupervised effective dreams wreak more havoc; he realises it is up to him to try to set things right.

Le Guin tells us how Haber laments his position, asking “Why had this gift been given to a fool, a passive nothing of a man? Why was Orr so sure and so right, while the strong, active, positive man was powerless, forced to try to use, even to obey, the weak tool?” Conway, short but broad, makes for an imposing figure just by his presence, but he also internalises Haber’s frustration and anger. That allows him to deliver his lines with such an air of superiority and “divine right” to create the type of world he wants to see and to live in that it’s no wonder Orr can’t hold his own. This dynamic struggle not only sets the action in motion, but it is also what carries it through to its almost surreal conclusion.

A picture of lots of neon words
Le Guin self-described the book as wordy.

Le Guin self-described the book as “wordy,” and she relates the dream sequences first by letting us hear Haber’s dream suggestions and later Orr’s fragmented recounting of what he recalls. Film, though, is a visual medium, and the producers had to make some changes to the book to capture and hold the audience’s attention. Le Guin knew this and gave them her blessing to make those changes.

The movie opens with a mushroom cloud blooming over the earth, then a dazed, battered George Orr staggering through rubble before falling to the ground, closing his eyes, and murmuring, “Yes.” We then cut to Orr at a government facility being berated by a clerk for abusing his Pharmacy Card at the autodrug dispensary and being told he has to go for Voluntary Therapy. It seems a strange change of both scene and tone. That initial scene is so vivid, so memorable, though, that it haunts you through the entire film. It is referenced tangentially when Orr mentions the time “after April” to Heather Lelache (Orr’s HEW lawyer and later his friend, played by Margaret Avery). However, it does not make its full impact until the very end of the film, when Orr sees Haber, now in a catatonic state after he used his completed dream Augmenter on himself in an attempt to create the “perfect reality.” Orr looks into his eyes and says, “You’ve seen it, haven’t you, the world after April?” Haber looks up briefly, haunted and horrified, and we realize that the reality we are seeing now may not be exactly what it seems. Four years ago, Orr was overcome by radiation poisoning, but he closed his eyes and dreamed – which reality is real and which the dream? It is left up to the viewer to make that determination.

Another very visual aspect of the movie are the dream sequences themselves, the exact nature of which we are not privy to in the book. Le Guin mentioned to Moyers that the filmmakers discussed shooting the dream sequences with her. Though many times in movies dreams are shot with fuzziness around the edges or some sort of rippling effect, all parties agreed that these are not natural ways for dreams to progress. We dream in surreal images or heightened color or one image juxtaposed over another, so it made sense to shoot the dream sequences in those ways. For example, in the sequence in which Orr was supposed to have an effective dream to solve “the overpopulation problem,” his mind conjures up a plague that wiped out six billion people on Earth. In this sequence, we see an extended family sitting around a holiday dinner table. The table is brightly lit, but it and the people around it are projected against a black background so they seem more real than real. Then, one by one, each of the people other than Orr, Haber, and Lelache sit up stock still, draped in gauzy cloth like an insect caught in a spider’s cocoon, until no one is left. As soon as Orr awakens, we know what has happened, and that knowledge is all the more chilling for having seen the events take place.

Two other notable points of the film are the architecture and the music. Though the location is ostensibly Portland, the movie was shot in Dallas in and around some very spacious, creatively designed buildings. Seeing these large, almost futuristic location shots gives us a sense of the grandeur and forward thinking Haber seeks with his Institute and with the world itself, and the large, empty corridors serve as a constant reminder of all the people Haber had Orr dream out of existence with the Plague. The music is also an active participant, underscoring dramatic moments, shifting tones with each new reality, scaling up to depict the enormity of playing god. It heightens our senses so that the images jump off the screen and lodge themselves in our mind, holding us until long after the movie is done.

Non-Standard Deviations

As I mentioned at the beginning, this adaptation embodied the spirit, if not all the details, of the book. For example, Le Guin references wars raging over the planet, Orr changing physical appearance across the different realities and changing jobs, Lelache having had a husband who was killed, and a number of other small points that didn’t make it into the finished film. But the filmmakers rightly chose to focus their efforts on the dreams and the struggle between the two main characters, and it worked to great effect. The one curious omission is that Le Guin started the book describing a jellyfish floating in the ocean and stating, “What will the creature made all of seadrift do on the dry sand of daylight; what will the mind do, each morning, waking?” – a clear reference to Orr and his abilities. One can only wonder why this vivid and powerful image did not make it into the finished piece.

This would probably be a good place to mention the second adaptation, the one made in 2002, as it was quite the aberration. Unlike the PBS version, in which Le Guin took a fairly active role as a consultant, the writer did not approve of the final outcome of the remake. Instead of strong and interesting visuals, we were treated to dull gray sets of ordinary locations. Instead of an impressive, almost theatrical opening, we were given people walking down dim corridors and Orr waking up after overdosing on his meds. Instead of two characters strong enough to hold their own and, quite literally, change the world, the filmmakers cast a milquetoast for Orr (Lukas Haas) who walked around unfocused, listless, and seemingly uncaring about his dreams, his life, or Haber’s actions; and a sympathetic Haber (James Caan) who was more concerned with Orr’s well-being than his own grand plans. It made for a weak script, an uninteresting plot, and an absence of the feeling that you’d just watched something “important.” In my opinion, watching this version is just wasting an hour and a half of your valuable time.

The Final Cut

So, how did “The Lathe of Heaven” as a movie fare as a story adaptation overall? The 1980 PBS version is probably the best adaptation of any story that I’ve ever seen, and I would unquestioningly give it an A+ for effort, sensitivity to the source material, and stunning casting and visuals. The 2002 version? A D on a day I’m feeling generous.

What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Please add your comments in the section below.

– Miriam Ruff, Content Creator, PoetsIN

DISCLAIMER: The opinions discussed in this blog post are solely those of the blogger and do not necessarily represent any thoughts, values, or opinions of PoetsIN and any of its affiliate groups.

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