Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971/1998) is a brilliant novel that translates well into a Terry Gilliam film with few changes. Both the book and film chronicle the journey of famous gonzo journalist Raoul Duke (Thompson), played by Johnny Depp, and his demented attorney Dr. Gonzo, as portrayed by Benicio Del Toro (his real-life attorney Oscar Z. Acosta). Their adventure takes place in the “foul year of our lord, 1971” and takes the duo across the barren desert from Las Angeles to Las Vegas in search of the “American Dream.” Their philosophy is to take on this assignment by getting buzzed, high, ripped and stoned on every drug known to man since 1654. The plot is clear in both media, but stands out more in the novel. The film leaves out one scene in particular, where Dr. Gonzo and Duke drive to the outskirts of Vegas seeking the physical manifestation of the “the Dream,” a club named The American Dream. In the novel, the twisted pair stop at a drive-thru for thirty-nine cent tacos and ask the teller where the can find this club they’ve heard about. Receiving the location of the Dream, they go to find a rundown building. The two figure, in the end, the club has become a trash hole filled with junkies, drug dealers and other losers before finally, it had been abandoned. Had this scene been included in Gillian’s film, the plot would have been easier to comprehend. The Circus-Circus, Bazooko Circus in the film, scene has Duke attempting to purchase a chimpanzee from one of the casino’s employees. The man tells the story of how the owner had always wanted to run away to join the circus as a child. “Now the bastard owns it,” he says. Duke sees this as pure Horatio Alger. “Rags to riches” and “Go west, young man, go west.” He sees it as the American Dream achieved for one man. Doing what you want to do and getting what you want in life.
The differences between the film and novel come mainly via imagery. With any novel, the reader’s imagination forms the images of scenes and characters from the author’s descriptions. When Thompson writes about Duke’s “trips” and hallucinations, the read can get a minute idea of what Duke is seeing and feeling. It seems if one hasn’t taken the same “rides” as Duke/Thompson, then they may not be able to understand so well. The film translates these feelings and visions well. With the aid of computer-generated imagery, Gilliam incorporated some fantastic visuals during such scenes. When Duke checks into the Vegas Mint Hotel tripping out on LSD and sees the desk clerk’s head swell and contract as she inhales and exhales before it turns into a moray eel slithering at a cringing Duke. As he looks down the carpet pattern flows like water before creeping up the walls. That would be the paranoia and hallucinations that particular drug causes. In the book the reader is told that Duke is high and the feelings he experiences without letting in on what he sees, most of the time. The film is very effective in showing Duke’s hallucinations.
Later in the story the audience is introduced to Lucy, played by Christina Ricci. Lucy is a young girl who likes to paint portraits of Barbara Streisand, and has become involved in a “preternatural courtship” with Dr. Gonzo. She’d like very much to present these portraits to Ms. Streisand herself, because Gonzo told her he could get them backstage at a show that weekend. In the novel, Duke informs Gonzo that Streisand won’t be in town for weeks, as stated on all the flyers plastering the hotel’s walls. The audience also learns that Lucy is a minor and had never taken a drink or hit in her life before. The film leaves out the details of involving meeting Streisand. The film and book then relate the demented duo’s less than discreet expulsion of Lucy from their lives.
The majority of the remainder of this tale follow similar avenues in both media, with the exception of a brief encounter with a highway patrolman, played by Gary Busey, that pulls Duke over for speeding as Duke attempts to flee the huge hotel bill he’d help run up in Vegas. In the book we learn that these expenses would have normally been taken care of by his pressman’s pass and other credentials, but those were all forged by his warped “Samoan” attorney. Duke is pulled over after a thrilling 90 mile per hour chase and is then questioned by the male patrolman, who, in the film, stating that he’s very lonely, asks Duke for a kiss before letting him go.
The movie then leaves out part of the reason for Duke’s firing his .357 Magnum into the desert. Duke find out he must return to Vegas to cover another story and becomes frustrated. Despite its earlier visual success, the film does not show or mention the swarms of lizards he sees coming at him. Duke imagines Gila monsters and other poisonous lizards sneaking across the desert floor to kill him. She shoots as many of the bastards as he can before jumping into the abused rental and returning to Vegas.
Compared to many films based on books, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas encompasses most of Thomson’s ideas and situations. Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park became a successful movie that failed to mention why many of the situations in the story arose while also leaving out a good portion of the overall story. It seems as though Thompson must have had a lot of control in the making of this film, because it translated so well and left out very little as compared to many other novels made into films.