While there can be no doubt Solyaris is no artistic masterpiece, the idea that it isn’t a product of its time is more complicated. To the extent that the film is a safe and straightforward adaptation of Lem’s novel, it does not appear so. However, insofar as the novel’s ideas about the definition of personhood and the meaning of science align themselves with those of the Communist regime, and so directly oppose the eventual expatriate Tarkovsky, it certainly reflects its age.
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Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris may be the most famous adaptation of Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel about an astronaut plagued by apparitions extracted from his own subconscious by an extraterrestrial entity, but it’s not the first – that honor belongs to a low-budget 1968 Soviet television production titled Solyaris. Unlike its Tarkovskyan counterpart, which has remained a favorite among cinephiles around the globe, Solyaris (I’m guessing the “y” was added to accommodate Russian spelling and pronunciation) had a much shorter life span: the movie’s uninspired filmmaking was duly ignored by critics then and now, and its poor distribution ensured that few people outside Russia ever laid their eyes on it. As a matter of fact, the film remains so difficult to come by that when a prominent London venue organized a screening just last year (2019), they had to hire a live translator because no authorized subtitled version exists (though you can find a fan-made one on YouTube).
Thanks to a bland set design and anachronistic script, Solyaris, directed by Boris Nirenburg and Lidiya Ishimbayeva, also failed to garner any attention as a potential work of cultural or historical significance. Indeed, one Little White Lies reviewer went so far as to warn audiences that “this adaptation is not one for history buffs.” But is that fair? And, more importantly, is it true? While there can be no doubt Solyaris is no artistic masterpiece, the idea that it isn’t a product of its time is more complicated. To the extent that the film is a safe and straightforward adaptation of Lem’s novel, it does not appear so. However, insofar as the novel’s ideas about the definition of personhood and the meaning of science align themselves with those of the Communist regime, and so directly oppose the eventual expatriate Tarkovsky, it certainly reflects its age.
Neither Lem nor Mosfilm, the government-backed production company that funded 1972’s Solaris, liked Tarkovsky’s vision for the film; the way they saw it, it diverged too much from the source material. Tarkovsky, conversely, didn’t like the source material; not only was Lem’s novel pushed into his lap after Mosfilm rejected his idea for a biopic loosely inspired by the lives of his parents, but Tarkovsky – a realist in his own right – had little respect for science fiction, a species of storytelling that, in his opinion, concerned itself too much with technological advancement and too little with the ways in which that technology impacted the human experience. If he had to make a sci-fi movie, then, it would be one that imbued this supposedly shallow genre with a newfound emotional depth.
One of the ways Tarkovsky attempted to achieve such depth was by further developing the private life of protagonist Kris Kelvin. Thus, for instance, the first forty minutes of his two-and-a-half-hour-long film take place on Earth, where we are introduced to characters like Kelvin’s cold and distant father, and a family friend and former Solaris Station astronaut, Berton – neither of whom appear in the novel, but whom Tarkovsky added anyway so that the Ocean would have a bigger part to play once Kelvin arrived at the base. While many viewers found the opening act, which includes an extended and frankly gratuitous sequence of Berton driving down a highway, a bit too trying on their patience, Tarkovsky initially wanted up to two-thirds of the finished film to take place on Earth.
Conversely, the television production, opening seconds before liftoff, never explores Kelvin’s private life outside the hallucinations he experiences on Solaris. This approach was the conscious result of Nirenburg and Ishimbayeva sticking to Lem’s original story. On a less conscious level, it may also have been the product of state censorship. The Soviet film industry, like any other industry in the country, was both planned and centralized, meaning that projects were greenlit not by studio execs but by government organs on the condition that their themes complied with Communist ideology. Although censorship was not equally enforced throughout the twentieth century, the earliest adaptation of Solaris happened to have been released around the same time as the Prague Spring, an anti-Soviet uprising in Czechoslovakia that led Moscow to reverse much of the freedom of expression that had previously been brought about by de-Stalinization.
According to the Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet cinema was “responsive to social aims and demands.” If the Party identified a particular problem within society, “all social thought [was] directed towards it.” Given that Communist ideology, by definition, aimed at the creation of a new kind of civilization, it follows that sci-fi quickly became one of the more popular genres throughout the USSR; and, of all scientific efforts, spacecraft played a particularly important role in everyday Soviet life around the time Solyaris was released. Coming out just one year before the American spacecraft Apollo 11 landed on the moon, the television production of Lem’s work visualized Russian aspirations to become the first country to reach outer space. Where Tarkovsky’s version takes its time exploring Kelvin’s relationship with his father, Nirenburg and Ishimbayeva show him warding off Hari – his late wife, reanimated by the Ocean – as he engrosses himself in Solaristics. Where Tarkovsky skips over the journey to Solaris Station, Nirenburg and Ishimbayeva use it as the starting point of their film, and make sure to show off every little technical detail of the expedition by bombarding the viewer with confusing scientific jargon.
As much as Lem’s version of the story corresponds with Soviet principles, not all of his ideas got past the censors. While most of the book made it into the 1968 production, government officials cut one of its most iconic and important lines, Snaut’s confession that “we don’t want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror.” Since the State Committee for Cinematography was not obligated to publish the reasons for its intrusive editing, we will never know why this bit of dialogue was cut. My intuition tells me the reason Snaut’s words did not show up in the final film was because they attributed to the human race an inherent egoism that a government organized on socialist lines couldn’t tolerate.
Interestingly, the same line did make it into Tarkovsky’s film, and its inclusion allows us to understand what distinguishes this version from the television production on the most fundamental level. In her essay “Gender, Psychoanalysis, and Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris,” Elyce Rae Helford defines space exploration as the “quest to assert cultural dominance over new realms” in order to “prove the significance of [the exploring country’s] work and worldview.” That last bit is key, because the last thing we as a “free” species want is to be subjugated to a more powerful, intelligent alien race regardless of whether it’s benevolent or not – and this is exactly what happens, at least symbolically, to the astronauts on board Solaris Station in every version of the story. When attacked by the station’s radiation beams, the Ocean, perhaps as a method of self-defense, materializes the ghosts of the people on board so that they will spend their days not in figuring how to finish their studies but in doubting their own right to exist.
The main difference between the two films, then, is how they approach the Ocean’s hallucinations, whether they regard them as credible personifications of guilt and shame that originate in their own psyche or as illusions conjured up by some nefarious sorcerer who aims at deceiving them. In the television production, Hari – Kelvin’s late wife – is clearly treated as an evil spirit who fills his head with lies, while Tarkovsky sees her as a dream awakening him to a long-lost truth. Kelvin’s relationship with Hari also defines his larger character arc. Under Nirenburg and Ishimbayeva’s direction, Kelvin’s change is negative as he develops from a calm and collected scientist interested in truth into a nervous and emotional wreck determined to sabotage his and his colleague’s mission. Tarkovsky flips this schematic on its head. In his version, Kelvin’s arc is a positive, redemptive one. When we meet him at the beginning of the story, he is cold and distant from the people around him. At the end of the film, his relationship with Hari has put him back in tune with his emotions – emotions that ultimately allow him to reconnect with his estranged (though possibly fake) father.
When the film was released, Lem was deeply dissatisfied with Tarkovsky’s choice to substitute science with sentimentality. In the years that followed, the writer would frequently quip that the director had adapted Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment – a slow-burning psychological thriller about a man coming to terms with his sins – rather than his own Solaris, protesting he didn’t conceive the story to explore people’s “erotic problems in space,” but to contemplate – in a fashion reminiscent of Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival – the cognitive impossibility of us communicating with extraterrestrial life forms. Tarkovsky, in response, attested that Lem, as a novelist by trade, did not fully appreciate cinema as an art form, and that it was altogether unfair of him to expect someone to mindlessly translate his work from the page to the big screen without adding to it something of their own. Despite their mutual pigheadedness, both artists made valid points. Where Tarkovsky was concerned, decades of cinema have made abundantly clear that the more faithful an adaption is to its source material, the more likely it is to disappear into oblivion. And as for Lem, he must have felt some satisfaction knowing the director regarded his finished film as the weakest link in his career.
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Images are screenshots from the film or YouTube videos.