1980 was a heady time to be a teenaged sci-fi fan. It was the year that ushered in a diverse range of sci-fi movies like “The Empire Strikes Back” “Battle Beyond The Stars”, “Flash Gordon” “The Final Countdown,” and “Altered States.” My parents’ old 25″ Zenith TV set practically exploded with sci-fi related content as well, with equally diverse offerings such as “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”, “Galactica 1980” (an ill-advised sequel), the miniseries adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” and an adaptation of the late Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1971 novel “The Lathe of Heaven” for PBS (Public Broadcast System TV). The last three of those all premiered in January of 1980. It was a very ambitious year, and one of the last where not every new idea had to be a FX-fueled crowd pleaser.
At the age of 13, I remember hearing about the adaptation of “The Lathe of Heaven”, so I perused my school library for a copy of the book before the debut of the film (I would buy a copy much later). Getting the gist of the story, I was curious exactly how PBS would adapt such a reality-bending book for TV (this was decades before visual effects on TV were anywhere the level of sophistication they are today). The result was made on an extremely slim production budget of a quarter million dollars and was surprisingly effective.
Note: Better known for her “Earthsea” fantasies and Hainish universe series (including 1969’s “The Left Hand of Darkness”), Ursula LeGuin’s 1971’s “The Lathe of Heaven” was considered one of her lesser-known novels at the time of its PBS adaptation. 1980’s “The Lathe of Heaven” was also the very first TV movie ever made exclusively for PBS.
******SPOILERS AHEAD!! “ANTWERP!” *******
If you happen to buy the film on DVD or stream it from YouTube, you may be distressed by the poor quality; it sometimes looks dark, murky and ill-defined. The movie was shot on16mm film, and it looked great when I first saw it in original broadcast back in 1980, but those original film elements have long perished, and the copy used to master the DVD was sourced from a single 2″ analog videotape of poor quality. It’s still watchable enough, but make allowances.
“The Lathe of Heaven” (1980).
The movie opens with the end of the world. Nuclear war has devastated future Portland, Oregon of the year 1998 and George Orr (Bruce Davison) is dying of radiation poisoning. George collapses—but before giving into oblivion, he hoarsely whispers, “Yes!” and abruptly awakens in his small cubicle apartment, trying his best to stay awake afterward. Four years later in 2002, George Orr is terrified of sleep and has been abusing drugs. As a consequence, he is now facing criminal prosecution if he doesn’t seek help.
Note: Remember that 1998 and 2002 were still ‘the future’ in those days.
As part of his rehabilitation, George is ordered by the courts to see a psychiatrist–a sleep specialist named Dr. William Haber (Kevin Conway). Haber tries to make the younger man feel at ease, and assumes that he’s just having nightmares. George opens up to Haber, and tells him that he’s actually afraid to dream, because his dreams retroactively affect reality. When he awakens, things are changed—sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically, yet dreamer George is the only one who seems to remember the original chronology of events.
Note: The late Kevin Conway (1942-2020) is perfectly cast as Dr. Haber, with an initial affability (“you can tell me to go to hell if you like”) that quickly but believably devolves into a menacingly controlling demeanor. Conway would later play the famed Klingon “Kahless” in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Rightful Heir”—he finally got to play one of those ‘unnatural’ aliens.
George then tells Haber about the first ‘effective dream’ he had as a teenager, when his horny, middle-aged aunt Ethel (Vandi Clark) was living with his family. Ethel was constantly teasing young George with wildly inappropriate flirting and sexual touching. One night, while watching TV together, Ethel rubbed her hand against young George’s thigh, and in return, he almost unconsciously grabbed her breast and began kissing her. She immediately slapped him, humiliating the boy for his awkward sexual explorations. That night, George dreamed her gone. He woke to find she had never lived with with his family, and that she was just killed in a car accident the previous night. George felt profoundly guilty for retroactively killing her.
Note: No visuals or makeup were used to de-age the 30-something Bruce Davison into a teenager for the flashbacks—just acting. Davison also played the obsessed young man who controls an army of pet rats in 1972’s “Willard” as well as an evil racist Senator in “The X-Men” (2000) and its sequel. He gives George that perfect combination of vulnerability and slacker-wisdom that the character needs; he’s right out of the book’s description of the character.
Returning for his next visit, Haber decides to record George’s dream state ‘theta-rhythms’ with a combination of hypnosis and prototype REM sleep feedback machine called ‘the augmentor.’ Haber will suggest a dream, and awaken George the safe word “Antwerp!” with which to awaken. Gazing at a photo of Mt. Hood on the doctor’s tiny office wall, George drifts into sleep with the doctor’s help. In his dream, George experiences a bizarre dream about horses, and then awakens feeling a bit drained—a telltale sign he’s had one of his effective dreams. He then glances to the doctor’s photo and sees that it’s been changed to a prize-winning race horse! He dreamed of horses, therefore the photo of Mt. Hood changed into a photo of a horse. Haber seems unaware of the change, though he suspiciously schedules a series of followup appointments with his strange new patient. The curious Haber seems a shade too eager to learn if there is any truth to George’s outrageous claim of godlike somnambulist powers…
The next session begins to make George very leery as Haber casually suggests using George’s effective dreaming state to create real-world changes. He tells the sleeping George to dream of a sunny day in rainy Portland; beautiful, sunny weather with no smog. The augmenter soon records a massive surge in brain activity from the somnambulistic George. This time, Haber is aware of the changes as the typically rainy Portland weather suddenly changes around him! Running to the rooftop, Haber sees the clouds rolling back right in front of his eyes! When George awakens, Haber is astonished to see his secretary dressed in summer attire, and the Portland weather service suddenly referring to Portland as ‘the sunshine city.’ Taking the train home, George is gobsmacked by the realization that Haber is purposefully manipulating his effective dreaming (“The son of a bitch knows!”).
Worried about the control Haber seeks over his ability, George visits a civil liberties lawyer named Heather Lalache (Margaret Avery) to seek options. Trying to explain his situation to his her without discussing his effective dreaming, George begins to babble, instantly taxing his newfound lawyer’s patience. She advises him to continue the therapy for now.
Note: Margaret Avery’s Heather Lalache completes a triad of characters, and she acts as the skeptical audience avatar-turned-believer. Margaret Avery would go on a few years later to win acclaim and an Oscar nomination for her role as risqué singer “Shug Avery” (coincidentally named) who enters into a relationship with Whoopi Goldberg’s “Celie” in 1985’s “The Color Purple,” directed by Steven Spielberg.
During their next session, the increasingly ambitious Haber puts Haber into another effective dream state, and begins to wish bigger and better things—for himself. When George awakens, the therapist’s once shabby little office has become a giant, high-tech institute solely dedicated to Haber’s dream research. Haber is now dressed in a stylish gray suit and sits at a luxurious new desk as well…
Note: Even with its meager budget, the movie does minor miracles with using the elegant Dallas skyline to represent a futuristic Portland, Oregon. Dallas’ typically warmer climate also works well for the newly transformed ‘sunshine city’ version of Portland, as altered during the events of the book/movie.
Meeting with Heather once again, George is inching ever closer towards convincing her when he tells her about the weather changes and even a mysterious new cabin he’s apparently won in a lottery, thanks to his dreams. Buying her lunch, George eventually piques Heather’s interest when he tells her he never signed consent forms for the experimental augmenter device. That’s the crux of a potential case against Haber and she agrees to attend the next session. Heather will visit Haber in the capacity of an oversight ‘observer,’ not as a lawyer.
For the next session, Haber finds George unusually eager to get started—a first! Heather arrives, and meets Haber as he once again puts George into another effective dream state with his augmenter. As George drifts to sleep, Haber subtly (and falsely) tells George to ‘remember’ his complaint in their last session about the issue of overpopulation. George then has a terrifying dream of a dinner table full of family and acquaintances who transform into shrouded corpses. George is awakened to learn that a plague has retroactively destroyed most of the world’s population—and that he, Heather and Haber are mysteriously ‘immune.’ Even skeptic Heather can no longer deny George’s unwitting power—his dream has just killed six billion people. Haber immediately blames George for somehow mis-dreaming his intent. George tries to get the badly shaken Heather to remember the more populous world of only an hour ago, but she’s still in a state of shock. An outraged George lashes out at Haber’s mismanagement of his power and leaves in disgust.
George walks home through the near-deserted, rundown city back to his apartment … the building now almost completely deserted. A shaken Heather tries to phone George, convinced that he’s telling the truth. George returns to Haber’s institute and finally gets him to admit that he’s been manipulating George’s ability. George doesn’t believe he’s part of any grand design, while the more grandiose Haber is convinced that controlling effective dreams to make the world “better” should be their ultimate purpose. As George readies to leave, Haber sneakily subdues his patient and tricks him into another session.
The next session sees Haber commanding George to dream of “peace on Earth”, with no more wars within the human race—which prompts George to dream of giant, turtle-like aliens from the planet Aldebaran who invade the moon, destroying a human colony there. Awakening to realize what Haber has accidentally pulled from his subconscious mind, George storms out of the institute—vowing never to return. Haber is disgusted with George’s lack of commitment to ‘correcting’ the world’s issues with his godlike power.
Heather manages to track George down to his vacated apartment building and learns that he went to his dream lottery cabin by the coast. Walking along the beach together, romance blooms as George and Heather begin to grow closer, and she opens up to him about her fears. She then suggests that he ‘dream about nothing.’ Using a candle to hypnotize George, she gets him to an effective dream state—and then finds herself wanting him to dream that the aliens are “off the moon.” That innocent suggestion of hers immediately sends the Aldebaran aliens to Earth.
Note: The book also alluded to a never-ending war in the Middle East (sound familiar?) where Heather’s late soldier husband was killed. While this bit of information adds to her character’s background, it is unnecessary for the movie, and was wisely omitted by credited co-screenwriters Diane English (the TV series’ “Murphy Brown”) and Roger Swaybill (1981’s “Porky’s”—yes, the teen sex comedy).
Awakening to the sounds of air raid sirens and buzzing alien spacecraft, Heather realizes what she did wrong. The two of them are forced to seek out Haber once again to fix their own honest mistake. Arriving at Haber’s institute, they find an angry Haber all too eager to regain control of his favorite dreaming machine. The aliens are hovering over the institute in their spacecraft as Haber hurriedly puts George under with a new hypnosis-free technology. While George is asleep, one of the aliens arrives in Haber’s office and asks him not to “do unto others what you would wish for yourself.” Peace is brokered, as the aliens ask Haber to forgive the intrusion and leave…! Haber immediately contacts his friends in government and tells them to relax their defensive posture…
Note: The Aldebaran aliens, as conceived by the film’s directors Fred Barzyk and David Loxton, take their appearance from LeGuin’s book, which vaguely describes them as large and turtle-like (we see a swimming sea tortoise in George’s dreams). Given the film’s limited budget, the aliens admittedly look like something out of 1970s “Doctor Who,” but this is more than forgivable. Personally, I always thought the aliens looked more like large sentient artichokes…
Heather and George are having lunch when Haber returns with two large orderlies to forcibly take George back to the institute. The orderlies grab George and take him back for another session—so much for lunch! Strapped into a much bigger, flashier version of the augmenter, George is told by Haber that he will remove his ability to effectively dream, and transfer that power to himself! In the dream that follows, George meets one of the aliens who calls out to him (“Georgorr!” ). George learns that the aliens are aware of his reality bending; they also cryptically warn him that those who refuse to admit there are things that cannot be understood risk being “destroyed on the lathe of heaven” (i.e. Haber).
Haber regains control of his prized patient and wishes that George retroactively undo the issue of racism forever. George awakens to a very pleased Haber and his staff—who are, like himself, all uniformly gray in skin and hair color. The all-gray Haber then wishes one last effective dream out of his equally gray patient—the one that transfers George’s power to himself. George awakens in Haber’s newfound “palace of dreams”; an even grander version of his earlier institute. Congratulating himself on his now-complete augmenter, Haber assures George that he will take over the effective dreaming from now on; eliminating cancer, racism and even the “unnatural” aliens (and anyone else who is of “impure” genetic stock—sound familiar?). The thought of Haber effectively dreaming his own vision of ‘utopia’ terrifies George, who worries about Heather (a woman who is proudly brown, not gray). As he prepares to depart the power-mad doctor’s company, George wonders aloud if perhaps everyone can effectively dream—and that, maybe, reality is being rewritten all of the time. A nonchalant Haber vows to “sleep on it.”
Note: Making people uniformly gray, of course, also ignores the underlying causes of racism, which are more grounded in social, political and systemic economic disparity rather than simple skin color. George is fully aware of this, given his cynicism to Haber’s ‘solution.’ Haber’s view represents the tone-deaf solution of “I refuse to see color.” Haber doesn’t understand that the ‘solution’ isn’t ignoring diversity—it’s embracing it!
George visits an antique store run by an Aldebaran alien, who offers him an LP copy of “With a Little Help From My Friends” in an effort to find Heather. Once home, George plays the record as he drifts off to sleep. He then dreams of making love to Heather (in her natural skin tone of deep brown). A relaxed George then awakens to learn a very-present Heather is now his wife, and that she is back to her normal skin color, as is everyone else. Meanwhile, Haber is about to inaugurate his newly empowered augmenter by using it on himself, with no one to act as a control. Back at the cabin, George and Heather begin to kiss when sudden violent gusts of wind alert them to the fact that reality itself is once again beginning to change. Haber is about to undo the current fragile reality matrix that George has unwittingly held together for the last four years. Only George realizes that they are currently living in a dream—the real world was destroyed four years ago in a nuclear war.
They take a train to Haber’s institute as George tells Heather the whole story; four years ago, he effectively dreamed a new existence where the nuclear war (and his own pending death from radiation sickness) never occurred. Their train begins to flash out of existence, as does Heather, and George finds himself alone in a nightmarish world of clashing elements—lava flows in the middle of the city, spontaneous fires and random lightning strikes as the true reality of a post-nuclear holocaust world begins to emerge. Synching his mind with Haber’s, George follows the doctor into his effective dream state and tries to pull the power-mad psychiatrist back into a more stable existence…
Note: Once again, the movie accomplishes minor miracles on its quarter million dollar budget, using laser optics and fog chambers to represent reality’s flux state. Such laser optical techniques were also used in 1979’s mega budget Disney space opera “The Black Hole” as well as 1980’s “The Final Countdown.”
After their confrontation, George awakens to find that he has managed to create a patchwork version of reality; things are stable for the moment, and the end of the world has been averted—but there are consequences. His former lawyer and onetime wife Heather Lalache is now a stranger to him as she wanders into the antiques store owned by the Aldebaran alien, for whom George now works. With business slow, he talks with Heather, offering to buy her lunch, and she accepts. George asks his alien boss for an extended lunch break, as they walk along a cracked, but healing world. George then sees a visibly aged, catatonic Haber in a wheelchair, being pushed by his assistant. George peers into the traumatized psychiatrist’s face and realizes that he knows this isn’t the ‘true’ world—he’s seen reality, and it broke him.
George buys Heather lunch from an Aldebaran alien’s hot dog stand, and they enjoy a pleasant afternoon together in this new patchwork reality…
That Other Version (2002).
2002 (the year in which the book takes place) saw a new version of the story, now simply titled, “Lathe of Heaven,” and produced by the A&E network. Despite a higher budget, the remake was a dismal, boring, protracted mess. Starring Lukas Haas (“Witness”) as George, Lisa Bonet (“A Different World”) as Heather and James Caan (“The Godfather”) as Haber, the newer version fails on most levels. “Lathe of Heaven” features ‘Post-Apocalypse R Us’ visuals, including a drab color palette, pointless new characters and some hit-and-miss casting. Lukas Haas is a blank slate as George Orr; possessing none of Bruce Davison’s quirkiness, while James Caan practically telegraphs Haber’s malice from his first scene. Lisa Bonet’s Heather Lalache was about the only casting choice that worked. This version also removes the aliens as well as other sci-fi elements from both LeGuin’s original book and the 1980 film, making it feel like a copy of a copy. LeGuin had no involvement whatsoever with the new production, and it clearly shows. Not worth seeking out at all. Stick with the lower-tech but far more faithful 1980 film, which still holds up very well today, if one can overlook the surviving copy’s regrettable image and sound quality.
Living the Dream.
The 1980 adaptation is as good a version as possible considering both the limited means available to this very low-budget PBS film, as well as the primitive state of special effects technology at the time. Personally, I think the lower tech vibe of the movie adds to its power, as it forces the viewer to fill in any missing bits with their own imagination. 1980’s “The Lathe of Heaven” is a smartly realized, well-acted adaptation of LeGuin’s book. PBS and all of the talent involved did a terrific job of ‘effective dreaming’ the late sci-fi/fantasy author’s prose into concrete reality.
Dallas Ft. Worth for future Portland, Oregon.
Back in 2013, my wife and I spent Christmas with some of her cousins in Texas, and naturally, being a sci-fi nerd, I immediately asked if we could carve some time out of our four day stay to see the nearby Dallas Fort Worth Water Gardens, a popular tourist spot located in a business district right in the middle of the city.
Built in 1974, the location was famously used in such films as 1976’s “Logan’s Run” as well as the final scenes of 1980’s “The Lathe of Heaven,” which was shot almost entirely in the Dallas Fort Worth area, as well as the Oregonian coast. On our trip to the Water Gardens, the fountain areas were off-limits to foot traffic (probably too many accidents along the wet stone steps, I imagine) but it still looked very much as my sci-fi addled brain remembered from seeing it as various futuristic locations.
While my above photo looks sunny and warm, the weather was actually a bit chilly (near-freezing temperatures). Wish we could’ve ‘effectively dreamed’ the weather a few degrees warmer that day. All in all, the Fort Worth Water Gardens was an impressive sight—well worth a look for visiting sci-fi fans.
PBS’ original version of “The Lathe of Heaven” can be streamed on YouTube (below) and purchased on DVD through Amazon.com (prices vary in the $40+ range) and on eBay (prices vary as well). The streaming copy on YouTube (below) seems to have sourced from the DVD. I don’t know how much longer it will remain available on YouTube, so I’d advise would-be viewers to see it sooner than later.
To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are just over 569,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations have become widespread, which is gradually slowing the overall US mortality rate (though numbers in Brazil and India are spiking dramatically). Given a certain level of vaccine hesitancy (around 8 percent in the US), it may take longer for for eventual herd immunity. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is not fully safe. Many questions remain regarding the coronavirus variants, or if vaccines fully prevent unwitting transmission from an asymptomatic carrier. If you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated as soon as possible (I myself have been fully vaccinated now for nearly a month), and let us ‘effectively dream’ our way out of this COVID pandemic nightmare.
Take care, follow CDC guidelines and be safe.
7 Comments Add yours
Enjoyed the read . I have not seen this . I find that, to me, many “low tech” original versions are much more entertaining than their “Hollywood” re-do’s, “Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy” BBC version as compared to the movie for example . “The Prisoner” redo is another example , as was the “The Avengers” Movie (Steed and Emma Peel, not a bunch of comic book characters running around…lol) … no matter how much “tech” you throw into a story , sometimes it’s just best to leave well enough ( or darn near perfection) alone!
“Hitchhiker’s Guide…” is a perfect example! The original BBC video version is excellent, and needs no embellishment.
If you want to see the 1980 version of “Lathe of Heaven,” there is a link to the full movie on YouTube at the bottom of the column.
Thanks for your 2021 perspective on a decades-old gem full of story and free of craptastic CGI and today’s crop of craptastic, overexposed actors.
This movie still affects me today and is a top recommendation.
While the replacement cover avoids YT taking down the video, I wish that The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” were in this rescued version (alas, a cash-grab rights issue). This is truly a case where there is no substitute for the original or a cover that sounds nearly identical: The odd cover used is distracting. Fortunately, the separate calliope track blends in and covers for some of the annoyance.
How I wish that the video tech of today would be applied to produce a better “print,” if only to improve the lighting.
Can’t argue that.
Though all things considered, I understand the reason behind the compromise…even if it is distracting.
Thanks so much for reading and for your reply!
Wonderful review/summary of “The Lathe of Heaven”! I remember seeing this when it was first aired on PBS (I was a teenager), before I’d even read the book. Once I had, I realized what a fine — and faithful — adaptation it was. Bruce Davison was especially memorable as George Orr, and for me it remains one of his best roles. In fact, everyone involved should be very proud of this production.
Like you, I’ve wondered whether anyone will ever do a proper remake. There are elements of black comedy/absurdism that could be teased out more deliberately if a director wanted to give it a different flavour from the 1980 original. And, as you say, nowadays the “I don’t see colour” grey skin sequence would be instantly recognizable for the bad-faith elision it is.
Let’s hope someone does do it filmic justice in future — and when they do, that their remake includes some deliberate nods to this exceptional production.
Thanks for your enthusiastic comment! Much appreciated (I love feedback).
I would also love to see Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Left Hand of Darkness” adapted for the screen as well someday.
And yes, here’s hoping someone might be inclined to another faithful, if more generously-budgeted remake down the road. The scrappy, PBS TV-movie set a surprisingly high bar.