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Movie vs. Book: Solaris


Movie or book, which does it better? This question is brought up every time an adaptation is discussed. More often than not, the book is singled as a better representation of the story. This doesn’t mean no movies are more revered than their source material. 


However, the rate of opinions choosing movies over books for the science fiction genre seems greater. I have a theory as to why that is. Science fiction can be hard to follow. It can get especially abstract in written words, whereas it could become more tangible in a visual medium. And, let’s be honest, science fiction and fantasy can produce majestic scenery. Alien worlds, other dimensions, ruins of ancient civilization. If you don’t have a visual mind (like myself), those are more impressive on the screen than on paper.


Thinking about this, I decided to start a new series here on the blog. Movie vs. book hopefully will bring a critical eye to the original story and its adaptation.


To inaugurate the series, I chose a new favorite (one gifted to me in the Secret Santa game of the Media Death Culture channel): Solaris.



Solaris book cover
Cover to the first edition of Solaris

The sci-fi novel by Stanisław Lem was first published in 1961. In 1972, the acclaimed Andrei Tarkovsky directed an almost three-hour-long adaptation, and an American version, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney, was produced in 2002. 


To give you an insight into my perspective on these works, I first watched Tarkovsky’s version, then read Lem’s novel, and finally watched the Hollywood version. 


WARNING: there will be SPOILERS.



Solaris - the book


The novel takes place on a distant planet called Solaris, inhabited by an ocean-like organism that puzzled scholars since the planet’s discovery. We follow Kris Kelvin, a psychologist expert on the study of Solaris, one of the last Solaristics. When we arrive there with Kelvin, it is quickly established that the Solaris station is in a paranoid-filled mood, with one of the three scientists living there having just committed suicide. 


Shortly before Kelvin arrived, the team on Solaris bombarded the ocean with X-rays. In response, the oceanic entity started to perform a sort of experiment of its own (maybe not as intentional as human experiments) on the crew, creating copies of loved ones to share the station with them—the “guests.” We get to explore the psychological effects of this phenomenon as Kelvin grapples with his feelings for the materialized version of his late wife and the ethical implications of her existence.


Solaris is a contact novel. It raises profound questions about the limitations of human understanding in the face of the unknown. What if we find intelligent life but are unable to communicate with it? How would we know it’s sentient? Would it be ethical to experiment on it? 


I really enjoyed the bits of academic exposition on the ocean itself (I wonder if one has to be an academic to enjoy those bits). The history of Solaristic sciences was fascinating! Understanding that the black ocean was a being and pondering whether it was conscious took a long time, as narrated. 


And the way we realize that the ocean is intelligent is very subtle. The ocean can stabilize unstable systems! 


Surely, you’ve heard about the three-body problem (the science stuff, not the book). A system with three bodies—in this case, Solaris plus its two suns—should not be stable. And yet, the ocean can account for the instability and correct the planet’s orbit so it’s stable. Furthermore, Solaris’s ocean can also stabilize a system of neutrinos to materialize the guests.

 

To find stability when nature prefers instability is a clear sign of intelligence.

Is the ocean’s intelligence equal to sentience? What does it mean to be sentient? It is implied that if we can communicate somehow with the ocean, it is sentient. And the whole book is about humans trying to communicate with it and failing to recognize it communicated back. 


Kelvin ended up in a situation I struggled to understand, but it was so well executed that I believed it. He was in this limbo state where he was miserable in the relationship he had with his guest wife, all the while desiring it never to end. When it does, he finds himself wanting to go back!


Enough with spoilers; otherwise, I’ll keep talking forever. As you might have noticed by the number of exclamation points in this description, I absolutely loved the story. To summarize:


Solaris is the story of an alien ocean experimenting on a group of scientists, oblivious to their emotional pain. It stops when it finds out they’re hurting, but then one scientist wants more of the pain.


Solaris - the movies


Let’s discuss Andrei Tarkovsky’s version of Solaris first. Tarkovsky is an influential filmmaker who liked to explore metaphysical themes in his movies, with a signature style of long takes, slow pacing, and dreamlike imagery. All of these characteristics are present in Solaris.


Tarkovsky focused the narrative on the relationship between Kelvin and his late wife, Harey, masterfully portraying how guilt can be mistaken for love and vice-versa.


The movie is a faithful adaptation, with many recognizable scenes from the novel. I really enjoyed the performances as well. The actors managed to perfectly convey the conflicting feelings about the situation without the first-person narrative voice-over (like in the book). The scene with the liquid oxygen is impeccable.


Tarkovsky’s version departed from the book at the end, when he added a layer of Freudian complexity to the situation through the character of Kelvin’s mother (never even mentioned in the book). The novel had a more hopeful ending: Contact was made somehow, and the crew decided to stay there and keep trying to establish a conversation with the ocean. 


Solaris 1972 movie scene
Scene from Tarkovsky's Solaris movie.

On the other hand, Soderbergh was very loose in his reading of Lem’s novel. He tried to bring a religious undertone and a twist (that I called when Kelvin cut his finger at the beginning)—both inspired by very particular scenes at the novel’s end. Tried is the keyword. It was so shallow that I cannot say it succeeded. 


Ultimately, my impression of the movie is the same as Lem’s: it’s a love story set in space.** 


**I should add that while I was not impressed by the movie, my husband enjoyed it. So watch it and take your own conclusion.


To me, the main fault in both movies is that they failed to recognize the Solaris’s ocean as a vital character. It is not merely an exotic landscape where strange things happen. It is an active player, even if in subtle ways.


Yes, the ocean is my favorite character. And the reason why I loved the book.


Perhaps this is why Stanisław Lem reportedly did not enjoy either movie. Both chose to tackle the subplot and forget about the main plot: contact between humans and an alien entity beyond our understanding. 



Winner: book. 

###


That’s it for today, folks.


Have you read Solaris? Which do you prefer: book or movie or movie? Did you like Hollywood’s version? Let me know in the comments.


See you next post,

Ra.

 

 

Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.

You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.


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I"m sorry I can't agree with you about Solaris.

I saw both movies and then read the book when I came across a free copy on the Internet.

The book is a typical modernist piece of crap.

It's a self absorbed, bitter assault on conventional everything.

I"ve come to realize that the intelligentsia which produces this sort of thing on a regular basis - all the while ignoring good genre fiction - is mainly angry at it's low place in the hierarchy of the ruling class.


Science fiction needs to dump most of the stuff from the pulp era as well as just about everything produced by academics and modernists.

It must return to its roots in Victorian writers such…


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Carla Ra
Carla Ra
Feb 15
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Hahaha, indeed, we have widely different views on what interests us in science fiction.


My philosophy is to let people write what they want to, and you select those more suitable to your taste. Verne and Wells are masters, surely. But they are kind of first-generation sci-fi writers. It evolved.

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