Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas belongs to that unique bracket of films like Scarface, Tombstone, or Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Within seconds of mentioning it, fans are bound to start quoting. They’ll talk about bat country and being outside of Barstow, places they may have never actually been, but that isn’t the point. This is the shared text of a people who prove they’ve got keys to the freak kingdom one recitation at a time. And some have even read the book.
It is, arguably, one of the best literary adaptations ever filmed. There are scenes on screen which border on read-along exactness. More importantly, the tone is the same. That’s to say, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the story of people desperately escaping from the nightmarish truth that all is not well. The American Dream is dead, if it was ever real to begin with, and the most recent optimistic grasp at a better world failed because it arrogantly assumed wanting the good was good enough to manifest it. An indictment of a generation alongside a cautionary tale, Fear and Loathing still speaks to contemporary audiences t25 years later willing to see more than its mere debauchery.
Undoubtedly, most viewers initially get sucked in by the zany excess at the start. Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro play Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo. Duke is a freelance journalist and Gonzo is his attorney providing dubious legal advice between substance abuses. The two head to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race in the desert, but within literally the first minute of the movie, things have already gone off the rails. What follows is an initially humorous bad acid trip that descends into a uniquely U.S. heart of darkness.
Novels like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas almost seem destined for the silver screen. Visually written with captivating scenes featuring larger-than-life characters, the book is practically a script already. Thompson even recalled “the book as an experiment, trying to teach myself to write cinematically.” For years the text has inspired droves to follow the felonious path of excess laid out by its protagonists, a chemical fueled world of seemingly heroic anarchy. However, potential doesn’t always translate directly to possibility.
Decades followed with filmmakers and performers aplenty daring to dream of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Directors such as Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Alex Cox of Repo Man fame considered taking the helm. One madman named Clive Arrowsmith proposed doing the lounge lizard scene with live alligators doped up on quaaludes. Performers like Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Dan Akroyd, and Johns Belushi, Malkovich, and Cusack all circled central roles. Yet, none really got this great shark hunt going until Terry Gilliam took charge.
Some of the hesitation from Hollywood might have stemmed from the failure of a previous cinematic adaptation of the Hunter Thompson mythos. That movie, entitled Where the Buffalo Roam, came out in 1980. Starring Bill Murray and Peter Boyle, the film is distilled from a variety of articles the infamous journalist wrote. It’s more inspired by the works of Thompson than a direct adaptation of any single piece, and although Murray does a solid job throughout, especially his Super Bowl speech, Where the Buffalo Roam is the kind of movie only fans of the author can sort of enjoy.
Although Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a different beast, some notes ring similar. Like Murray, Depp spent months with Thompson learning to play the part. His take on Raoul Duke, the author’s thinly veiled surrogate, is the kind of deep dive method practitioners dream of. His portrayal became so synonymous with the writer that people doing impressions of Thompson tend to be doing Depp in Fear and Loathing.
Benicio del Toro got in the habit of eating sixteen donuts a day to bulk up for his role. The authenticity of his performance even made it difficult to land jobs after Fear and Loathing. According to del Toro, Hollywood believed he must’ve developed a drug and drinking problem during the film.
“Maybe it was a compliment,” he said.
The point is that the two came to embody their roles so entirely it’s impossible to really imagine anyone else in the parts. Add to that a varied cast featuring the likes of Verne Troyer to Cameron Diaz not to mention Penn Jillette, Toby Maguire, Flea, Christina Ricci, and Gary Busey — every performer fits their part ideally. Some, such as Troy Evans as a screaming police chief, even capture the essence of Ralph Steadman’s unsettling illustrations which accompanied the text.
Following the book but also jumping off from Steadman’s art, director Terry Gilliam used paintings by Robert Yarber as inspiration. Introduced to the artwork by production designer Alex McDowell, Gilliam intended these to help, among others, cinematographer Nicola Pecorini get a sense of the film’s stylization.
“I had two days of panic after Terry told me what he wanted,” Pecorini told American Cinematographer. “But then I said, ‘If he wants red skies, I’ll give him red skies.’”
The article further details the staggering technical feat of how Pecorini managed to make the film come alive. He figured out a combination of myriad colored gels in conjunction with Italian-made lighting equipment as well as other light sources. Then there’s the use of an Arriflex 535 camera in order to swiftly change speeds from 24 to 20 fps (frames per second) to make the film’s iconic convertible appear to dramatically alter speed.
The cinematographer and director also crafted visuals specific to altered states, meaning whether on mescaline, ether, acid, or simply drunk in the desert, stylization changes. These include “loose depth of field… colors melt into one another… perception of lights gets very uneven.” But most interestingly, these never really change the visual tone of the movie. The film never stops looking like Fear and Loathing, though there’s a clear sense reality is altered.
The overall effect is a movie that looks like a bad Polaroid saturated by incomprehensible light sources, occasionally soaked in unsettling neon shades. When events are absurd, such as Depp busting coconuts on the hood of the convertible or both leads wobbling into the garish Bazooko’s Circus, the film takes on a zany, loony cartoon quality. Yet, that same cinematography implies a nightmarish mood when things become unpleasant. It’s what the characters are doing that influences interpretation rather than the visual stylization.
Add on an era accurate soundtrack full of familiar hits, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas takes off like a bat. One can almost hear the banshees screaming for buffalo meat. After all, although humorous in portions, Fear and Loathing does take a rather serious dramatic turn. Though it gets no less odd on the wild way to the end, there are moments of profound reflection.
The most notable, perhaps, is the recitation of what’s known as The Wave Speech. Seated behind a red Selectric typewriter Depp delivers a voiceover monologue that is basically just reading from the novel. It’s the lament of a lost opportunity in time, when a generation naïvely thought believing in the right cause was enough to win over the wicked. This gets at the heart of the main characters: two people who thought they were changing the world burnt into cynics chasing chemically induced optimism. At least, that’s my read on it.
This is a movie about outsiders who have fully embraced the fact they’ll never fit in. Yet, they can’t help being around the world they’re disconnected from. After all, it’s the only reality any of us inhabit. That’s why it features scenes of Depp stalking through crowds, Raoul Duke the perpetual observer confused and unnerved by the world he witnesses.
He’s aware of the literal as well as ethereal walls designed to keep the unwanted people out. Play by the rules or be excommunicated from society, and those who follow, maybe, just maybe, they’ll get enough scraps to pretend the roads are paved with gold. And if it ever seems like that dream is a lie, well, Vegas is the place to feign riches are quick in these United States. Put some money down, pull the lever, and as Raoul Duke observes in Fear and Loathing, “Learn to enjoy losing.”
The film received generally unfavorable reviews upon release. Like all cult classics, it’s either loved or hated. (I can’t say I enjoyed it very much the first time I saw it, but I was so high on that occasion I got distracted when I thought I’d inadvertently performed psychic surgery on myself and missed half the film hurrying off to get my hand out from inside my abdomen; but I digress.)
Most of the negative reviews read like writers who can’t wait to holler the book is better. For instance, Stephen Holden penned The New York Times piece skewering the film for, among other things, making the protagonists ugly. This specific insinuation results mainly from a moment in the movie when Dr. Gonzo threatens a waitress with a knife. In the New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “the scene is ugly enough to cast a moral shadow over the preceding fun.” And that’s a fair assessment, but it’s an event taken straight from the text, chapter 8 “Back Door Beauty… & Finally a Bit of Serious Drag Racing on the Strip”. So it really just shows someone’s bias as they pretentiously miss the point.
Barbara Schulgasser wrote that despite whatever literary appeal the book possessed “turning the camera on a couple of guys stumbling, mumbling, and vomiting is just plain repulsive.” Roger Ebert went so far as to wag a shaming finger at Depp for doing a film about unbound substance abusers so shortly after the overdose death of River Phoenix at Depp’s nightclub. Frankly, that’s a despicably low blow and sounds more like an irate member of the PTA taking a cheap shot than good criticism.
Every negative review basically shares the point that the film follows two reprehensible individuals who rarely, if ever, display a redeemable quality. They imply any movie made about excess drug consumption requires a moralizing element decrying that abuse. I suppose the scene where del Toro becomes dangerously unhinged on LSD and Depp has to threaten to impale him with a shower rod came across too subtle—the fun never stops, even at murder. The plain awfulness on display isn’t enough. There needs to be a monologue where these renegades clearly lament their ways, or at least, go to prison for their misdeeds.
The thing is Depp as Duke periodically reflects on what’s happening. And these observations suggest a horrifying truth. He and Dr. Gonzo may be a grotesque extreme, but there’s little difference between them and everyone else in Las Vegas. The only thing setting them apart is they’re impossible to ignore, the unsettling truth plain to see.
It can be hard to spot the beauty in something as ugly as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That was the genius in a lot of Hunter S. Thompson’s writing. In articles such as “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”, he penned a version of the truth that was unflinchingly honest yet strangely amusing even in its grotesquery. More importantly, he never shied away from being the ugly part of the story. The style became known as gonzo journalism, and inspired a myth that inevitably attracted Hollywood.
The approach led to one of the best literary adaptations ever made. Director Terry Gilliam captured that gonzo honesty, thanks in no small part to a stellar cast led by Depp and del Toro. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may be the lightest dark comedy, but make no mistake, it is a dark tale. Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini helped accent that darkness, making it palatably cartoonish at times, but never taking away from the bleak surreal nightmare unfolding. It stabs into the myth of America in a way that’s a self-mutilating wound. As such, even twenty-five years later, Fear and Loathing remains a captivating film.