The life and work of Hunter S. Thompson has long appealed to filmmakers, yet no one has entirely succeeded in adapting either. Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) was Art Linklater’s ham-fisted attempt, then in 1998 Terry Gilliam made an admirable but ultimately cartoonish effort at turning Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas into a movie. Two decades later, Bruce Robinson gave The Rum Diary a decent shot, but ultimately none of these were great films. Bill Murray and Johnny Depp captured Thompson well, but the films struggled with the subject matter – a larger-than-life author who was hard to separate from his creation, Raoul Duke, and whose work perennially played with fact and fiction, fusing nostalgia with righteous anger and comic absurdity.
Fear and Loathing in Aspen (2021) is the latest attempt and it fails partly for the same reasons as its predecessors. Director and writer Bobby Kennedy III seems unsure of his subject, portraying Thompson as a clown for most of the film but intermittently attempts to show him as an articulate and serious man. These efforts, though, are unconvincing. Whilst this dichotomy was indeed a part of Thompson’s character, it is jarring in the context of the film and does not seem remotely authentic. Jay Bulger does a reasonable job of playing the author, but as with Murray in Where the Buffalo Roam, he is largely hamstrung by inconsistencies in the script.
The film centres on Thompson’s candidacy for sheriff of Aspen in 1970 and overall it is surprisingly accurate, with a few rather notable omissions or changes. This is understandable in filmmaking, where a story has to be streamlined in order to present an engaging narrative that does away with the uncertainties and confusions of reality. Still, in spite of efforts to present a more cinematic narrative, this is a disjointed and unsatisfying movie that ambles pointless from scene to scene with little to engage the viewer. For those unfamiliar with Thompson’s work, it is probably of minor interest, but none of the characters are explored satisfactorily and the interesting real-life story is not done justice. It seems instead to have been made for those already familiar with the story, yet we are left frustrated by the mistakes and omissions.
Primarily, the film takes the stance that Thompson ran for sheriff so that he could be sheriff, but it is well established that he in fact ran in order to distract the public from other Freak Party candidates, whose platforms were more moderate. The timeline is also confusing, with it being suggested at the start of the film that Thompson had already become famous for national political coverage, when in fact this began a year later, in late 1971. The movie also has Thompson writing his Rolling Stone article about the campaign prior to the campaign beginning and when he meets with artist Tom Benton, his campaign posters are already on the artist’s walls, despite them not yet having started making them. It is a sloppy error.
Omitted from the movie is the real genesis of Thompson’s decision to run for sheriff, which seems rather important in the context of a film on that very subject. Instead of undertaking the chronologically tricky task of showing Thompson promising a year earlier to run whilst managing another political campaign, he randomly comes up with the idea in the offices of Rolling Stone, this having been crudely suggested by the character of Peggy Clifford in a previous scene. It is also not explained why he went to San Francisco, which is because he first contacted Wenner in the midst of his campaign and together they hatched the idea of his article, “Freak Power in the Rockies.”
Another odd omission is Thompson’s friend and collaborator, Oscar Zeta Acosta, who helped with the Freak Power campaign. Whilst this could have been another decision made for the purpose of a more convenient and streamlined narrative, it makes it all the more obvious that there were absolutely no people of colour in this film. Granted, Aspen was not exactly a diverse place in 1970, but one cannot help but notice how white it is in Kennedy’s interpretation as of 2021.
Inaccuracies and omissions aside, there is also the script to contend with. Whilst there is some competent acting and the occasional interesting camera work or transition, the dialogue is simply atrocious and this is what makes the film nearly unwatchable in places. Whilst factual accuracies can be overlooked, Fear and Loathing in Aspen is rather like a soap opera. Every scene is a crude setup for some plot point, with hard-to-believe lines fed from two-dimensional characters. Many famous quotes by Thompson are inserted (verbatim or paraphrased) into the film at random junctures, and these are more than a little cringeworthy.
The positives are that the movie mostly looks quite good thanks to some artful transitions and a liberal use of stock footage. I quite liked the fact that they blended real video from Aspen in the sixties and seventies with new scenes filmed with actors, particularly made-up home videos of Hunter, Sandy, and Juan, which blended seamlessly with real footage from the sixties. This worked for me primarily because it mirrored Thompson’s own approach to art. His whole Gono process was a matter of transposing fiction upon reality, which is perhaps the main (or only) achievement by this film’s director. From clips of naked hippies frolicking in rivers to real scenes of political debates and interviews with Aspenites, this was a welcome addition that blurred the lines between the real and the imagined. They even used a real campaign advert that Thompson had made in 1970.
All this stock footage, however, serves to remind one of a far better film – Freak Power (2020). Last year, DJ Watkins put together a wonderful documentary on Thompson’s run for sheriff, and for this he gathered a vast amount of footage, some of which was re-used in this film. Having seen both films, one cannot help but feel that this is borderline plagiarism, and when you see shots clearly cribbed from Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as well as music from Breakfast With Hunter, you get the sense that this movie suffered perhaps from its director having been overly influenced by the extant material.
Ultimately, Fear and Loathing in Aspen is interesting in that it has attempted a faithful account of Thompson’s campaign for sheriff – a story fascinating and inspiring enough to make wonderful film fodder – yet it failed. It is not accurate enough to function as a recreated documentary and as a typical “inspired by a true story” Hollywood flick, it simply lacks the coherence, pacing, depth, or skill to engage the reader. The only vaguely interesting character is Hunter Thompson, and the director clearly never knew how to tackle this admittedly challenging man, resulting in a film that is perpetually unsure of itself.
Hunter S. Thompson was a fascinating and complex man, and his run for sheriff in 1970 is perhaps the part of his life best suited for cinematic adaptation due to the possibilities of exploring him as an intelligent individual, moving away from the clownish depictions found elsewhere. Although there is one debate scene in which Thompson’s character, with some degree of articulacy, explains his belief in Jeffersonian democracy, this is alas just another film that panders to the image Thompson himself tried to shirk – the reckless buffoon that is more at home on fraternity posters than library shelves. It is a missed opportunity to take the man seriously. Given the existence of the recent Freak Power documentary, I can see no reason whatsoever to recommend watching Fear and Loathing in Aspen.