Of course, neither adaptation quite captures the essence of Lem’s novel, but that is an entirely different issue. Indeed, it may be impossible to “faithfully” adapt that book to the screen; the only way into it is probably the route that Soderbergh and Tarkovsky took, bringing their own perspectives to bear on the basic plot. The novel is very dense, very textual and abstract. Kelvin spends a lot of time in the station’s library, reading through stacks of Solaris literature in order to review the various theories and observations about the planet by other researchers. The book is as much about Solaris as it is about Kelvin; the planet is a true character in a way it isn’t in either film. The history of humanity’s interaction with Solaris is discussed in great depth and detail. There are long passages that are strikingly impersonal and objective, using scientific jargon and meticulous cataloguing to convey the exact nature and extent of the alien ocean’s strangeness—and the exact boundaries of humanity’s understanding of it.
One source of my disappointment with Soderbergh’s adaptation is certainly the sense of missed opportunities. He presumably had access to sophisticated CGI and could’ve really explored the oceanic phenomena described so wonderfully by Lem, but instead the images of the planet in Soderbergh’s film aren’t substantially any different than what Tarkovsky achieved by crudely processing images of Earth’s oceans. They’re pictorial inserts, whereas Lem’s precise descriptions of the ocean directly engage with the special problems provoked by the ocean’s unique nature.
The book communicates a sense of wonder at the unknown, but a sense of terror as well, in that humanity is constantly seeking answers without really wanting to hear them unless they conform to what’s already known. In Lem’s book, the ocean represents a terrifying unknown so alien to human understanding that the only possible way to respond is to observe, to catalogue, to maintain an objective pose, obsessively arranging details with no hope of arriving at any deeper truths.
Given his particular obsessions, Tarkovsky naturally translated this idea into spiritual terms, using the ocean as a metaphorical God to slip by the Soviet censors, but for Lem the ocean’s unknowability is explicitly not religious or God-like. Kelvin himself rejects the idea late in the novel. Lem is more interested in the metaphysical implications of it all, the idea that the pursuit of “progress” is actually just man’s search for himself. The ocean represents a challenge to humanity, something so un-human as to be beyond our ability to comprehend, beyond any question of divining its intentions or reasons or “intellect.” I’m not sure Tarkovsky gets this idea across, and I know Soderbergh doesn’t; both directors are way more interested in exploring Kelvin’s reactions to his visitor and the feelings of loss and guilt awakened in him by her presence.
There’s a reason that even most of the aliens in our fantasies and sci-fi tend to be humanoid or at least demonstrate recognizable human behaviors and motivations. It’s rare that our science fiction features a truly unfathomable creation like Solaris; instead, our imaginations keep devising endless variations on ourselves, disguised and reworked. Even in books and movies, we travel halfway across the universe to encounter a mirror. It’s thus ironic but not especially surprising that both directors who have adapted Solaris, in very different cultural and commercial contexts, have responded by psychologizing the central problem, making it about human emotions and reactions rather than the humbling encounter with an impenetrable alien intelligence. This only proves Lem’s point: we humans are extraordinarily skittish in confronting that which is truly outside us.
JB: We agree on that. Indeed, whether it’s due to fear, ego, lack of imagination or something else, we seem to be seeking mirrors. At least, that’s what much of our art suggests. I think it’s funny, with all that we know about space and science today, that we still tend to imagine that the discovery of alien life—or alien life’s discovery of us—will unfold in the same manner as Columbus reaching the New World. This seems increasingly unlikely.
If you’d kindly indulge me for a moment: The sci-fi movie I’m waiting for wouldn’t involve space expeditions or high tech machinery. Instead, one day people across the East Coast would notice in the night sky a strange light that would look like a distant planet except that it would flicker, almost like Morse code. The point of light would narrow until it was almost unnoticeable and then it would widen again. It would do this repeatedly all night, and humans would be transfixed by it. By morning, there would be no doubt that this light was something else. People on the West Coast and all around the world would see the light, too. Two days later scientists would admit that they didn’t know anything, couldn’t explain anything. But, with studies ongoing, everyone would agree that this was a signal from some other world. Some would say that this light forecasted immanent doom, and others would suggest that it was the first message in a hopefully peaceful relationship that, due to the enormity of space, might evolve for generations before it led to any kind of face-to-face encounter. But everyone would agree that man wasn’t alone in the universe. With no way to decode the message, the light would communicate only that something smarter than us, something more advanced than us and something more aware than us was reaching out to us. This would be heavy. Imagine yourself in that scenario. Imagine if tomorrow you encountered undeniable evidence that some life form more advanced than man was out there watching us. Every other element in your life would be exactly the same as it is right now except for this one monumental and yet presently innocuous change. How would you react? How would I? How would anyone? What would it mean? I think that would make for an interesting film. But I digress.
I mention all of that because I think that germ of a story, within the context of our larger conversation, indicates how staunchly we believe ourselves to be the most advanced species in existence and how truly stunned we’d be if we were proven incorrect. Lem’s story, as you describe it, has unique qualities, I give you that. But in the end it’s just like any other sci-fi yarn in that it asks us to buy into something greater than man. Deep down, I’m not sure most of us are capable of believing such a thing—God-fearers excluded. And so while I respect all the ways that Soderbergh seems to have abandoned Lem’s intent as you’ve outlined it, in the end doesn’t he get it right? If the unfathomable Solaris is the device that reveals the fraudulence of man’s search for progress, then isn’t Solaris the ultimate mirror within which man is reflected back at himself? Isn’t Lem’s Solaris a story about man after all?
EH: Of course it is. As we’ve both suggested, we humans are probably not capable, psychologically or cognitively or whatever, of telling stories that aren’t about ourselves. It’s hard to even imagine what other kinds of stories we would tell. I suppose Lem’s as trapped by that as any of the rest of us, and so are you in the very interesting story you outlined above, which is, yet again, all about humanity’s reaction to aliens. I think the interesting thing about Lem’s Solaris is that it acknowledges being trapped by this limitation, it is in fact all about this limitation, about humanity’s oft-ignored limits and boundaries. It’s about our belief in our thought processes, our certainty in the scientific method, and about what happens when we encounter something that cannot be understood, something that simply ties our brains in knots trying to decode it or communicate with it. In a very literal way in Lem’s novel, Solaris is the blinking light in the sky that you describe above; it inspires decades of research and theorizing and just sits there, doing its own strange thing, through it all. What makes Lem’s novel unique is not that it gets beyond a human perspective, which is impossible for us, but that it directly engages with the limits of the human perspective.