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Literature: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold..."
—The first line of the book

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a legendarily insane book written in 1971 by Hunter S. Thompson, loosely based on two trips to Las Vegas he took "in search of the American Dream". The book was made into a film by Terry Gilliam in 1998 starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro. An audio drama version was released on CD in 1996, with Harry Dean Stanton as the narrator, Jim Jarmusch as Duke, and Maury Chaykin as Gonzo.

It starts at the line above and goes downhill from there. The story involves a mad journalist (Raoul Duke, based on Thompson) and his Samoan attorney (Dr. Gonzo, based on Chicano attorney/activist Oscar Zeta Acosta, with nationality changed to protect the innocent guilty) traveling to Las Vegas to chronicle the Mint 400 desert bike race for Sports Illustrated, consuming many, many illegal drugs in the process; in actuality, both were glad to have an excuse to get out of L.A. because Acosta's radical friends thought that he was spending too much time with Thompson, whom they suspected of being a police agent (not at all an unrealistic suspicion in 1970). When this falls through, in part due to their severe drug saturation, Raoul attempts to return to Los Angeles, but gets called back into Vegas by Rolling Stone for the National District Attorneys Association's Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He accepts largely out of irony.

The film version follows the book absurdly closely, with the vast majority of content unabridged from the book, dialogue and all. Depp, a close personal friend of Thompson, also gives a spot-on (and very informed) performance.

A plot summary cannot cover the radically unique feel of the book. Largely written in a stream of consciousness, the book covers the tail end and self-destruction of the '60s freedom and drug culture and the beginning of the increasing tightness of the 1970s.

Also contains a famous line about Goddamned Bats, though they are not used in the book or film themselves.


The book provides examples of:

  • American Dream: The questing object of the protagonists.
  • Angrish: Gonzo's speech consists mostly of this in the "White Rabbit" scene.
  • Ax-Crazy: Dr. Gonzo.
  • Canon Illustrations: It is hard to imagine the book without the accompanying Steadman art.
  • Catch Phrase: "As your attorney, I advise you to..."
  • Celebrity Paradox
  • Circus of Fear: Circus Circus (and its movie version, Bazooko's), at least when you are already hallucinating.
  • Cool Car: The Red Shark and Great White Whale.
    • The Alleged Car: What the Great White Whale becomes by the end of the book.
      "I tried to put the top up, for privacy, but something was wrong with the motor. The generator light had been on, fiery red, ever since I'd driven the thing into Lake Mead on a water test. A quick run along the the dashboard disclosed that every circuit in the car was totally fucked. Nothing worked. Not even the headlights—and when I hit the air conditioner button I heard a nasty explosion under the hood."
  • Cool Hat: Notably averted. Duke's hats and allegedly Cool Shades are mostly horribly uncool. Which is part of his demented charm, really.
  • Critical Research Failure: In-universe example: The Drug Convention. Our protagonists, being heavy into drugs, call them out on it.
    "What the fuck are these people talking about?" my attorney whispered. "You'd have to be crazy on acid to think a joint looked like a goddamn cockroach!"
  • Deadpan Snarker: Raoul Duke.
  • Did I Just Say That Out Loud?: Inverted with Duke's musings about what to do with the hitchhiker should he discover the truth about him and Dr. Gonzo. Most of it is mumbled to himself, roughly in sync with the narration; the line "Jesus, did I say that?" is the only thing he actually says out loud.
  • Drink Order: Either rum or Wild Turkey 101 for Duke—as with the real Thompson—although he's not averse to tequila.
  • Drugs Are Good: They're certainly useful if you're bummed about how The Sixties turned out.
  • Electrified Bathtub: On a bad trip, Dr. Gonzo demands this. Duke fakes it by unplugging the machine and hurling a grapefruit into the tub.
  • Everything's Better with Monkeys: Duke attempts to buy an orangutan at one point.
  • Hypocritical Humor: While travelling with the hitchhiker, Duke becomes paranoid that Gonzo will start raving about being attacked by bats. And in the process, he almost blurts out that they should kill and bury the hitchhiker.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: "He offered me human blood as payment, said it would take me higher than cocaine. But I settled for some of this instead."
    • They freak out a few cops at the conference by making up stories about cannibal Satanists raiding cafes.
  • Immune to Drugs: Duke and Gonzo take enough drugs to kill the Third Marines, though this doesn't stop the effect they experience.
  • Kick the Dog: There's a waitress in Las Vegas who's still crying under utter panic. It's in this scene that their antics stop being fun and truly cross the line.
    • And the hitchhiker. Duke was planning on killing him in a drug-induced paranoia.
  • Long List: The drugs in the trunk of the car.
    Raoul Duke: We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers... also a quart of tequila, quart of rum, case of beer, pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.
  • Opening Monologue: "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold..."
  • Pineal Weirdness: Adrenochrome. Good lord.
    We need some of that. Extract of pineal... or maybe just a fresh gland... to chew on.
  • Rebellious Spirit: Raoul Duke
  • Refuge in Audacity: How the heroes get away with anything and everything.
    "It was all over now. We'd abused every rule that Vegas lived by. Burning the locals, abusing the tourists, terrifying the help. The only chance now, I felt, was the possibility that we'd gone to such excess that nobody in the position to bring the hammer down on us could possibly believe it."
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: The hotel bar sequence.
    Raoul: I was right in the middle of a fucking reptile zoo. Somebody's been giving booze to these goddamn things!
  • Running Gag: Each hotel room Duke and Gonzo check into gets consecutively more and more trashed.
  • Serial Escalation: You might cringe at the amount of drugs they take.
    • Or some of the drugs themselves.
    • Or the degree to which they can trash a hotel room.
  • Thirsty Desert: Mojave Desert
  • Totally Radical: The District Attorney's Conference is shown to be far behind the times.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Dr. Gonzo announces that he has "a powerful lust for red salmon." note 
    • In the book, grapefruit is mentioned something like 5 times every chapter.
      • In Real Life, Thompson had three Trademark Favorite Foods: grapefruit, rum, and Wild Turkey 101 bourbon.
      • Something of Truth in Television and Hilarious in Hindsight as chemicals in grapefruit can enhance the body's ability to uptake certain drugs. Which is why people on blood pressure drugs (in particular, but not exclusively) are warned not to eat or drink grapefruit.
  • Uncomfortable Elevator Moment From Hell: "My attorney had made a fool of himself."
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Thompson called the book a failed attempt at gonzo journalism because of the liberties he had to take to make it even slightly readable. There's some time compression and a lot of background stuff missing. For instance, the main reason that Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta went to Las Vegas in the first place was to discuss the incidents that eventually formed the substance of Thompson's "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan;" they needed to get out of Los Angeles because Acosta was a big-time civil rights attorney and his bodyguards were very zealous and very suspicious of gringos.
    • The biggest change to the plot is that in real life the Mint 400 race and the drug conference took place on two separate trips, about a month apart. In the book and movie they happen almost back to back.
  • Viva Las Vegas
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Dr. Gonzo gets one in both The Movie and one of the book's illustrations.
    Gonzo: (moaning in distress) Goddamn mescaline. Why can't they make it a little less pure?
  • What the Hell, Hero?: The scene with the waitress in the diner; Duke calls Gonzo out on it and realizes their time in Vegas is up.
    • Duke gets a few of these as well, although his are more just him saying horrible things, such as his plans for Lucy: "These cops will go fifty bucks a head to beat her into submission and then gang-fuck her. We can set her up in one of these back-street motels, hang pictures of Jesus all over the room, then turn these fucking pigs loose on her." (Although in this case, Duke was making a very pointed joke to Gonzo about the world of legal trouble in which he was in danger of landing them both by bringing Lucy with him.)

The movie provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Lucy, the girl Dr. Gonzo seduces, is described as having "the face and form of a Pit Bull"— not words most people would apply to Christina Ricci.
  • Aside Glance: Duke gives one to the audience to acknowledge the Critical Research Failure that is the District Attorney's narcotics convention.
  • Catchphrase: Dr. Gonzo prefacing advice to Duke with "As your attorney, I advise you to..."
  • Casting Gag: The real Hunter S. Thompson shows up in a hallucination/flashback sequence to his youth.
    Duke: There I was...mother of god, there I am! Holy fuck—?! Clearly I was a victim of the drug explosion...a natural street freak just eating whatever came by.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Raoul Duke.
    • His one year old Ford Maverick is battered, has a replacement hood and hubcaps, and smokes like a chimney.
    • He drives the red Impala over a two foot wide concrete curb at 45 mph, backward, while in the rental agency parking lot.
    • The white Cadillac convertible is in much the same condition as the Ford after 48 hours with him.
  • Funny Background Event: Pay attention to Raoul's behaviour when Gonzo's talking to other people, because you're going to laugh. In particular, when the both of them go to see a Debbie Reynolds show, Gonzo just busts out the locked entrance and takes out the security belt, starting to talk with the doorman. Raoul's just acting out, high on a bunch of drugs, while playing with the security belt, even struggling with a lady that wanted to take the belt out.
  • Genre-Busting: This is a movie that must be seen at least twice, since the first time you watch it, you will not understand what kind of movie you just watched. Was it a comedy? Was it a political movie? Was it meant to be serious? Was it meant to just make you laugh? What the hell happened in the last third of the movie?
  • Iconic Outfit: Raoul's aviator shades, Nice Hat (the green visor or safari hat), Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts and Chuck Taylor sneakers have become ingrained in popular culture.
  • Kick the Dog: Duke abuses a dwarf by making him crawl for change in a flashback at the beginning of the movie.
    • In Hunter Thompson's commentary track, he angrily insists that Depp improvised throwing coins at the dwarf, and that in real life he would never have done something so demeaning. He felt it was a deeply inaccurate moment. Depp insists he merely threw the coins upward in the direction of the dwarf, which appears to be a more accurate description of the event if you watch the scene.
  • Lawyer-Friendly Cameo: In the book, Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo repeatedly visit the Circus Circus casino; in the movie, it becomes Bazooko's Circus.
  • Mood Whiplash: When Dr. Gonzo robbed the waitress at knifepoint, you knew the slapstick was over.
  • Noodle Incident: Lampshaded: Flash Forward and back again to the aftermath of the second hotel-room trashing and vandalism spree, including a mini-riot that ensues when they're caught vandalizing their own car (a brand-new Cadillac), an ape assault, dried ketchup stains that look like blood, a burned out mattress, and an entirely flooded room filled with a pyramid of TV screens. And Duke wakes up wearing a strap-on alligator tail with a microphone taped to his face. (Some of these incidents are recounted first-hand in the book, however.)
    Duke: (Dimly remembered flashback) You people voted for Hubert Humphrey! And you killed Jesus!
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The movie leaves out most of Duke's longer expositions on the 60's drug culture as well as his slow downward spiral towards BSOD after the diner incident.
  • Road Movie
  • Running Gag: Any time Duke or Gonzo freaks out in public while the other is in a lucid state, the latter will explain to the people around him "This man has a heart condition." It's surprising how often that seems to do the trick.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The intro of the film shows war and protest footage to the tune of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music (even if it is a somewhat creepy, minor-key version).
    • Duke hallucinates giant lizards mating in the hotel lounge as "Amore Scusami" plays.
  • Stoner Flick
  • Take Our Word for It: Both hotel rooms are progressively trashed offscreen.
  • What Did I Do Last Night?: The scene after the hotel room got trashed.
  • With Friends Like These...: Duke and Gonzo.

The question is, as always: Now?

Fast Times at Ridgemont HighCreator/UniversalField of Dreams
Fantastic Mr. FoxCreator/The Criterion CollectionThe Fisher King
The Father Christmas LettersLiterature of the 1970sFifth Business
Fatal DeviationFilms of the 1990sFlowers of Shanghai
Escape From Camp 14Non-Fiction LiteratureFever Pitch

alternative title(s): Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas; Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
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