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THE LATHE OF HEAVEN
The legendary PBS adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin's novel, saved from oblivion.
By Frederick C. Szebin
November 21, 2000
Some movies gather a legend on the very basis that no one ever gets to see them. This happened to The Lathe of Heaven
, the PBS adaptation to Ursula K. Le Guin's very fine novel about George Orr, a man who had the ability to 'dream effectively'that is, to dream of an incident that would become a new reality for everyone else on the planet. In the story, only George (Bruce Davison) could remember what the world was like before his dream, but Dr. Haber (Kevin Conway), thanks to his dream-enhancing machine, began to believe George, and use his dreaming ability to remake the world in his own image.
Produced in 1979, The Lathe of Heaven
became the most requested production of Public Television's library, but it stayed on a shelf for nearly 20 years because no one at WNET was interested in dealing with the legal hurdles. Now that those are out of the way, New Video has released this highly anticipated film, digitally remastered for DVD. But there is a problem. The original film materials have been lost. A surviving 2-inch tape was color corrected using the best in technology, but that doesn't guarantee a superior image. Ghosting, a latent image or color trail left by a moving person or object on screen, could not be corrected. Fortunately, this ghosting does not get in the way of one of the best SF adaptations ever made.
Even with its low budget (around a quarter of a million dollars), directors David Loxton and Fred Barzyk made an instant classic out of Roger E. Swaybill's and Diane English's script. And the fact that the production company kept in nearly constant contact with author Le Guin insured that nothing from the novel was taken for granted. The result is a film of ideas rather than action, as Barzyk said in the retrospective article on the making of The Lathe of Heaven
(see editorial link at bottom). While the minuscule budget didn't grant the filmmakers the grandeur of some of Le Guin's set pieces in the novel, such as the alien invasion or the melting of Portland, the film's strength comes from its performers and the suspenseful concepts in the writing.
There is not much on the DVD in the way of extras, except for a very nice interview with Le Guin, conducted by Bill Moyers, who is obviously a fan. The talk with the author is a treat since Le Guin is notoriously shy and private. She discusses the beginnings of the film project; she admits didn't believe the novel would make a good movie since 'nothing happens in it; things un-happen.' She would have preferred The Left Hand of Darkness,
which is much more visually-oriented andshe adds with a laugh'much more expensive!' Le Guin was on the set and marveled at 'the choreography of film making, which she saw as a beautiful example of total cooperation between people of different specialties.
The interview is insightful and amusing. Le Guin analyzes her own work, and warns that her interpretation of her writing may not be the right one. One of the most interesting moments of the interview is when she tries to describe the almost mystical process of writing. She doesn't create characters, she says; they find her
and tell her what they have to do, even when it contradicts the author's intentions.
Le Guin is genuinely charming in the interview, sometimes self-effacing, other times very sure of what she has done. The rest of the extras are simple: scene access, a biography of Le Guin, but not of anyone in the film, which is a shame. Stars Bruce Davison, Kevin Conway and Margaret Avery are all quite good here; it would have been nice to hear from them and from director Barzyk, as well. There is also a slight bit of information on New Video, the company that rescued The Lathe of Heaven
from obscurity and probable destruction. This is possibly the first in a series of such DVD's that bring forth other such productions. More power to them.
Don't let the technical problems scare you away from this disc. The ghosting is something you can get used to. It shouldn't be enough to stop you from viewing this most important and entertaining SF work, made by people who knew how to adapt an excellent novel and do it right, when productions with more money than has ever been seen at PBS still don't know how to tell a good story.