Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

The Lathe of Heaven Film Review

“Be careful what you wish for, you may receive it.”

Back in September of 2010, I put together a post for My Picks for The Greatest… Sci-Fi Film Edition1. In it, I placed a little PBS film high up on that loftiest of lists for this genre. There it drew the attention of my NoCal New Zealand blogging compadre, Rachel (from Scientist Gone Wordy). So, per her suggestion for our next ‘parallel post’, The Lathe of Heaven novel and film, by fantasy/sci-fi author Ursula K. Le Guin, will have our mutual focus for this the November edition of our little book/film series.

Clicking the WNET link will take you to the YouTube video of the full movie someone uploaded in 2012.

As usual, the wordy one will examine the text of the 1972 Locus SF Award novel winner, while I get to go back and relive my 1980 youth by reviewing that now famous broadcast of Thirteen/WNET’s adaptation of the sci-fi classic. Rachel’s book review can be found here:

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

A brief synopsis of the film: in the near-future, those folk still around live in a world that is the leftover of war, over-population, and the weather effects rooted in the first two. In this sphere, the seemingly ordinary Portland Oregonian, George Orr, is desperately seeking help for his dreams. George is increasingly anguished because he feels the world (along with himself) is becoming tenuously unstable. So much so, we learn his drug use has caused a near overdose via phenobarbital and dexedrine (he is an “intelligent schizophrenic“, if nothing else). Why? He realizes that his dreams are changing the world around him. Reality itself. And so his attempts are an effort to chemically suppress his sleep. He thus ends up in the care of psychiatrist and dream specialist William Haber. The discovery of Orr’s ‘gift‘ will put both men in the tale to the test regarding power, best intentions, and unexpected consequences.

spoiler warning: some key elements of the film are revealed in this review]

“Back up, George. Dreams are not harmful. For instance, daydreams can be wonderful. I have them all the time. I dream heroics. I save the girl, the whole damn planet. Haber saves the world.”

My Review: even after 30 years, this film still has the same power and elegance of story. It remains a simple film — hell, being a public broadcasting television channel with only a $250,000 budget for the shoot, what else could it be — that nonetheless presents its grand ideas in a very neat and distinct fashion. Directors Fred Barzyk and David R. Loxton managed their small cast, meager special effects, and images well enough to convey a future in an almost dreamlike manner.

Most who’ve viewed the film have found this small production enthralling for that reason. It maintains a key illusory element, some would argue its sole attraction, in telling its science fiction-based allegory. Le Guin’s story has the ability to imagine, or re-imagine, this world — and ultimately question the results. The film makes a seemingly impossible story cogent for the time it takes to watch, and consequently lingers in the mind of the viewer.

Why the film retains its power even after all these decades.

Orr: “Don’t you see these things aren’t problems. They don’t have answers that you can find in your arithmetic book.”

Haber: “Defeatism! We were put here to make a better place.”

Orr: “Your attempts to use my dreams and make the world a better place can destroy it.”

The fact that dreams are the vehicle for change in the story makes it easy for who come across this film to connect with it. I mean, essentially, we’re all dreamers. Few us do not dream. Author Le Guin’s story line asked the question what would any of us do if given the god-like power to change the world. It doesn’t take much to grasp that dreams exists in the realm where our hopes and aspirations lie, along with our fears and darkness.

Le Guin cleverly juxtaposed this within a story that has the ability to make the whole of it happen. I ask you: who hasn’t secretly dreamt of this? Le Guin gave it light and a voice when she wrote it, and later when Thirteen/WNET adapted it to the screen. Would we not try to end war, starvation, injustice, and disease, if you had the capacity to do so? Or, would we self-aggrandize our own individual power and status? Here, the author shows us what any sane, well-intentioned human being would do.

Both.

“I don’t believe it! I tell you to dream away Man’s inhumanity to man, and what do you do?!? You unite the world against an alien invasion! What a stupid, wasteful way to get peace on Earth!”

The Lathe of Heaven, a marvelous title if there ever was one, revolved around three principal characters. George Orr (Bruce Davison) as the effective dreamer, and Dr. William Haber (Kevin Conway) as the oneirologist, the primary pair. Each represented the yin and yang of the story. George, the follower, a goes along to get along-type, while Haber is the striver. The doer. A man of intellect, drive and ambition that believes in “the greatest good for the greatest number.

I’m not forgetting the stunning Margaret Avery, mind you. Her character, Heather LeLache, was the pivot for Orr and his contention with Haber and his efforts to better the world within the story. Like the psychiatrist, Heather initially doubts Orr’s ability to change reality. “All the way back to the Stone Age.” Although, her character ultimately comes around to the realization, and becomes a focal interest for George.

The Beatles tune — the one suggested by the alien creatures who arrive on scene byway of an effective dream of George’s — With a Little Help From My Friends the film’s musical representation for their attraction to each other. She the impetus that finally moves the passive George to stop Haber from destroying the world, when the psychiatrist’s ego gets the better of him. As it must.

Haber: “You know what they say, neurotics build castles in the sky. Psychotic live in them.”

Heather: “And psychiatrists collect the rent.”

In the thirty years since its initial broadcast, The Lathe of Heaven has gathered a devoted faction of followers, including ordinary folk [me], high-profile fans like Tom Hanks, and many that are Ursula K. Le Guin admirers. Some conclude that its popularity (and cult status), prior to its release to DVD in August 2000, related to the simple fact that it was scarcely re-televised since its premiere. They rationalize the praise such a low-budget film has gathered was less critical and more nostalgically based.

PBS only had a small span of years where the film could initially be re-broadcast, which ended in 1988. There was likely a bit of truth there. However, I counter that with the shared opinion The Lathe of Heaven remains relevant decades later, and especially after multiple viewings. To be clear, most of the film remains open to interpretation. Plus, the filmmakers used the audience’s imagination to great effect by what they don’t show throughout the piece.

Credit, too, the screenwriters, which included Diane English, Roger Swaybill, and the author herself. They brought the dialogue on the screen, through these characters, to captivating life. Personally, the film’s imagery and straightforwardness reminds me of Chris Marker’s sci-fi classic, La jetée. As well, its ideas explore similar psychological terrain brought forth in the definitive Forbidden Planet (1956). That’s some heady company for such a small film rarely seen before 2000.

Finally, the simple fact was the story took precedence in the production. No grand special effects, or scene-chewing acting, masked a lack thereof. Something all too common in some of today’s sci-fi releases. The Lathe of Heaven worked, or failed, for you on the strength of the sci-fi parable Le Guin constructed over 30 years ago. And that is to be applauded.

Though it should be said, the leads in this thought-provoking tale all give more than solid performances. Especially Bruce Davison and Kevin Conway — both of whom have significant sci-fi chops. Their involvements in the genre, such as in the new Outer Limits series, respectively for White Light Fever and as the control voice, and in Star Trek spinoff series (Davison with ST:Voyager and ST:Enterprise episodes, and Conway as Kahless in the Rightful Heir episode of ST:TNG) proved that.

Furthermore, it’s important to note that there was no real villain in the piece. Again, something in common with the La jetée and Forbidden Planet narratives. The author presented viewers with only contrary versions of ourselves as she wove the tale. Le Guin has spoken out on the novel/film’s Taoist principles through the years, as well as its concepts regarding the symbolism of the turtles/aliens in her sci-fi tale.

As much as I gush about it here, is it a perfect film? Simply, no. The PBS film can be somewhat stage bound at times, and its low budget effects now seem crude in comparison. What’s more, viewers must bring an imagination to the table to have any chance in enjoying the experience. However, I see that as its strength, too. As film critic Pauline Kael famously wrote: “Great movies are rarely perfect movies.

Material and DVD note: The title for this work comes from a mistranslation of a writing by the Chinese philosopher, Chuang Tzu:

“To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.”

The author loved the quote and used it for the title. There were no lathes in China when that was written. From the 2000 DVD —

“The Lathe of Heaven was produced in 1979 for broadcast television. The original film materials have been lost forever. A new digital master was created from the surviving 2″ tape and was then color corrected using state-of-the-art technology. Ghosting and darkening of the images may appear in some scenes. It is the best quality transfer possible of this important work using the only surviving materials.”


  1. I’ve since gone back and updated this list for my AFI series, here
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