Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

From Academic Kids

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Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro in the film adaption of Hunter S. Thompson's book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a novel by Hunter S. Thompson. The story follows its protagonist, Raoul Duke, and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, as they descend on Las Vegas to chase the American dream through a drug-induced haze. Duke and Gonzo were sendups of Thompson himself and Chicano lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta respectively.

The book is a fictionalized account of Thompson's coverage of the Mint 400 motocross race for Sports Illustrated magazine in 1971, for which he was contracted to write photo captions. Prior to being asked to cover the race, Thompson was in Los Angeles reporting on the murder of Reuben Salazar and the race riots that resulted from his death. Acosta was a prominent figure in the Chicano community and therefore a natural source for Thompson's story. Finding it difficult for a Hispanic to talk openly to a white reporter in LA's tense atmosphere, Thompson and Acosta decided Las Vegas would be a more comfortable place to complete the story (later published as Strange Rumblings in Aztlan).

What was intended as a 250-word photo captioning job snowballed into a novel-length feature for Rolling Stone magazine in November 1971. The text was eventually published as Fear and Loathing. The novel was heralded as the "best book on the dope decade" by the New York Times and a "scorching epochal sensation" by author Tom Wolfe. The film version was released on May 22, 1998. It only earned about $10.5 million at the US box office (it was budgeted at approximately $18.5 million) but has since become a cult classic.

In his book The Great Shark Hunt, Thompson refers to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as "a failed experiment in gonzo journalism," a guerrilla style of reporting that Thompson championed and publicized throughout his career. Allegedly based on William Faulkner's idea that "the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism — and the best journalists know this," it blends storytelling, fiction, and traditional journalism.


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A screenshot from the Fear and Loathing movie

The book was an attempt to place the radical activism and drug culture of the 1960s into context. It explores the idea that 1971 was a turning point in hippie and drug culture in America, the year that the innocence and optimism of the late 1960s turned to cynicism. Some have suggested that the book's themes resemble those of The Great Gatsby, which deals with the state of the American Dream and the lives of the rich and careless. Some have suggested that the white Cadillac the pair drive (referred to as the White Whale in the book) is an allusion to the white whale in Moby Dick, symbolically representative of good and evil and a metaphor for elements of life that are out of peoples' control.

Film version (1998)

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The film version was directed by Terry Gilliam and starred Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke and Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo. The lead actors undertook extraordinary preparations for their respective roles. Del Toro gained more than forty pounds before filming began, and extensively researched Acosta's life. Depp lived with Thompson for months, doing research for the role as well as studying Thompson's habits and mannerisms. Depp even traded his car for Thompson's red Cadillac convertible, known to fans as the Great Red Shark, and drove it around California during his preparations for the role. Many articles of the costumes that Depp wears in the film are genuine pieces borrowed directly from Thompson, and Thompson himself shaved Depp's head to match his own natural male pattern baldness. Thompson also appears in a brief cameo in the film as his character, portrayed by Depp, has a flashback to a San Francisco music club, The Matrix, where Thompson can be seen sitting at a table as Depp walks by commenting "Mother of God! There I am!".

Both actors were cast by the film's original director, Alex Cox, who wrote the original screenplay with his longtime collaborator, Tod Davies. When Gilliam became director of the project, he rejected the Cox/Davies screenplay. Thompson himself disliked it and did not approve of Cox's approach to the movie. Gilliam then decided to attempt his own screenplay with collaborator Tony Grisoni. When the film approached release, Gilliam learned that the Writers Guild of America (WGA) would not allow Alex Cox's and Tod Davies' names to be removed from the credits even though none of their material was used in the production of the film. Angered over having to share credit, Gilliam left the WGA and, on certain early premiere prints of the film, made a short introductory sequence in which an anonymous presenter assures the audience that no screenwriters were involved in writing the film, despite what it says in the credits.

Thompson's disapproval of the Cox/Davies script treatment is documented in the film Breakfast with Hunter, wherein he rails against the writers for planning an animated portrayal of the "wave speech" in the original book, which he considered "probably the finest thing I've ever written." By the time Fear and Loathing was released on the Criterion Collection DVD in 2003, Thompson showed his approval of the Gilliam version by recording a full-length audio commentary for the movie as well participating in several DVD special features.

The 1980 film 'Where the Buffalo Roam' was based on several Thompson pieces including Fear and Loathing. The movie, though not a strict adaptation of the book, was directed by Art Linson from a screenplay by John Kaye and starred Bill Murray as Thompson and Peter Boyle as Acosta, renamed "Carl Lazlo" for the screen.

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