Zona & Stalker: A Book About A Film About A Book
Roadside Picnic is a science fiction novel first published in 1972 in the USSR, by the Strugatsky brothers, Arkady and Boris. Arkady had studied languages, and Boris had studied science, so it made some kind of sense that they wrote science fiction together. Unusually, this form was one of the more allowably unusual forms of writing allowed by the Soviet authorities. There was heavy censorship in the Eastern Bloc, with strict ‘socialist realism’ the favoured mode, but because of the Soviet space programme, science fiction was tolerated. How subversive that science fiction was is hard to tell from a western perspective. Certainly Roadside Picnic doesn’t contain any overt political message – to do so would be too dangerous – but what message it does contain is hard to fathom.
Nonetheless, the authorities censored it, for reasons that aren’t clear (they never were in this sort of case) and complete Russian versions didn’t appear until the 1990s. The book is about a world that contains various ‘zones’ where some odd event has occurred, believed to have been alien visitations. Authorities have sealed these zones, but they’re full of unusual, probably alien, artifacts that can be used for all kinds of useful purposes, or simply sold on. This is where the title comes from – the theory that this detritus has been left behind by visitors as humans leave litter behind after a roadside picnic. Because the artifacts can be so valuable, a class of person that makes a living from going raiding within these zones has arisen. And that class of person is called a Stalker.
The Film from the Book
The Strugatsky brothers provided the script for the 1979 film adaptation, Stalker, and as the change in title might suggest, the film departs from the book so much it can be called a reimagining rather than an adaptation. This is because of the director, Andrei Tarkovsky, who took strict control of the film so that his vision would prevail over the Strugatsky’s. The characters in the film aren’t named as they are in the book, being known by titles instead: the Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor. The artifacts don’t exist either, and it’s never properly explained how the Zone came to be – or rather, it’s shown that the characters aren’t sure. Tarkovsky wanted to make a science fiction film without the science fiction. So the Zone has ‘the Room’ inside it, a place where – it’s said – your innermost wish will be fulfilled.
The journey there is an arduous one, and Tarkovsky means to make us experience that, using length – it’s possible that a quick reader could finish Roadside Picnic before Stalker ran its course – and using long, unflinching, takes throughout the whole film. The film lasts nearly 2 and 3 quarter hours, but only has 142 shots – the average shot length is over a minute – compare this to blockbuster director Michael Bay, whose average is typically under 3 seconds. Some people find this tortuous, some find it absorbing. Tarkovsky’s rationale was this: “If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention”. This isn’t to all tastes, and it’s best to know and prepare for this before viewing the film. Some people can’t stand it, and simply find it boring. That’s fair enough, but it should also be said that those who love the film really love it.
The Book About the Film from the Book.
Author and critic Geoff Dyer is one of the people who love it, and his tribute to it is his new book Zona: A Book About A Film About a Journey To a Room. The book is almost like a transcribed commentary on the film as it unfolds – Dyer mentions at one point that he’d even intended it originally to be split up into 142 sections, one with a piece of commentary for each shot, but that he found the film too absorbing to do this in the end. Good choice, because what he has written is itself incredibly absorbing in that it communicates
Dyer’s enthusiasm for the film so well. It’s full of detail about the making of the film, about Dyer’s many viewings of the film, about films that connect to the film, and about how the film itself works. Much of this takes place in extended footnotes where Dyer allows himself to digress, but this is very judiciously done, and the digressions do reveal more about the film in most cases. And it’s all very well researched – the increasing megalomania of Tarkovsky as the film progressed is detailed, most obvious when the director fired the film’s photographer for reasons that remain disputed, and most amusing when he fired an art director, according to his diaries ‘for behaving like a bastard’.
Dyer draws out historical references, in the film's past and future. There's some humour in the film when a phone goes in the Zone, and no-one can believe it works. This comes from similar scenes during the siege of Stalingrad. But going forward from when the film was released the notion of a dangerous Zone that the authorities prevent people entering gained Tarkovsky a morbid reputation as a sort of prophet after the Chernobyl disaster. Dyer claims in the book itself that his reason for writing it is that he’s been unable to write any criticism of note recently, and so a transcription of a film is all he can manage – he’s actually apologetic about it. No need. If his talk at the Glasgow Film Festival is half as entertaining as Zona is, and the audience are infected with half the enthusiasm Dyer has for Stalker, then he'll certainly have nothing at all to apologise for.