Stanisław Lem’s Critique on Solaris, Tarkovsky and Soderbergh

Polish author, philosopher and physician Stanisław Herman Lem (12 September 1921 – 27 March 2006) is one of the most read and best known writers of science fiction around the world. He is perhaps most famed for his 1961 novel, Solaris. The book is a masterpiece of the 20th century. It includes themes of the nature of memory, human sensory experience and the inadequacy of communication between human and non-human species. Solaris has been adapted to cinema on three occasions – in 1968 in a made-for-TV Soviet film directed by Boris Nirenburg, most famously in a loose-adaptation of the plot by the great Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, and most recently by Steven Soderbergh, produced by James Cameron in 2002.

Lem himself had a very negative observation on these three adaptations. And while the first is considered to have best followed the plot points of the book, the lack of originality and poor quality of production has made it fall into obscurity over the years. The 1972 adaptation by one of the masters of cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky, is perhaps the best known of the three. However, Lem believed they all failed to capture the extraordinary physical and psychological “alienness” of the mysterious, sentient planet of Solaris. Here is his commentary:

Solaris Tarkovsky Poster

Lem on Tarkovsky and his 1971 adaptation:

“I have fundamental reservations to this adaptation. First of all I would have liked to see the planet Solaris which the director unfortunately denied me as the film was to be a cinematically subdued work. And secondly — as I told Tarkovsky during one of our quarrels — he didn’t make Solaris at all, he made Crime and Punishment. What we get in the film is only how this abominable Kelvin has driven poor Harey to suicide and then he has pangs of conscience which are amplified by her appearance; a strange and incomprehensible appearance. This phenomenalistics of Harey’s subsequent appearances was for me an exemplification of certain concept which can be derived almost from Kant himself. Because there exists the Ding an sich, the Unreachable, the Thing-in-Itself, the Other Side which cannot be penetrated. But in my prose this was made apparent and orchestrated completely differently… I have to make it clear, however, that I haven’t seen the whole film except for 20 minutes of the second part although I know the screenplay very well because Russians have a custom of making an extra copy for the author.
And what was just totally awful, Tarkovsky introduced Kelvin’s parents into the film, and even some Auntie of his. But above all the mother — because mother is mat’, and mat’ is Rossiya, Rodina, Zemlya. [Russia, Motherland, Earth] This has made me already quite mad. At this moment we were like two horses pulling the carriage in opposite directions. Incidentally, the same thing later happened to the Strugatskys when Tarkovsky made Stalker based on The Roadside Picnic and dished up the sort of stew nobody understands but the stew is duly sad and gloomy instead. Tarkovsky reminds me of a sergeant from the time of Turgenev — he is very pleasant and extremely prepossessing and at the same time visionary and elusive. One cannot “catch” him anywhere because he is always at a slightly different place already. This is simply the type of person he is. When I understood that I stopped bothering. This director cannot be reshaped anymore, and first of all one cannot convince him of anything as he is going to recast everything in his “own way” no matter what.
The whole sphere of cognitive and epistemological considerations was extremely important in my book and it was tightly coupled to the solaristic literature and to the essence of solaristics as such. Unfortunately, the film has been robbed of those qualities rather thoroughly. Only in small bits and through the tracking camera shots we discover the fates of those present at the station but these fates should not be any existential anecdote either but a grand question concerning man’s position in Cosmos, etc.
My Kelvin decides to stay on the planet without any hope whatsoever while Tarkovsky created an image where some kind of an island appears, and on that island a hut. And when I hear about the hut and the island I’m beside myself with irritation… This is just some emotional sauce into which Tarkovsky has submerged his heroes, not to mention that he has completely amputated the scientific landscape and in its place introduced so much of the weirdness I cannot stand.”

Solaris 2002 Soderbergh Poster

Lem on Soderbergh and his 2002 adaptation:

Lem considered Soderbergh’s adaptation as a “remake of the Tarkovsky movie” and again, accused it of not being able to capture the novel.  He criticized the film, which he believed strayed from his original intentions and philosophy of the novel by focusing almost exclusively on the psychological relationship between the two main characters, while reducing the vast and alien ocean to a mere “mirror” of humanity. Here is his essay on Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 adaptation:

“After the premiere of this remake of the Tarkovsky movie I read a number of critical reviews, which appeared in American press.  The divergence of opinions and interpretations was enormous.  The Americans in a somewhat childish manner “grade” films just like children’s papers in school.  Hence there were critics who gave Soderbergh’s “Solaris” an “A”, the majority agreed on a “B” and some gave it a “C”.

Some reviewers, like the one from the “New York Times”, claim the film was a “love story” – a romance set in outer space.  I have not seen the film and I am not familiar with the script, hence I cannot say anything about the movie itself except for what the reviews reflect, albeit unclearly – like a distorted picture of one’s face in ripply water.  However, to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space…

I cannot say anything reasonable about its creation – the book somehow “poured out of me” without any previous planning and I even had difficulties with the ending.  However since I wrote it over forty years ago, from today’s perspective I perceive it in a much more objective and rational way.  I am also capable of finding analogies to other works, located in high regions of the world literature.  Melville’s “Moby Dick” could serve as an example; on the surface the book describes the history of a whaling ship and Capitan Ahab’s pernicious quest for the white whale.  Initially the critics destroyed the novel as meaningless and unsuccessful – after all why care about some whale the captain most likely would have converted into a number of cutlets and barrels full of animal fat?  Only after great analytical efforts the critics discovered that the message of “Moby Dick” was neither animal fat nor even harpoons.  Since much deeper, symbolic layers were found, in libraries Melville’s work was removed from the “Adventures at Sea” section and placed elsewhere.

Had Solaris dealt with love of a man for a woman – no matter whether on Earth on in Space – it would not have been entitled “Solaris“!  Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, an Americanized Hungarian specializing in literary studies called his analysis “The Book is the Alien”.  Indeed, in Solaris I attempted to present the problem of an encounter in Space with a form of being that is neither human nor humanoid.

Science fiction almost always assumed the aliens we meet play some kind of game with us the rules of which we sooner or later may understand (in most cases the “game” was the strategy of warfare).  However I wanted to cut all threads leading to the personification of the Creature, i.e. the Solarian Ocean, so that the contact could not follow the human, interpersonal pattern – although it did take place in some strange manner.  The method I used in the novel to demonstrate this was the particular outcome of the interest of people, who for over one hundred years have been studying the planet “Solaris” and the ocean covering its surface.

One should not speak of a “thinking” or a “non-thinking” Ocean, however the Ocean certainly was active, undertook some voluntary actions and was capable of doing things which were entirely alien to the human domain.  Eventually, when it got the attention of little ants that struggled above its surface, it did so in a radical way.  It penetrated the superficial established manners, conventions and methods of linguistic communication, and entered, in its own way, into minds of the people of the Solaris Station and revealed what was deeply hidden in each of them:  a reprehensible guilt, a tragic event from the past suppressed by the memory, a secret and shameful desire.  In some cases the reader remains unaware of what has been revealed; what we know is that in each case it was capable of incarnation and physical creation of a being the hidden secret was connected to. Ocean’s actions lead one of the scientists to an emotional distress that ended in a suicide, others isolated themselves.  When Kris Kelvin initially arrived at the Station he was unable to understand what was going on: all were hiding and in the corridor he encountered one of the phantoms – a giant Black woman in a reed skirt with whom the suicide Gibarian presumably had been conflicted.

Kelvin’s recklessness and imprudent behavior in the past had not prevented the suicide of his beloved woman Harey.  He buried her on Earth and in a sense he buried her in his mind as well – until the Ocean made her come back at the “Solaris” Station.

The Ocean appears quite stubborn in his ways:  the creatures, a kind of remorse of the Station’s scientists, cannot be gotten rid of – even those sent into space come back…  Kelvin initially tried to kill Harey; later he accepted her presence and tried to play the role he had to abandon on Earth – of her beloved man.

The vision of the Planet “Solaris” was very important for me.  Why was it important?  The Solarian globe was not just any sphere surrounded by some jelly – it was an active being (although a non-human one).  It neither built nor created anything translatable into our language that could have been “explained in translation”.  Hence a description had to be replaced by analysis – (obviously an impossible task) – of the internal workings of the Ocean’s ego.  This gave rise to symetriads, asymetriads and mimoids – strange semi-constructions scientists were unable to understand; they could only describe them in a mathematically meticulous manner, and this was the sole purpose of the growing Solarian library – the result of over a hundred years’ efforts to enclose in folios what was not human and beyond human comprehension; what could not have been translated into human language – or into anything else.

One of the reviewers admitted he would prefer to see Tarkovsky’s Solaris one more time.  Others speculated that while the producer won’t make a lot of money and there will be no crowd at the box office, the film belongs to the genre of a more ambitious science fiction – since no one got murdered and neither star wars, nor space-werewolves nor Schwarzenegger’s Terminators were present.  In the US an atmosphere filled with very concrete expectations usually accompanies the release of every new film.  I found it interesting that although my book is quite old – almost half a century means a lot in present times – someone wanted to take the risk despite the fact that the plot did not meet the above mentioned expectations. (Along the way he might have gotten scared a bit, but the latter is a pure speculation on my part.)

The book ends in a romantic‑tragic way; the girl herself wished to be annihilated, not wanting to be an instrument with the help of which the one she truly loves is being studied by some unknown power.  Her annihilation takes place unbeknownst to Kelvin – with the help of one of Space Stations’ residents.  The Soderbergh movie supposedly has a different, more optimistic finale.  If this were the case this would signify a concession to the stereotypes of American thinking regarding science fiction.  It seems that these deep, concrete ruts of thinking cannot be avoided: either there is a happy ending or a space catastrophe.  This may have been the reason for the touch of disappointment in some of the critics’ reviews – they expected the girl created by the ocean to turn into a fury, a witch or a sorceress who would devour the main character, while worms and other filth would crawl out of her intestines.

Solaris was submitted to the next year’s Berlin film festival and in Poland the film will be shown only after the festival is over.  Polish distributors obtained a copy of the movie, however I am not that eager to see it.

The information that Soderbergh started filming my novel (although no one knew what the film would be like) crated an increase in publishers’ interest from different countries.  In Germany Bertelsmann took over “Solaris”, while the Danes, Norwegians, Koreans and an Arabic publishing house (from Syria) – also expressed interest in that title.  Publishers also inquire about my other works.  However all of this is only a side effect and has nothing to do with the novel itself.

Summing up, as Solaris‘ author I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images.  This is why the book was entitled “Solaris” and not Love in Outer Space.”

-Stanislaw Lem, December 8th, 2002

Stanisław Lem’s Critique on Solaris, Tarkovsky and Soderbergh
1. The official website of Stanisław Lem, maintained by his estate:
2. Book: Stanisław Bereś, Rozmowy ze Stanisławem Lemem, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Cracow 1987, ISBN 8308016561