A couple of weeks ago I reported on my viewing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris; last week I saw Mirror (still my favorite of his movies), and this afternoon I saw Stalker for the first time. I’d been looking forward to it, both because it’s by Tarkovsky and because it’s based on the novel Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, who wrote some of my very favorite science fiction. Alas, my negative reaction was even stronger than to Solaris — I’m glad I saw it, mind you, and I enjoyed lots of it (it is, after all, a Tarkovsky movie), but to my mind he took a taut, suspenseful, thought-provoking novel and turned it into a long, slow movie that jettisoned most of what made the novel interesting and replaced it with Deep Thoughts about art and life. Now, maybe I just wasn’t in the mood, and maybe I’m not Deep enough to appreciate them, but I found myself twitching in my seat a lot and occasionally having to keep myself from drifting off. (I amused myself by catching errors in the subtitles.) And maybe this is unfair, but instead of the Bach, Pergolesi, and Purcell of his earlier movies he used Beethoven’s Ninth (the Ode to Joy) and (God save the mark) Ravel’s Bolero at crucial moments here. I won’t say poshlost, but the word might have popped into my mind. Sorry, Andrei Arsenievich.


  1. Many Strugatskys’ novels seem to be born for cinematography, so rich on unusual visual details, suspense and action. Maybe that’s why the actual movies made after them have a tendency to disappoint. But the Deep Thoughts stuff was already there in the novel, too, and it’s harder to make that into a movie, and it is what Tarkovsky did, quite brilliantly IMHO. Just don’t come to watch it with an expectation that the vivid visuality of the novels is gonna be there in the movie. “Stalker” could have been made into a different move, more adventuresome and dynamic, but nobody got it done.

  2. The novel has thoughts, certainly, but they’re on a more practical level: How should these mysterious, often deadly, sometimes helpful alien artifacts be dealt with? How should Red juggle his need to be in control of his own destiny and his love for his wife and daughter? Whatever more philosophical reflections turn up only last for a paragraph or so, and then we’re back to the plot. In the movie, the thoughts are all philosophical (or Deep), and (to me) pretty boring because misty and unresolvable. And there is basically no plot — the three guys set off for the Zone and the Room, they take three hours getting there, and then nothing happens except an idiotic struggle over a purported atomic weapon the size of a thermos. I’m exaggerating for polemical purposes, of course, but I ain’t lying.

    Contrast the Deep Thoughts in one of my favorite movies, Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Deux ou Trois choses que je sais d’elle). There too there’s not much of a plot, and it stops dead while the camera zooms in on the surface of a cup of coffee while Godard’s gravelly voice ruminates for several minutes. The difference is that Godard’s thoughts are interesting (you can see an excerpt in this 2003 LH post); he’s a genuine intellectual who’s read and absorbed an astonishing amount of history, philosophy, and criticism. Tarkovsky is a great filmmaker whose Deep Thoughts are no more impressive than that of your uncle who rants at the dinner table about how young people don’t understand anything, or how politicians are all corrupt. Not everybody can do everything.

  3. Here‘s a video clip (13:34, in Russian) in which Dmitry Bykov discusses the novel brilliantly and makes me appreciate it even more than I did before (he mentions the movie only to point out that it has little in common with the book other than the setting).

  4. Bykov is way overinterpreting, forgive me. The USSR as a cemetery? As a lab with its engineered seeds of the better future hidden among the detritus of failures?

    Tarkovsky does something radically different by disagreeing with the core hypothesis of the authors, about the inner goodness of the regular man which may be supernaturally revealed. According to Tarkovsky, even the best men are liable to harbor secret horrors in their world of untold desires, and that’s not something important in Strugatsky’s novel. It’s more like sad thoughts after closing the book.

    But anyway I am not here to argue, so I’ll stop right here. Since the topic wasn’t really a linguistics or anthropology problem, I hope I didn’t overreach 🙂

  5. No no, I’m delighted you’re discussing it, and I don’t feel we’re arguing, just sharing different perspectives! Yes, Bykov is overinterpreting, but his thoughts are stimulating, at least to me.

  6. So, what is the best translation of that awesome alien gadget “пустышка” into English 😉 ? Or is it even possible?

  7. I’d just call it an “empty” myself; I don’t know what the published translation uses.

  8. Dmitry Pruss says

    Pacifier LOL.

    If you let me oversimplify (in a proletarian’s response to Bykov), it is that the stories of the Strugatsky brothers tend to develop as narratives of intellectual quests of researchers and explorers, unencumbered by philosophical and ethical dilemmas at first, unconcerned by material wealth or romantic love, but just genuinely intoxicated by discovery, and eventually discovering injustices and moral failings in the society, or within themselves, in their quest for sheer scientific knowledge. In later works, these moral discoveries become more philosophical, and progressively ever more intractable.

    If anything firmly anchors this in the Soviet times, it is the emergence of the wide class of scientists and explorers between the 1930s and the 1950s, the gradual fading of the focus on wartime heroism, and the post-Stalinist acceptance of individual, un-totalitarian pondering of right and wrong.

    All of these are decidedly peripheral for Tarkovsky’s perspective of a hereditary literary itellectual, who cares not about scientific quests, and never lost focus on the grander topics of morality. Like Solzhentitsin (I know I am on thin ice here lol) openly denigrated the “educated masses” as an antithesis to “true intelligentsia”, so does Tarkovsky triumph (much more gently, without calling anyone words) about the “educated masses” slowly coming to embrace the intelligentsia. Like, one or two steps and you the scientists will turn into us – watch this!

    PS: Another root of the Roadside picnic is more specific to the literary tradition of the late 1910s-1920s Russia, with its fantasy novels depicting fictional capitalist societies, like Alexander Grin’s coastal towns or Alexei Tolstoy’s “Aelita”. Neither of them have ever been accepted by the high-brow literary society as “true literature”, but they were all extremely popular at the time. Today we prefer to fantasize about medieval times, like Game of Thrones, for better or for worse 🙂

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    I didn’t get very far with the English “Roadside Picnic” (OK, so I’m shallow) but I do remember some of the artefacts being called “empties.”

  10. I didn’t get very far with the English “Roadside Picnic” (OK, so I’m shallow)

    Probably not your fault but the translation. In his introduction to the Gollancz edition of the new translation, by Olena Bormashenko, of Hard to Be a God, Ken MacLeod says “I first tried to read this book in 1977” but “something in the texture of the prose — perhaps glitches in the translation (1973, from Russian to English via German) — knocked me back. I returned the novel unfinished to the library.”

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Hard to Be a God in the new translation is indeed excellent. I’m also reassured to find myself in the company of Ken MacLeod …. who, I am reminded, lives in West Lothian (“A canna scree, Ken.”)

  12. Strugatskys wrote the script for the movie, so it is not completely alien to them. Though Tarkovsky pressured them really hard to change the tenor of the book and especially the character of the stalker.

    I remember it pretty vaguely, but Tarkovsky probably wanted to give an interpretation to yurodivyj character (Wiki suggest translation “fool in Christ”, which probably is as bad as any). The whole thing about simple, but honest people who see the truth more directly than overeducated and overcomplicated snobs, this “hidden from the wise and revealed to the little children” trope is something that some people might like, but I don’t. Though, if I recall it correctly, this truth seeing by a simple man was quite painful, which is a plus for Tarkovsky, usually “truth is painful” trope is not combined with “revealed to little children”.

    As for the book, I find Picnic (as well as Hard to be a God) a well-written adventure sci-fi, without much else, and that’s just fine.

  13. Wasn’t the Russian title “Zona”? A Russian friend loaned me and my wife the VHS tape and insisted that it was her favorite movie EVER. I considered it to be 2.5 hours that I will never get back again.

  14. Nope, the alien-infected region is the Zona but the movie is called Stalker.

  15. I’ve taught Olena Bormashenko’s 2012 translation of “Пикник на обочине” / “Roadside Picnic” a couple of times and found it quite serviceable. I’d even go so far as to agree with Bormashenko’s husband, who told her that her English reads like “hard-boiled detective novels from the 1920s.”* Stylistically, that felt appropriate to me. She’s very clever with the names of artifacts from the Zone, turning, for instance, “ведьмин студень” into “hell slime.” Oh, and as a bonus, her translation includes a preface by the great Ursula K. Le Guin.

    I’ve never looked at Antonina Bouis’s translation, but I’ve gotten the impression over the years that other readers weren’t especially satisfied with it.

    * The quote from Bormashenko’s husband is from a short interview she gave to Publishers Weekly, but it’s unfortunately not available online. I can send a PDF to anyone who is interested.

  16. Found an interview with Bormashenko online. She is not a professional translator – she is a mathematician PhD from Stanford. Did it for fun.

  17. Good for her, and a very interesting interview — thanks! I’ve got her translation of Hard to Be a God, which is excellent. But this (from the introduction to the interview) I found odd:

    In what may be a Soviet-era or simply a clever touch, it appears to take place in provincial Canada

    Canada?! Where do they get that from? It seemed to me to be set somewhere in Europe; I suppose it could be Canada as well, but why do they say “it appears to take place” there? Did I miss something?

  18. Yes, “Roadside Picnic” takes place in Harmont, Canada

  19. Ah, I just did a text search and discovered Canada is in fact mentioned. My bad.

  20. Dmitry Pruss says

    wow, a great story. We also gave Strugatsky’s to the kids to keep the language alive, and also were worried how lack of rooting in the broader cultural world of the Soviet past may hamper it, but it ended up working very well. Struggling now with the next generation of less fluent kids and sometimes wondering if a return to Strugatsky reading may be a good choice despite the slower reading pace and worse comprehension…

  21. No, the Canadians are mentioned as the UN police and portrayed as exotic, big guys.

    I fixed English translation to fit Russian text:

    And two blue helmets instantly appear behind him, pawing their guns. You can’t see their eyes, just their jaws working away below the helmets. Where in Canada do they find these guys? Did they send them to Harmont to breed or what?”

    I had a suspicion that Harmont might actually be in Ireland, but authors did a very good job of removing any specifically Irish realities.

    Just a non-specified English-speaking, rather poor and depressed (and probably small) country where they eat sausages and drink dark beer.

  22. And I got an impression that authors got their idea how foreign military occupation of an English-speaking white town might look like from!/image/image.jpg

  23. No, the Canadians are mentioned as the UN police and portrayed as exotic, big guys.

    Ah, that’s why I didn’t figure it was set in Canada when I hit that part of the text. Thanks!

    rather poor and depressed (and probably small) country where they eat sausages and drink dark beer

    And that too. Nothing about the place seemed Canadian.

  24. The philosophical parts of the film don’t resonate at all with me but it’s still one of my favorite films. He conjures up dread out of so little. I guess three guys tromping through a vaguely dangerous post-industrial wasteland is my idea of fun.

    Geoff Dyer was so taken with the movie he wrote a whole book about it.

    What makes the film even more poignant is that several key staff died, most likely, from exposure to the polluted landscape the movie was shot in.

  25. This fragment (I made some modifications to the translation by Antonina W. Bouis) should be cross listed with another recent thread.

    [After successful foray into Zone, Erik Shuhart comes to “Borzhch” bar]

    At this time Borzhch is empty. Ernest is behind the bar, wiping glasses, and holding them up to light. It’s amazing, by the way, that whenever you come, this bartenders are always rubbing glasses, as though their salvation depends on it. […]
    “Hi, Ernie! Leave the poor thing alone. You’ll rub a hole through it.”
    He looked at me through the glass, muttered something, as if in his belly, and without a word pours me four fingers of stiff stuff. […]
    “A little better?” he muttered. “Coming round, stalker?”
    “You keep wiping. You know, one guy kept rubbing until he called out an evil spirit. His life was good after that.”
    “Who was that?” Ernest asked suspiciously.
    “Another bartender here. Before your time.”
    “So what?”
    “Nothing. Why do you think the Visitation happened? He was rubbing and rubbing… Who do you think the Visitors were?”
    “You’re just a big mouth,” Ernie said with approval.

  26. The philosophical parts of the film don’t resonate at all with me but it’s still one of my favorite films. He conjures up dread out of so little. I guess three guys tromping through a vaguely dangerous post-industrial wasteland is my idea of fun.

    Yeah, I loved the visual aspect and look forward to seeing the movie again. And I’ll have to look for that Dyer book.

  27. I saw this StackExchange question today, about whether there was a shorter version of Roadside Picnic. I know there are multiple translations, but I don’t know if there is significantly abridged version—although I thought other Hatters might.

  28. PlasticPaddy says

    Regarding location of Kharmont, this site says in a footnote reference to an interview with Boris Strugatsky: “po zamylu avtorov eto, skoree vsego, Kanada. Ili kakaja-nibud’ Avstralija. Slovom-britanskaja v prosjlom kolonija”
    So not Britain but a former colony, and the commenter must be remembering another book (or a heavily adapted translation) if there were specific references to locations in Britain.

  29. Well, y’know, there are parts of Britain that are still colonized, particularly in the north and west. And far more so to this day than Canada, of all places (though there is the Ottawa Valley, which is Canada’s Appalachians — excluding the City itself, of course).

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