Moving Pictures
Feb 07, 2024, 06:29AM

Fear and Loathing in 2024

Revisiting Terry Gilliam’s superlative 1998 adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s most famous book.

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Google the words “wave speech” and you’ll get the full thing, via Goodreads, excerpted from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant […] There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning […] Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…”

This speech justifies and holds up the rest of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, an otherwise unremarkable druggy travelogue written in the afterbirth of the counterculture Thompson mourns in the speech. And in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film, it imbues the antics and indulgences of “Raoul Duke” (Johnny Depp) and his Samoan lawyer (Benicio Del Toro) with a vast sadness and disappointment, clarifying in the middle of the book and movie that these are two people in a country riding the bomb straight down to Earth, anxiously awaiting oblivion. Gilliam’s film is one of the best literary adaptations ever made, a movie as faithful and evocative as it is expansive and, fleetingly, universal.

I saw and read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when I got both for my 12th birthday in October 2004. The wave speech was how I learned that “the sixties” really only lasted a few years, that 1967 was an anomaly in a two decade sprawl of terror, fear, and loathing. Put a smile on your brother everybody get together try to love one another right now was repurposed the year before I was born by Nirvana as their own sarcastic indictment of the hippies that became yuppies that ran the corporate magazines that ran their picture and “still sucked.” By late 2004, everything Thompson was talking about was long folded over, just as distant, mysterious, and inaccessible as the Belle Epoque and The Great Gatsby.

Four months later, Thompson was dead by suicide, a scoop I gave to my dad, who shrugged it off (not shocked like Michael Jackson a few years later). After the early 1970s, he produced nothing else of substance, too fried from speed more than that famous galaxy of drugs described at the top of the book and the movie. And while watching it, remembering that Gilliam suffered the least studio interference of his career on this movie because the executives had all read the book in college, I tried to think of a contemporary adaptation as risky and weighty as this was in 1998, less than 30 years after the book’s publication. There isn’t a book, but one obvious subject: the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The wave speech stands out from the rest of Fear and Loathing because it’s, ironically, the only thing in it that isn’t time bound. Thompson may be talking about San Francisco in the mid-1960s, but he could be talking about London at the same time, New York in the 1930s, Minneapolis in the 1980s, Seattle in the 1990s, Baltimore in the 2000s—or your high school or college experience. Not knowing this is as good as it gets until it’s already gone: the September 11, 2001 attacks, a specific set of events that occurred on that day; and “9/11,” the metonym that signifies that nothing will ever be the same. Even more than the Columbine massacre, generally regarded as the beginning of our country’s current school shooting epidemic, the September 11, 2001 attacks and their consequences—otherwise known as “9/11”—can be pointed to as the precise moment when “everything changed,” and that particular wave cresting isn’t forgotten, like I assumed it would, but a constant obsession of those born after the attacks—they never knew the Old World I knew, what was the “New World” to Bob Dylan and those born earlier in the 20th century.

But there is no article or object to adapt. The September 11, 2001 attacks and “9/11” are their own “true story” and major motion picture; notice the absence of media on the attacks compared to Vietnam or World War II, which directly effected millions more Americans. The collapse that Thompson mourned was more than simple time passing, a thoroughly well documented period of history, and while he looked for optimism wherever he could (cautiously optimistic about Jimmy Carter in 1976), he wrote this for ESPN in mid-September, 2001:

“We are At War now, according to President Bush, and I take him at his word. He also says this War might last for ‘a very long time.’

Generals and military scholars will tell you that eight or 10 years is actually not such a long time in the span of human history—which is no doubt true—but history also tells us that 10 years of martial law and a war-time economy are going to feel like a Lifetime to people who are in their twenties today. The poor bastards of what will forever be known as Generation Z are doomed to be the first generation of Americans who will grow up with a lower standard of living than their parents enjoyed.

That is extremely heavy news, and it will take a while for it to sink in. The 22 babies born in New York City while the World Trade Center burned will never know what they missed. The last half of the 20th century will seem like a wild party for rich kids, compared to what's coming now. The party's over, folks. The time has come for loyal Americans to Sacrifice. ... Sacrifice. ... Sacrifice. That is the new buzz-word in Washington. But what it means is not entirely clear.”

However burnt out he may have been by 2001, Thompson nailed what it feels like to live in America in 2024, seduced and abandoned in the sludge, metal, and viscera of the 20th century. Nearly 20 years after his death, it’s easy to say he’s as well known and well regarded for that 2001 essay as his early-1970s books, at least to younger people. Otherwise, he’d be as time bound and ridiculous as Timothy Leary or the Merry Pranksters documented by Tom Wolfe. But Thompson had the madman’s clear eye, if only for a few moments, and a few thousand words, many years apart.

Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter and Instagram: @nickyotissmith


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