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The Lathe of Heaven
Review by Ernest Lilley
New Video Group DVD  ISBN/ITEM#: B00004U8P6
Date: 05 April 2013 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: IMDB Listing / Netflix DVD listing / GoodReads Discussion Group / Show Official Info /

We ran this review of the 1980 PBS version of Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven back in 2000, but I've reformatted it for our current issue and re-posted it to coincide with a discussion group on GoodReads (see links). The movie has a remarkable history, having been shown only once, but sought after for literally decades after. It's still a great piece of work, a minimalist adaptation of the classic novel, and though no novel survives film adaptation completely, this one does a pretty good job.

Although I don't know of anywhere it's available online, and Amazon's listing is sold out, you can find third party sellers who have a copy there. You can also get it from Netflix (see link), though not on their instant play. Personally, I'm reluctant to see the 2002 remake of this, starring James Caan as George Orr, and I'm evidently not alone. Amazon's "What do others buy after seeing this?" states that 99% who view the 2002 page buy the original, though one expects that means of those who buy anything. Still.

Note: The DVD version contains an excellent interview with Ursula Le Guin by Bill Moyers. They cover what SF is, the conflicts in the film, the difference between writing for film or books and how Le Guin writes. She also talks about her transition from writing male protagonists to writing female protagonists and her feminist conversion.

NEW VIDEO GROUP Run Time: 100 minutes
Theatrical Release Date: June 9, 1980
DVD Release Date: August 29, 2000
Based on the novel: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula LeGuin
Writers: Diane English, Ursula K. Le Guin (novel), Roger Swaybill
Cast: Bruce Davison (George Orr), Kevin Conway (Dr. William Haber), Margaret Avery (Heather LeLache)
Director: David R. Loxton, Fred Barzyk

20 years ago PBS made their first TV movie on a shoestring budge of $250,000 which was small even then. Since then, it's been the most requested film in the PBS archive. The film was an adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin's novel The Lathe of Heaven and gained an instant following. In the mysterious ways of public TV, it then disappeared almost completely and when someone was found to have a copy of an airing it became hot tender, with requests going out on the net for a copy.

Update 2013: The reason that the movie was unavailable for two decades turns out to be that the use of the Beatles song, "I Get by with a Little Help from My Friends," violated their copyright. Only by changing the version to one "by another vocalist" could the film be reissued. A fine piece of irony is that there was a power outage in the Northwest during the original showing, which the author was watching, or trying to, until the lights went out. - Ern
Maybe that's a good thing, because it's given the film a "lost city" sort of appeal, vaguely remembered but something you'd recommend in a minute but tantalizingly out of reach.

Bruce Davison stars as George Orr, a young man living in the near future who has a problem with his dreams. Unlike most of us, when he dreams the world changes. You may remember seeing Bruce recently in X-Men, playing the Mutant Hating Senator who becomes what he fears. For the actor, that means he's come full circle, since in this film he is the one who's different at the start and only gradually finds his place.

"Do you trust me, George?" asks Dr.Haber, the dream specialist he is sent to when he has been found abusing his auto-pharmacy card for dream suppressants. Haber of course doesn't believe in "effective dreams" and immediately puts him into a REM state through hypnosis and asks George to dream an effective dream about a horse...and we're off.

The film's pacing and surreal cuts from one reality to the next are wonderful. Haber is slowly drawn into George's reality, but slowly, kicking and screaming at first, then with an eager evangelists desire to change the world for the better.

The film becomes a vehicle for Le Guin to explore all sorts of changes to the world, mankind, and our place in the cosmos. Each change has the air of a bargain with the devil, and things are never as simple as we wish.

Ultimately, the moral of the story is one of the futility of control, Tao over Confucius. Coping with chaos over control. Don't push the river, it flows by itself, Le Guin reminds us... and here the river is reality.

Haber's save the world attitude changes a lot, but when the universe is pushed, it pushes back. I'd love for you to see this wonderful piece of work, so I won't go any further, lest I take the fun away from it. Oh, yes, read the book too. It's a bit different than the movie, but like 2001 both movie and book are internally consistent and neither invalidates the other. Ultimately, like all good films, there is a showdown between the film's protagonists, Haber with a machine that mimics Orr's ability, and Orr with the understanding that changing worlds isn't the job of man.

Set in Portland but filmed actually among the futuristic concrete buildings of Dallas, the movie still looks like a future, and as things change it looks like a number of futures. The great thing is that this is all done on a limited budget, but it isn't held back by it. My kind of movie. It's the Wonderfully thoughtful SF of the sort that made me fall in love with Le Guin's work in the first place. Life isn't simple, but it's a rich tapestry, and you can get by with the help of your friends.

A lot of the dreams we see here are from the past, clashing with the future of the last 20 years. Can you pick a future to live in? Who's right? Who's wrong? Le Guin clearly comes down on the side of consensual reality, and a refrain from hubris...which is hubris in itself. Like any good piece of SF it raises as many questions as it answers, but Le Guin's Taoist vision is seductive for very good reasons. Did I mention you should see the film?

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