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An In-Depth Review of Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"

Updated on December 11, 2017
Luke Holm profile image

Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

The Movie: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

The movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is based off of Hunter S. Thompson's similarly titled novel. Johnny Depp's performance is a near perfect impersonation of Thompson's character, Raoul Duke.

The movie starts off in bat country, 1971. The psychedelic protagonist, Raoul Duke, and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, are speeding through the desert in a red convertible shark, chasing the American Dream, and hallucinating on drugs. The immediate madness sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which is fueled by drug abuse, chaotic trips, and a maniac journalist covering the infamous Mint 400.

Terrorizing the Las Vegas strip, the duo get themselves into all sorts of nonsense. The movie cycles scenarios of intoxication, paranoia, fleeing, and falling back into a binge. While many people find the movie repetitive, each scene further unfolds the theme of humping the American Dream. The story is much more than vicious cycles spinning out of control. The story is about every person in the 60s and 70s, what they were told, and the lifestyles they worked hard to achieve.

I watch this movie every time I'm feeling down in the dumps. The fact that Duke and Gonzo inflict so much harm, yet escape unscathed, tends to help me remember that everything is going to be all right. The accompanied soundtrack is nostalgic, playing some of the grooviest tunes from the 60s and 70s.


The Book: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream

The book, like the movie, opens with the two main characters describing their stash of grass, mescaline, acid, cocaine, tequila, Budweiser, ether, amyls and assorted other uppers and downers...also, some rum. They are always on the prowl for more psychedelic treats, which they find somewhere amidst the ritz and glamor of the Las Vegas strip.

Hunter S. Thompson wrote his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, published by Random House, in 1971. The book is written in Thompson's own savage style, Gonzo journalism. The Gonzo genre is typically a subjective account of the event in history, where the journalist is part of the story and thus relays information from this biased perspective.

Thompson wrote the book based off of scribbled notes, pamphlets, and other such trinkets he kept while on his Vegas trip. When writing the book, he actually toned down a lot of the scenes so as to not seem so insane. If people read the original manuscript or the original rough draft, they would have never believed the story.

When RollingStone interviewed Depp about his preparation for the part, Depp said (in reference to gathering information for the book), "Yeah. It's toned down. It was probably more outrageous, and more insane, than he can write. I think the book is a calmer version of what actually happened."

The book and the movie are very similar. Aside from a few details added to the movie, many might find difficulty in any real difference between the two. Obviously, the book allows for the mind to run wild, imagining the trippy scenes and grotesque nature of their journey. However, if one has never had such experiences, the movie offers a unique perspective of the drug culture, perfectly coupled with the music of the 60s and 70s, which Thompson describes in his book.

Opening Scene: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

The Author: Hunter S. Thompson

Please note that this biography does not do Hunter Stockton Thompson, a legend, true justice. Please, do yourself a favor and read his biography. To say he was an eccentric character is an understatement. With that being said, there are some aspects of his life, though, that I think are worth mentioning.

Like Depp, Hunter S. Thompson was born in Kentucky, on July 18th, 1939. Throughout his life, he engaged in a slew of professions, always focused on reaching his goal of becoming a famous journalist. In the beginning of his writing career, he struggled to find his own, personal style. To help him find his style, he wrote, word for word, over and over again, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Hemmingway's A Farewell to Arms. Eventually, he developed his own style of writing, later termed Gonzo Journalism.

As he refined his writing skills, Thompson was a journalist for several different papers across the country. He wrote about war, sports, politics, current and emerging American culture, the Hell's Angels, his hero: Hemmingway, and many more self selected topics.

Thompson spent time in the military, after almost going to prison for theft, as a fighter pilot. He was honorably discharged for instigating a rebellious sense of self-worth amongst the ranks of military men. Later, he hitchhiked the United States, spent time as a security guard, and ran for Sheriff in Pitkin County, CO, as part of a group running for local offices on the "Freak Power" ticket.

Thompson broke through in his writing career when he authored the first Gonzo-style article for the Rolling Stones Magazine. His genesis grew and he was eventually writing for other popular magazines like Sports Illustrated. When writing for Sports Illustrated, he went to Last Vegas to write a 250-word caption for a picture showing the race The Mint 400. What was originally supposed to be a short caption later turned into a detailed memoir of his insane journey into the heart of the American Dream.

What was originally just a short cover for a blurb in a magazine became, arguably, his greatest work: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Instead of the 250-word piece, he submitted a 2,500 word manuscript to the editor of Sport Illustrated. The manuscript was "aggressively rejected," thus spurring him to continue working on it and then later submitting it to Rolling Stone Magazine.

Raoul Duke, Hunter's alternate persona and character in the book and movie, was self-acclaimed to be 97% Thompson. He really was as strange and out-there as the movie portrays him to be. His biography is riddled with drug abuse, domestic abuse, political abuse, and violence. Thompson may have been a genius, but he was, without a doubt, a lunatic genius.

February 20, 2005 Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide at age of 67 by shooting himself in the face. It is rumored that he "would never consider himself a man if he didn't take his life." As per his request, Thompson's ashes were fired out of a 150 ft. cannon into the atmosphere as Bob Dylan's “Tamborine Man” played in the background. Johnny Depp, a close friend of Thompson funded the charade. It was a bitter sweet end to the legend, the myth, the man.

Hunter S. Thompson Shooting Guns

The Actor: Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp was born nearly twenty-four years after Thompson, in Owensboro, Kentucky. Arguably one of the best actors in Hollywood, Depp focused all his efforts in capturing the persona of Thompson. His performance is truly remarkable.

In order to better understand the man he would be imitating, Depp lived in Thompson's basement for several months. Depp said he watched Thompson like a hawk, taking painstakingly detailed notes, recording conversations, and making copies of Thompson's work.

To prepare for the role as Raoul Duke, it was absolutely essential that Depp lived with Thompson. They talked together long into the night while Thompson smoked, drank, and intoxicated himself with various substances. While visiting, Depp learned about Thompson's affinity for guns. He drove Thompson's convertible. He rummaged through Thompson's old clothes. And he watched how Thompson interacted with the people in the nearby town.

Thompson also made Depp read his writing aloud. In doing so, Thompson critiqued Depp's intonation, speech, pauses, and nearly everything else. Thompson was very hard on Depp. He would often fall into fits of rage and hysteria. He was a madman.

He would belittle Depp and then compliment him immediately after. Instead of becoming discouraged, Depp thought Thompson's beratement was perfect. Exactly what Johnny Depp was looking for when studying his upcoming role.

Depp says that playing this part has left him more outgoing: "It's a curse for a part of me, which is kind of comfortable being slightly shy and away from people. But on the other side, it's nice to have that sort of thrust. It's like a drug, I guess, like some horrible addictive drug – once you've felt it in the bone marrow, you don't want to let it go, because it's a great tool."

Before his performance, Depp showed Thompson his wardrobe for the movie. Thompson became infuriated. He criticized the flashy attire, the overdone look that Depp had donned in the photos, and accused Depp of mocking him. Depp replied in a letter with his apologies and a reassurance that he and the casting crew would do the best they possibly could. He assured Thompson that his only intentions were to play Raoul Duke as accurately as possible.

After his performance, Depp was acutely aware that his friendship with Thompson might have come to an end. He believed that he played the role too close to the bone, too close to the truth of Thompson's life. In the end, though, this is what Thompson would have wanted.

Johnny Depp Interview: Fear and Loathing in Last Vegas

Acrostic Summary

Forget what you know about binges.
Every scene in this movie is fueled by drugs.
A journalist goes to Vegas with his psychopath lawyer--
Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo.

Along the way, Duke attempts to cover a motorcycle race.
Needless to say, he's in for a wild ride.
Despite the job, both lose their inhibitions to the Vegas strip.

Life for them becomes a strange twist of twisted events.
Only once they're on the other side does it make sense.
Although, at the time, the story seems to spiral out of control.
That's the fun, I guess.
"He who makes a beast out of himself..." sorta thing.
Intense as their abuse is, both emerge unscathed.
No one dies and everything ends well.
Gonzo flees "bat country" and Duke just returns home.

In the end, the audience is left to ponder their mess.
"No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind."

"Life is much weirder than imagination,"
As Hunter S. Thompson, the author, once said.
"Some may never live, but the crazy never die."

Voted a 5.7/10 on Rotten Tomatoes for repetitive themes,
Everyone agrees that this movie has its ups and downs.
Given a chance, its value derives from insight and creativity.
Allusions, history, and poetry reveal the delusion of those,
"Still humping the American dream."


Have you seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? What would you rate it?

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© 2017 JourneyHolm


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