Let’s talk about ZARDOZ.

No, really. I mean it. ZARDOZ. More-infamous-than-famous John Boorman 1970s SF movie, a miscast Sean Connery, a wardrobe director presumably still on the run from Fashion Interpol, a giant flying stone head, ZARDOZ.

I’ve seen ZARDOZ a few times, as a bad film fan. And like most everyone who sees it, I laughed like a hyena. But… after seeing it a couple of times, I began to realise that underneath a lot of garbage… it’s not that bad a film. Yes, the wardrobe designer committed a great many sins; the decision to throw Sean Connery into safety-orange bandoliers certainly makes a statement, and that statement is, “you cannot stop laughing at Sean Connery in safety-orange bandoliers.” And yes, even aside from that, there’s a lot of 70s bullshit floating around.

But underneath all that, there are some interesting sciffy concepts being played with here, many but not all having to do with a society of immortals who survived the apocalypse but were forced to watch it and can’t deal with the combination of survivor’s guilt and boredom, and, along the way, what they then do with the survivors around them.

You can start to pick out that there’s a plan, in other words – both by characters and director – and you can start to pick at some of the weird philosophy being thrown around. There’s still a lot of affectation, and the ending is pretty incoherent, but you can see the bones of something in that wreckage.

Then Minion Paul dug out this, and gave it to me:

That’s not Paul’s hand

My immediate reaction, of course, was laughter. Of course ZARDOZ had a novelisation, all those terrible movies had terrible novels. And curiosity got the best of me.

Now, ZARDOZ was an original story for film. John Boorman has the story and screenplay credits. But the book in my hands wasn’t a novelisation of that screenplay. It actually went the other way around. John Boorman explained it, in his author’s note; in 1972, he had a story idea, and he set out to write a screenplay around it. What came out was basically a novel, and not a screenplay. A short novel, yes, but nonetheless, pretty much a novel, one that he then adapted to film.

And this is that novel, put into proper novel form, with the help of co-writer Bill Stair. This is the idea, the story they were trying to film.

And this novel, while strange… works. More than that, it falls right into place in the history of the SF, coming between Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars before it and Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang after it, and it’s got ideas which are clear contemporaries to elements of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress before it and, I would argue, Singularity concepts from much later. ZARDOZ the novel plays with all the concepts you can dig out of the film, but much more effectively – thoughts on orthodoxy and closed systems and the necessary incompatibility of dissent in such systems, and the ennui and rage of unchanging eternity, and more.

But there are parts, both thematic and mechanical, that didn’t make it to the film – at least, not recoverably, not that I can see. Pieces that set the story into context, and in doing so, make it coherent.

An example of mechanics: in the film, there are several “vortex” areas, homes to the Immortals, all protected from the desolation of the unstated apocalypse which one can reasonably presume to be nuclear war, surrounded by the desolation outside. But the assemblage of technologies seems strange and nonsensical – a giant floating stone head, a force shield, massive computing capabilities, but they’re growing and harvesting food mostly by hand, but there’s psyonics apparently, and they’re immortal (via very Cylon-like reincarnation) but can’t reproduce despite massive medical knowledge, and they’re all meditation freaks and you can go on trial for disharmonious psychic vibrations, and on and on and on.

It comes across in the film as bad worldbuilding hindered by 70s woo. But in the novel, you know why all these elements are present, and you’re given a greater whole.

The vortexes were made from technology developed for sublight interstellar colonisation ships. Some of these ships even launched, before the end; these vortexes are built from the ones which didn’t.

Antigravity drive for propulsion and for shuttles, reused for the stone head. Radiation and large-kinetics energy shields needed in outer space, used instead to keep out nuclear weapons radiation, intruders, and conventional bombs. Neural interfaces in every crew member, mentally connecting them to each other and their omnipresent computing devices, forming the Tabernacle – the massive distributed network AI needed to run such a vessel. Centuries of learning to grow plants and crops in a variety of terrible conditions, manually but with genetic manipulation at your fingertips, to jumpstart a compatible biosphere on a terraformable planet. Reincarnation to enable a long enough life to get you there across hundreds of years of travel and the dangers of deep space. Meditation and mental discipline exercises to survive the trip with sanity intact. Massive cultural records on call for social needs, and, of course, plenty of duties for everyone to keep boredom at bay. But stuck, instead, on a ruined Earth, with nowhere to go…

…or is there? But now I’m teasing you.

And thematically, ZARDOZ the novel plays with still more ideas, ideas that aren’t so easy or even possible to dig out in cinema in this context – like the failure of the various the 60s and early 70s movements to achieve that kind of next-level-of-consciousness enlightenment that both the Soviets (via the New Soviet Man) in the East and the hippie and related movements in the West were trying to achieve, right about the time Hunter S. Thompson and Dennis Hopper were writing and filming about those failures as well.

And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil… we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave… so now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

— Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

And just when you think the story’s thematics are getting a little too deep into weird sexual politics and flirtations with misogyny, the story spins around and calls some of its own characters out on all of that, saying, effectively, it knows, it knows, it knows that this is part of the problem, but it doesn’t know how to fix it.

Just like the Eternals couldn’t quite figure out how to achieve their ideas about enlightenment, either. But they know, they know, they have an idea what might need to change, not to achieve that hypothetical next level that was so part of the era’s milieu, but how to make it possible to achieve. And maybe there’s a way for that, too – but they don’t know how to get there…

…but maybe Zed does. Somewhere, in his bones. Again, I tease – or do I?

The ending… well, it’s utterly unfilmable. I mean that in the sense that the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey is unfilmable – sure, you can set up a camera and show what’s going on in physical space all you want to, but without external text, it’s going to make exactly zero sense. We actually get a bunch of chunks of it on screen in the film, but the viewer has very little idea what it means in the narrative.

The film of 2001: A Space Odyssey works despite having these problems, because you had the visual genius of Stanley Kubrick at work, and he delivered a psychedelic fireworks show unlike anyone had ever seen. And while he couldn’t – and didn’t – deliver the text, he could and did deliver the sense of emotional confusion, horror, and resolution that’s carried through the end of the novel. The text is lost, but the emotional impact remains. Genius.

The ending of ZARDOZ isn’t that clean; the emotions are less clear and the ideas honestly more complicated. And while John Boorman’s a good director, he’s no visual genius, let alone one on the level of Kubrick, and he gave himself less physicality to work with in key ways. So sure, you can film Sean Connery as Zed sitting at a table looking at a rock crystal for a while, but somehow, that lacks the visual punch of the great transit Arthur C. Clarke gave Kubrick for 2001.

Alternatively, you could try to go into Zed’s head, and try to film the real action of the story, some of which is sort of tried and sort of transported into realspace, but with the most important character in those scenes – the Tabernacle itself, taking an active role as a sapient character – functionally removed from the film, that fails too, presumably because Boorman simply couldn’t figure out how to make that work. And I can’t fault him for that, either, because I don’t know how you would. I can come up with a dozen terrible ideas – some of which I’ve seen tried – and few to no good ones. I’m a musician, Jim, not a director.

All of which gets back to how it’s just unfilmable. Oh, they tried. A lot of the physical action of the ending, the unimportant but still shootable parts, that’s there. It’s just that without a greater context – and without the Tabernacle character itself – half of what’s going on is lost, and the other half makes little to no sense. Particularly not the final set of scenes in the stone head, the ones which evoked such confusion in reviewers and audiences alike. Everyone gets it wrong, and it’s not their fault, because the material you need to get it right simply isn’t there to get.

But it’s all there, in the novel.

In the end, ZARDOZ is still a mess of a film. It just is. Boorman and crew tried something they couldn’t hope to pull off, and, predictably, failed. And no, that’s not actually a parallel to the story – I almost wish it were, it’d make a nice sting on the end of this post. But I’d be lying if I said it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I have so much more respect for what they were trying to do now. It seems quite delusional, if you sit down and watch ZARDOZ the movie, once, without trying to dig out all the pieces you shouldn’t have to need to dig out, to contemplate an unironic respect for that mess. But I can see what they wanted to do, and why they tried.

Neither the novel nor the film truly succeed; certainly not alone, not even taken as a package. The film’s a mess, the novel has pacing problems, it dumps ideas at you for you to develop rather than doing it in the story, characterisation isn’t entirely sold, you need to do a lot of reading for content because huge chunks of material are thrown at you in toss-away clauses, there are some really dated psychological assertions, and some of the ideas you’re expected to buy are problematic at best.

But the novel gives you enough to see it. You can see what they tried to do, what they wanted to achieve, and where they failed. And with the right kind of eyes, you can in fact see past that high-water mark, past that place where the creative wave broke and rolled back, and see the masterpiece they could not deliver.

I just wish they could’ve figured out how to get there.