Lathe of Heaven (2002) poster

Lathe of Heaven (2002)


Canada/USA. 2002.


Director – Philip Haas, Screenplay – Alan Sharp, Based on the Novel The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin, Producer – Mark Winemaker, Photography – Pierre Mignot, Music – Angelo Badalamenti, Visual Effects Supervisor – Noel Hooper, Jellyfish Animation – Peerless Camera Company, Production Design – Sylvain Gingras. Production Company – Alliance Atlantis/A&E Network/Baumgarten Merims Productions.


Lukas Haas (George Orr), James Caan (Dr Walter Haber), Lisa Bonet (Heather Lelache), David Strathairn (Mannie), Sheila McCarthy (Penny)


George Orr is found having taken an overdose of medications. He explains to his lawyer Heather Lelache that it was because he was trying to stop himself from dreaming. She arranges for the court to drop sentence and George to be turned over to dream specialist Dr Walter Haber. George explains to Haber that his dreams are capable of changing the world and that nobody except himself notices when he wakes up. After Haber hypnotises George, he causes the painting in Haber’s office to change when he wakes. On successive treatments, Haber uses the process to change his professional success and importance. George begins to feel that Haber is using him and appeals to Heather to find a way to stop it.

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) was one of the great sf/fantasy authors. Le Guin won a number of Hugo and Nebula Awards for works like The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) set on a planet where the inhabitants change sex; the novella The Word for World is Forest (1972, expanded to a novel 1976) about the despoliation by colonists of an alien society whose entire world consists of a forest; and The Dispossessed (1974), which offered a depiction of a society based on anarchist principles Her most famous works were the Earthsea fantasy series, consisting of the trilogy A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), The Farthest Shore (1972) and later follow-ups, which told the story of an apprentice wizard attending wizarding school. The first two books of the trilogy were badly adapted into the tv mini-series Earthsea (2004) and the later ones more successfully with the anime Tales from Earthsea (2006).

The Lathe of Heaven (1971) is one of Ursula Le Guin’s SF novels and concerns a man whose dreams have the ability to change the world. This was given film treatment as The Lathe of Heaven (1980), a tv movie for the US PBS network starring Bruce Davison as George Orr and Kevin Conway as Dr Faber. Despite a low-budget, this is a standout work that did highly ambitious things and remained faithful to the book – it is notable for being one SF adaptation of its era that comes with a grand conceptual reach. This is a remake, also made as a tv movie.

There are immediate differences apparent between this and the 1980 version. One of these is that this version has a much bigger budget and better effects. This version is also more confident as a science-fiction film. That is to say, the original gave only sketchy details about its future, whereas this creates a world that feels lived-in – even if it is only the sort of generic future established by other science-fiction films.

James Caan is a great actor and one anticipated he would do amazing things with Dr Haber but the role has been changed. Now Haber becomes a far more villainous character and the latter half of the story has Lukas Haas’s Orr trying to escape from his influence. In fact, the latter half of the story seems to lack any real interest in dreams or alternate realities and instead focuses on a Svengali-like relationship between Haber and Orr. Contrast this to the 1980 film where Kevin Conway’s Haber was a much more well-meaning character and engaged with Orr in trying to use his dreams to change the world for a better place, even if the results didn’t quite come out as expected.

The other major quibble I have with the remake is how it changes the way Le Guin and the 1980 film had it where Haber also remembers things before and after the changes along with Orr. In this film, he does not as evidence by the scene where Orr wakes from the dream and finds the painting in the office has changed but Haber insists it has always been that way. However, if Haber remembers nothing after the changes occur then the case for him being someone who is sinisterly manipulating Orr becomes considerably weaker – how can the accusation be made that he is improving his own status if he does not remember doing so each time? For Haber to become the villain he is made out to be, the film needed a scene where we find that he was aware of what was happening all along, or where we find out that he was lying about seeing no change.

The great disappointment of this version of the story is that it has either no understanding of or interest in the book’s premise. In all three versions, we have a central character who claims he can change the world when he dreams. The fascination became in seeing what change was going to be wrought when Orr wakes up. We get a couple of those here that are directly taken from the book and 1980 film – where the painting in Haber’s office changes and when Orr deals with population issues by having a plague kill much of the population off.

However, beyond seeing less people when Lukas Haas looks out the window, the film seems to have no interest in depicting the effects of the changed world. Moreover, the script has dropped two of the biggest changes entirely – where Orr dreams about a world without racism on Haber’s suggestion and when he wakes up everyone has grey skin, and where he creates world peace by uniting everyone against an alien invasion. Instead of this, all the film does is gives us a plot where Lukas Haas is fighting against a machiavellian Haber, while engaging in a romance with Lisa Bonet’s lawyer. This to me seems a textbook example of a film squandering a great idea.

The film reaches a lame ending that swaps Ursula Le Guin’s plays of ideas out for a meaningless ending where an egomaniacal Haber puts on the Augmentor himself and causes chaos before the world slips into another reality. There we see Lukas Haas is now the doctor, James Caan the patient, where Lukas takes Caan to the cafe and Lisa Bonet is the waitress and Lukas’s best friend David Strathairn is another patron and nobody knows anybody else.

Part of the problem seems to be the choice of director with Philip Haas (who does not seem to be related to Lukas Haas), whose only prior work had been in mundane dramas like Angels and Insects (1995), The Blood Oranges (1997) and Up at the Villa (2000). It is a case of a director who has no feel for the material at all. Screenwriter Alan Sharp had similarly mangled a fine science-fiction source novel with Damnation Alley (1977), although had more respectably written Ulzana’s Raid (1972),  The Osterman Weekend (1983), Rob Roy (1995) and Dean Spanley (2008).

Full film available here

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