Solaris (1968)

Director: Boris Nirenburg

I’m having one of my periodic reading jags at the moment; I’m in the mood for books rather than films. Got through eight books since the start of January, whereas the only thing I’ve watched since that review of Zelig was an afternoon TV screening of The Maltese Falcon on Saturday. Great film, of course, but no need for me to review it again.

So one thing I’ve been doing lately is haunting Amazon.com.au, the Australian branch of Amazon that only sells Kindle ebooks. I’ve kind of gone the e-book route for new purchases for an assortment of reasons, not the least important of which is the decreasing amount of space I have for actual hard copy books. Price is also a consideration, it should be said. There are certain publishers like Valancourt Books and Black Coat Press who have fascinating catalogues (the former specialises in original 1790s-1820s gothic novels, the latter in 19th century French SF) I’d like to explore but I don’t really have the space for all the books I want to read nor the money for them. Their electronic editions may be less, you know, nice than their print versions, but eh. I paid, for example, $6.25 for one of Black Coat’s ebooks that would’ve set me back nearly $21 if I bought the physical book. And that’s if I bought through Book Depository, who are themselves selling it cheaper than the RRP of $24.44. You see why I went electronic. (It’s also a damn sight easier to dispose of the book and get money back for it if I find I don’t like it…)

This is all by way of introduction to our subject proper: the 1968 Russian TV adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. Bear with me.

So I was browsing for Penguin Classics. Saw they have an edition of Lem’s Cyberiad due later this year. That sent me in search of Lem’s other works. Unfortunately most of the electronic editions are in Spanish, but they do have a new translation of Solaris (the old one, translated from the French translation of Lem’s Polish original, was condemned by Lem himself and seems to be widely considered crap). I bought that, cos, you know, only a bit over five dollars. Then I went to Wikipedia, cos I didn’t actually know much about Lem beyond his reputation (I read a story by him in an anthology once)… and there I read this sentence: “He is known as the author of the 1961 novel Solaris, which has been made into a feature film three times.”

Hang on… THREE?

Tarkovsky, yes, Soderbergh, yes… who was the third one?

So I followed the appropriate links, and there I discovered the existence of the FIRST screen adaptation of Solaris, Boris Nirenburg’s production for Soviet state TV. Which the Wiki page told me was on DVD, but apparently only in Russia. Hmm, I wondered, could this thing possibly be on Youtube? A quick search revealed it not only could be, it WAS—subtitled in English, too, which I don’t suppose the Russian DVD would be. Admittedly, the subtitles did prove to be a bit wobbly, as I expected they might, but they weren’t an insurmountable obstacle.

Now, I’ve not actually read the book yet, but wanted to get into the TV version anyway; I gather that, despite Lem’s carping about how the film versions told his story (“to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space”), Nirenburg actually remains more faithful to it than either Messrs Tarkovsky or Soderbergh; no lengthy preludes on Earth or anything like that. That said, I don’t suppose Nirenburg’s budget would’ve actually extended to anything of that sort in any case; if I’d ever wondered what a 1960s episode of Doctor Who in Russian might look like, I suppose this could be it (I’m presuming, owing to a few tell-tale signs, that it was in fact shot probably in much the same way as 60s Who, i.e. on video in long takes with multiple cameras, and the source material for this release is a 16mm telerecording). It’s kind of rudimentary on the technological level, maybe even more so than I’d thought it might be; come to think of it, I’m not even sure if there’s a shot of the planet Solaris itself (there’s one bit in the first part that I think was meant to represent it, but I don’t know).

The pace is somewhat more grinding than even 60s Who could be, though, which is probably its major issue; at 142 minutes it’s not too far off the length of Tarkovsky’s version despite not containing any of the stuff he introduced. It is kind of wilting stuff. On the plus side, Nirenburg actually does achieve some not bad moments of semi-horror; there’s an atmosphere on the station that borders on the gothic at times. It’s not bad on the whole, but I suspect it’s mainly now of comparative interest; Tarkovsky’s film might be less faithful to Lem’s book but it works rather better as a production in its own right. Still, I’d rather watch this again than the Soderbergh version…

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