After PBS' 1980 adaptation of the novel The Lathe of Heaven, A&E, in 2002, produced one of its own, this time without so much involvement or input from writer Ursula K. Le Guin. Generally seen as the weaker of the two film adaptations, A&E's stab at the material isn't wholly without merit. It has better actors, some inventive ideas, and much higher production values. However, it does lose a lot of the story's magic and comes across as a slow, dour little film that has omitted some of the novel's most memorable bits and completely falls apart at the end.
Let's start with the good things. James Caan comes across as a perfectly believable psychiatrist who also happens to be something of a misogynist jerk when not talking to his patients. Though his character turn in the third act doesn't make a whole lot of sense, he pulls it off thanks to a surprisingly grounded performance. It's unfortunate that this version of Dr. Haber doesn't have the save-the-world motivation of those of the novel or the PBS movie, and it never becomes clear what he knows or doesn't know about George's problem.
As good as Caan is, though, he is overshadowed by David Strathairn, who plays a greatly expanded version of Manny. This is perhaps the movie's best innovation and the main reason to watch it. Manny is an almost omniscient character who delivers all the important thematic lessons through his philosophical advice to George, always delivered in a homey, down-to-Earth way by the charismatic Strathairn as his character smokes a joint and plays chess. He is the only character outside of George who seems aware of the changes wrought by George's dreams, and he is the only character who remains loyally steadfast in his friendship with the troubled youth.
Convincing as both a shrink and a creep
Also worth noting is Lisa Bonet as Heather LeLache. She's not entirely believable as a lawyer--and she has no chemistry whatsoever with Lukas Haas' George--but she is warm, charming, and capable of selling her unusual willingness to believe George's story. Her performance is far, far superior to Margaret Avery's from the PBS version, but as with Caan, she is saddled with some questionable writing that makes her job harder than it needs to be.
I would be remiss if I didn't spend a little time on Lukas Haas (no relation to the director, Philip Haas). Haas, though not a bad actor, is terribly miscast as George Orr. He mumbles his way through scenes, doesn't even try to sound believable when he tells people about his dreams, and comes across as distant, cold, confused, and uninteresting. The character is not an easy one to play in any version of the story, but Bruce Davison proved that there are things that can be done with it.
Not his best work
One other thing I do really like about this adaptation, though, is how the dream changes are handled. Few of the alterations are highlighted directly, but nearly every little detail from the costuming, set dressings, and small atmospheric touches are changed. It becomes an exercize in inattentional blindness, of forcing you to stop and go, "Wait, was that there before?" Unfortunately, this clever attention to detail is lost from a narrative perspective. The rules of the universe are never made explicitly clear, and they are obviously different from earlier versions of the story.
Nobody outside of George (and perhaps Manny) ever becomes aware of the changes, and even George's awareness fluctuates wildly from scene to scene. In the beginning, he can describe in great detail what things were like before and after a change, but then immediately after that, he can't seem to remember if he lost somebody once or if he'd ever met Heather before. This becomes especially problematic during the climax, when Dr. Haber--who never seems aware of George's power--inexplicably gets into the augmenter, saying something about it being "the only way" for him to track down his lost patient. Then the world goes through another dramatic change, and nobody seems aware of it, not even George. This doesn't make a lick of sense, no matter how you try to justify it.
To be fair, I will watch Lisa Bonet in pretty much anything
While the movie does retain some of Le Guin's Taoist messages--albeit watered down into platitudes about living in the present and a bunch of repetative scene transitions involving a jellyfish--it loses one of the strongest themes of the story: namely, the danger that comes from trying to play God. Since Dr. Haber is never aware of George's power and never tries to harness it to fix the world's problems, there's no "be careful what you wish for" revelation about trade-offs and the disastrous consequences of dramatic action. This is an odd omission, far less forgivable than the omission of the aliens or the people turning grey, because it really is central to what Le Guin was trying to say with the story.
But perhaps the greatest sin made by the A&E adaptation of The Lathe of Heaven is that it's just boring. It thinks it's clever--the many repeated lines are particularly exhausting--but it wastes so much time doing nothing that it doesn't even properly set up the character arcs or allow the story to unfold organically. Things happen--like Heather's sudden decision to join George at his place in the country or Haber's decision to get in the machine and sync his dreams with George's--because the plot needs them to happen, not because they make sense for the characters or for the situation. In the end, then, it's just a confusing mess of a movie that can't be salvaged by its actors.
-e. magill 1/7/2021
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