Hunter S. Thompson‘s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of those books long thought unfilmable, only to result in a movie that seemed to confirm all of that skepticism.
If you know that trick that a lot of comedies do in which the characters get stoned, and the camera tries to recreate the sensation of being stoned for five or ten minutes? Fear and Loathing is like an entire movie made up of those scenes.
Directed by Terry Gilliam, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas starred longtime Thompson buddy Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke, the famous gonzo journalist’s multimedia alter ego. Based on Thompson’s novel from 1971 — and likely to some degree something that really happened — the film was a huge flop upon its release, but has since developed something of a cult fanbase.
The film begins with, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” Indeed, it tells the story of Duke and his sidekick “Dr. Gonzo” (Benicio Del Toro) driving from Los Angeles to Vegas, where Duke is on assignment covering a motorcycle race, and later a convention of district attorneys.
Fear and Loathing is largely plotless, and about half the dialogue consists of the characters doing drugs, talking about drugs, and acting out the appearance of being on drugs. Much of the film is set at what’s now the Circus Circus casino (I’ve been there, and it’s one of those places that makes one feel like they’re on drugs even when they’re not).
Thompson was the world’s leading practitioner of gonzo journalism, which involved immersing one’s self in a subject, centering their own point of view, and (at least in his case) being high out of his mind while doing so.
One real weakness of the film is that actually seeing this stuff in real-time isn’t as interesting as writing Thompson’s words about it. The one really great scene in the movie is the one that actually shows him writing and cranking out great prose:
There are tons of cameos, including Tobey Maguire as a mute hitchhiker, Cameron Diaz as a TV reporter, Ellen Barkin and Gary Busey. Christina Ricci, who was everywhere in 1998, plays a young woman who falls into their orbit.
I might be interested in a sequel, in which the editors at Rolling Stone receive Duke’s copy and try to make sense of it. Of course, if the events of this movie happened now, the movie would probably end with Raoul Duke being sent to rehab.
The movie also has one not-so-positive legacy: It popularized the idea of adrenochrome, a chemical that the movie (and the book before it) treated like a drug. If you’re familiar with the Qanon mythology, they believe Hollywood and political elites kill small children and harvest their adrenochrome.
Hunter S. Thompson, after living out his final days as an ESPN.com columnist of all things, died of suicide in 2005. Depp bankrolled Thompson’s $3 million funeral — which ended with the writer’s remains being shot out of a cannon — and narrated the subsequent Alex Gibney documentary about him, called Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Depp went on to play Thompson again in the posthumous adaptation of his novel The Rum Diary.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is available on all major VOD platforms.