“A dream will always triumph over reality, once it is given the chance.” – Stanisław Lem
Considered by many to be one of the greatest films in the history of cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris marked a significant change in the approach to the genre of science fiction. The film, described as a ‘Soviet science fiction art film’, is based on Stanisław Lem’s 1961 novel of the same name and stars Donatas Banionis and Natalya Bondarchuk. It revolves around a psychologist who is sent to a space station orbiting a planet called Solaris to investigate the death of a doctor as well as the conflicted mental states of the other cosmonauts only to discover that the planet has a neurology of its own.
Although Tarkovsky’s adaptation wasn’t the first (a 1968 television movie of Solaris by Boris Nuremburg), it is certainly the most famous and has been immortalised for its contribution towards a better understanding of the cinematic medium. More than the science fiction elements in the film, Tarkovsky was interested in the human problem. This fundamental difference between their respective approaches contributed to the dispute between Lem and Tarkovsky.
In October of 1969, Lem met Tarkovsky and literary expert Lazar Lazarev at the Peking Hotel in Moscow to discuss the script. Lem was not receptive to the changes that Tarkovsky had envisioned for his adaptation and could not understand why Lazarev was present. The writer maintained that his novel already had everything needed for a film, ignoring Tarkovsky’s efforts to convince Lem that he knew what he was doing as a filmmaker. When Lazarev asked if Lem would like to watch one of Tarkovsky’s films, the writer coldly answered: “I don’t have the time for that.”
However, the meeting was ultimately fruitful because Lem gave in and allowed them to go ahead with the project. The writer said that it was a matter of principle to not forbid anything but apart from that, he was openly against Tarkovsky’s vision. Insisting that he did not write the book about “people’s erotic problems in space”, Lem recalled the meeting between the two creative geniuses: “Tarkovsky and I had a healthy argument. I sat in Moscow for six weeks while we argued about how to make the movie, then I called him a ‘durak’ [‘idiot’ in Russian] and went home.”
Tarkovsky clarified what it was that attracted him to the source material, “My decision to make a screen adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris was not a result of my interest in science fiction. The essential reason was that in Solaris, Lem undertook a moral problem I can closely relate to. The deeper meaning of Lem’s novel does not fit within the confines of science fiction. To discuss only the literary form is to limit the problem. This is a novel not only about the clash between human reason and the Unknown but also about moral conflicts set in motion by new scientific discoveries.”
Lem’s primary problem with Tarkovsky’s version was that the filmmaker focused his investigation on the philosophical implications of the sentient ocean on the human rather than the ocean itself. The Polish novelist dismissed Tarkovsky’s film as a sci-fi Crime and Punishment rather than a Solaris adaptation. Due to the fact that Lem’s concerns did not align with Tarkovsky’s, both the film and the book have become separate literary entities in their own rights. Lem’s Solaris gazes out into the depths of the universe and tries to formulate an accurate picture of an extraterrestrial system by transcending the limited human framework of thought whereas Tarkovsky believed that this otherworldly tale had more to say about the human species and the functioning of its fragmented psyche.
As Tarkovsky put it, “It’s about new morality arising as a result of those painful experiences we call ‘the price of progress.’ For Kelvin that price means having to face directly his own pangs of conscience in a material form. Kelvin does not change the principles of his conduct, he remains himself, which is the source of a tragic dilemma in him.”