Le Guin, Ursula K. (film, 2002) [Alan Sharp, Philip Haas, et al.]. Lathe of Heaven. New York: Arts & Entertainment Channel.

Reviewed 14 September 2002

The 1979 PBS production (3 stars) of Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven had rather sparse (at best) production values. Produced on a budget that would envy a shoestring, Bruce Davison, Margaret Avery, and Kevin Conway successfully brought in the flavor and sensibility of one of the less-well-known of Le Guin's works—one that remains somewhat obscure because it is outside both the Hainish and Earthsea environments. I was looking forward to this newer version, as the necessarily minimal production values of the PBS production had occasionally interfered with the story.

The Lathe of Heaven (the novel) tells the story of George Orr, or rather allows us to interpret the story of George Orr; a certain ambiguity of meaning is essential to it. George dreams. George's dreams effect reality, somewhat more directly than yours or mine do. In "alternate history" terms, George's dreams create new branchings in history at given points. Needless to say, this scares the shit out of George, and he begins taking street drugs to suppress his dreams. He gets caught, and is sent to a dream specialist for Voluntary Therapy (which is about as voluntary as answering the draft in the 1960s). Dr. William Haber doesn't believe George. At first, anyway…

I wish that low production values had been all that interfered with this film. (The remainder of this review assumes some familiarity with the novel.)

Initially, casting James Caan as a doctor who is really interested in helping his patient—as William Haber appears at first in the novel—was a serious error. Caan does not do well with enigmas. He plays very straightforward personalities reasonably well, but does not do well at all with internal conflict. The remainder of the cast is fine, if not outstanding, although at times obviously floundering against an inept script.

The film really began to go wrong with the production values, though. Instead of creating haunting images of The Crash, or aliens that look like something more than sea turtles, or grey people who look really grey instead of just caucasians wearing grey makeup, much of the production budget appears to have been blown on costumes more at home in a Michael Jackson video than in an office environment. An individual's wardrobe must, to at least some extent, reflect his or her normal daily environment; thus, the Victorian ball gown reflects the normal environment of the ball (a pathetic attempt to make women's butts their principal feature), while a physician's white coat or coat and tie reflect his or her normal environment as a science/authority figure. These costumes, however, do nothing of the sort. One wonders how the actors could even move in some of these costumes, let alone sit behind a desk as a receptionist for hours, or lift a tray of teacups and take them out to the table. Further, the actors (except Lisa Bonet as Heather Lelache) never appear really comfortable with what they're wearing. At least the Augmenter looks like something other than spare parts with an old H-P oscilloscope; however, the architecture of the PBS version was actually more vaguely science fictional and a better fit for the novel—and the script, which is not necessarily the same thing.

That is where this film fails: the script, to use the technical term, sucks. I accept that no script can be 100% faithful to a novel, because there are different demands in the differing media. A successful script of a science fiction novel, however, simply cannot make every possible effort to remove anything that makes the story seem like science fiction! That's not just bad writing; it's intellectually dishonest. This production omitted the aliens and the grey people entirely, among other things, and turned an excellent science fiction novel into not-quite-mediocre magical realism without any of the sociopolitical tension found in good magical realism. The novel's aliens represent, on several levels, the Enigmatic Other, and also allow a less self-concious narrative intrusion than one often finds in postmodern fiction; the grey people represent the Self as Other, the only time that George's dreams (as Dr. Haber remarks) worked logically. They provide critical boundaries for meaning, interpretation, and virtually all other aspects of the novel, because their presence reinforces that George's mind has an interface with reality that really requires an attempt to understand it. This film, however, completely omits those boundaries, and instead elides toward the romance theme (minimized, although present, in the novel) as a grudging substitute for an overall theme. The irony that the novel's romance theme is reinforced by Orr's perception that Heather could not have lived in a world of grey people, because her race and her reactions to race were too much of her character, seems lost on the scriptwriter, as is the irony of removing the aliens as eiron.

The actors gave it a game try, but their collective discomfort with the scripting decisions is fairly clear by the time George ends up at his "cabin" on the beach in Oregon. The novel and the PBS production place George at the center of the story. If this film has a center at all, it is slightly toward Dr. Haber. In the end, it has no center; one learns nothing about the characters by the end of the film that wasn't apparent within the first five minutes of their appearance. The production values are not significantly better than the PBS version, even in the grainy video and DVD versions now available (thanks to a music rights dispute over one Beatles song, the film was stored in vaults for two decades!). Read the book or find the PBS version; skip this one.

Overall rating: 1 stars
Almost Mediocre
. A very disappointing effort, particularly as Bruce Davison (who had the benefit of actually working with Le Guin on the PBS production; if I recall correctly, Le Guin even appeared as an extra, and spent quite a bit of time on the set) is credited as a "co-producer" of this film. The A&E production does virtually nothing to improve on the weaknesses of the PBS production, and adds a substantial number of new ones.

  • the fine print first (you'll need to replace "{at}" with "@" on the address line). Please come back soon.
  • Return to Savage Reviews
  • Return to The Savage Beast (est. 1215): Literary Reviews and Resources on Speculative Fiction
Intellectual Property Rights: © 2002 John Savage. All rights reserved.
You may contact me concerning permissions via email. This copyright notice overrides, negates, and renders void any alleged copyright or license claimed by any person or entity, specifically including but not limited to any claim of right or license by any web hosting service or software provider, except when I have transferred such rights with a signed writing that complies with the requirements for transferring the entire copyright as specified in Title 17 of the United States Code. This includes, but is not limited to, translation or other creation of derivative works, use in advertising or other publicity materials without prior authorization in writing, or any other non-private use that falls outside the fair use exception specified in Title 17 of the United States Code. If you have any question about whether commercial use, publicity or advertising use, or republication in any form satisfies this notice, it probably does not. Violations of intellectual property rights in these pages will be dealt with swiftly using appropriate process of law, probably including a note to your mother telling her that you're a thief.
"The Savage Beast", "Savage Reviews", "Surreality Check", and the dragon-and-book banner are trade and service marks of the website owner. Other marks appearing on these pages belong to third parties, and appear either with permission or as exemplary references.