Monday, November 12, 2012


Zardoz, by John Boorman and Bill Stair
April, 1974  Signet Books

Zardoz is one of those films that’s more fun to talk about than to watch, just a weird blitz of a movie, with a flying stone head, future hippie communes, rampant toplessness, and Sean Connery running around in thigh-high boots and red diapers.  At the very least, I can respect director/writer/producer John Boorman’s attempt to “go beyond 2001.”  I mean, you’d never see someone attempt anything like this movie in today’s world, where most sci-fi is just cgi-laden, PG-13 junk that caters to the tweener market.

What’s most surprising about this novelization is how slim it is.  Given the elaborate/psychedelic nature of the actual film, one would expect the novel to be a bloated mess.  Instead it is so focused that it almost comes off like some tractate from a forgotten gnostic religion.  According to his preface, Boorman’s initial draft of Zardoz more resembled a novel, and after filming the movie in late 1973 he decided that perhaps it should be a novel after all.  So he called in colleague Bill Stair, who helped Boorman during the writing stage of Zardoz, and went about fashioning it all into a book, using excised portions and storylines from his earlier screenplay drafts.

One thing I can say is, if you rewatch the actual film after reading this book, you will certainly understand everything you see.  Zardoz is pretty unique in that it’s a film that shows more than it tells, so this novel really fills in a lot of blank spots.  And this isn’t the typical sort of film novelization, where it’s the work of some contractor who’s churning out a book based on some early draft; this is the actual work of the film’s creator. 

The story follows the film quite closely, only changing things here and there, with the biggest changes coming at the climax.  Those who have seen the film though will not find anything much different in the opening section, other than a brief background on protagonist Zed – we learn that his father was also an Exterminator, thus high above the common rabble, and so Zed too was raised to be a leader of men.

The setting is hundreds of years in the future, and some apparent calamity has sent hummanity back into a near-primitive existence.  Zed is an Exterminator who rides about on his horse, armed with pistols and rifles, blowing away the Brutals, ie peasants and the like.  His god is Zardoz, a gigantic stone head that flies around and pronounces things like “The penis is evil” in a booming voice, then spits out more pistols and rifles from its gaping mouth.  (Can you imagine Boorman pitching this to the studios?  Man, there will never be another time in Hollywood like the early ‘70s.)

We meet Zed as he has snuck into Zardoz’s mouth, lifted off into the air and flying inside his god.  Zed is not filled with holy reverence, though.  We eventually learn that Zed is here for revenge.  Instead of being the murderous villain we expect him to be, Zed is actually enlightened – for one, when Zardoz proclaimed that the Exterminators stop exterminating and instead force the Brutals into slavery, to harvest crops, Zed started to suspect something was up.  Then, after a mysterious meeting with some shadowy figure in a library, Zed began to read, homeschooling himself…and he was a fast learner, too, as the novel informs us that Zed is a “super mutant,” with both physical and mental superiority over normal humans.

All this is learned much later in the book (and film), but long story short, Zed discovers in the goofiest possible way that his god Zardoz is nothing but a joke.  (Famously, the name is a play on The Wizard of Oz.)  So Zed has snuck within the stone head to find out where it comes from, who is behind it.  So focused is he on his mission that when he sees another man inside the stone head (Arthur Frayn, the creator of Zardoz, though we don’t learn this until later), Zed simply shoots the bastard and watches him fall to the ground far below.

The stone head lands in a vast plot of land filled with buildings and robe-wearing Eternals, ie humans who have somehow learned to cheat death and now live in a sort of hive community.  This place is called the Vortex, and it is protected by an invisible barrier.  Zed comes in contact with some of the Eternals, but plays dumb, not admitting to having killed Frayn.  Not that it much matters, though, for the Eternals regenerate, even if the body is destroyed, and even now Frayn’s embryo is growing into an adult being.

A pair of Eternals latch onto Zed as if he’s a wayward dog, or at least one of Pavlov’s dogs.  The first “normal” human they’ve seen in perhaps centuries, they marvel over Zed’s “barbarian” nature and carry out various experiments on him.  In particular they are fascinated by his lusts and desires.  Since these people cannot die they’ve cast aside their sexual impulses, with the result that no one now has sex and no children have been born for hundreds of years.

Things proceed much as in the film.  After a psychedelic group mind-vote, the Eternals deem to allow Zed to stay in the Vortex for a few days, until Frayn has regenerated – then they can get to the bottom of what happened to him.  Meanwhile Zed is shuffled around the Vortex, sometimes hanging with Friend, a male Eternal who despises his immortality, other times being traded off between Consuella and May, female Eternals who harbor lustful thoughts behind their sneers.  The book even replicates the unintentionally hilarious scene where the gals try to goose Zed’s libido via a series of sexual images projected on a screen.

Zed’s mere presence fosters revolt within the Vortex, which in addition to Eternals is made up of those who have rebelled and have been aged as punishment, and finally those who are so apathetic that they do nothing but sit around and stare into nothingness.  The moral of the story is that man is not designed for infinite existence, and immortality will eventually lead to apathy and madness.

Along the way Zed learns a bit about the Vortex.  Most importantly he learns of the Tabernacle, a mysterious force which apparently controls the Vortex and its occupants.  It also mentally unites them and keeps them from remembering how it was created, or indeed where it even is, so that they may never destroy it.  Zed, who has sworn to destroy the Vortex, realizes that to do so he must destroy the Tabernacle.  But to do that, he must first figure out what it is.  Meanwhile, he discovers that the Tabernacle is trying to destroy him. 

With a group of Eternals led by Consuella out to kill him, Zed hides out with Friend and a gaggle of May’s female followers.  They understand that Zed can save them, but he must be prepared first.  Since time is of the essence, they must instruct him by “touch-teaching.”  This entails a very elaborate and very psychedelic section where Zed mentally voyages into inner and outer space, and really clarifies all of the nonsensical stuff that occurs in the film version.

Here the novel delivers the answers that the film did not.  For one, we discover that the Vortex is really a spaceship, one that never left the earth.  Hence the force field which surrounds the place, which is really just clear material of dense construction that was created to endure the rigors of space travel.  (Why is it clear?  So the spaceship occupants could see outside into space and thus manuever around asteroids and the like…!)  The Eternals were so created so that they could survive the long years of space voyaging, and indeed their fellows are far out into space, but for whatever reason this particular ship never took off, and the Eternals instead became vapid occupants of a desolate earth.

Still in his psychedelic mind-trip, Zed sees the construction of the Tabernacle.  Created by a scientist, it “lives” in crystals which are implanted in the minds of each of the Eternals.  Further, to ensure that none of them ever died, the scientist made each of them, including himself, forget how the Tabernacle was created.  It just sort of goes on and on, with Zed free-floating through psychic space, witnessing past events – that is, when one of the female Eternals isn’t having astral sex with him.  There’s a lot of psychedelic-hued purple prose here, with Zed getting busy on the mental plane with a few of the Vortex gals.

The denoument is basically the same as the film.  Chaos overtakes the Vortex and Zed’s fellow Exterminators swoop in, delivering the sweet relief of death.  Zed, who was being prepared as the ultimate deliverer of the Eternals, has been reborn after his astral/psychic voyaging, and can no longer bring himself to murder.  Nothing stops his old Exterminator friends, though, who chop down characters like Friend and the reborn Frayn, who go to their deaths with cheer, in what I assume we are to take as a happy ending.  Zed meanwhile escapes with Consuella, where we are told – just as in the film – that they eventually have a child and then grow old together and die.

Writing-wise the book is pretty good, with a literate feel...or, at least, the striving for a literate feel.  It does though have the expected clinical/sterile tone I get from most British pulp, but in this case it actually complements the aloof tone of the story itself.  Finally, the authors are adept at doling out metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, serving up some truly delirious dialog.  (Choice line: "Stay close to me, inside my aura.")

So then, the novel really exists as a clarification of the events in the film, sort of like a companion piece.  I guess the biggest compliment I can pay it is that, after reading this book, I wanted to watch Zardoz again.  And who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll get drunk enough that I actually will.


Anonymous said...

I actually own this book, which makes it something of a novelty since most of what you write about here has never crossed my path despite years of grubbing around among used books.

Anyway, I completely agree that Zardoz (the book) is a solid piece of work and an excellent companion piece to the film. This is no novelization of Beverly Hills Cop II, in other words. It helps that I really like Zardoz (the movie), so the weirdness sort of rolls off me. Others might not feel the same way.

Another solid review, and one I was glad to see.

Joe Kenney said...

Sam, thanks for the comment, and glad to hear you enjoy Zardoz, too.

If you're looking for another weird and psychedelic sci-fi movie, let me recommend "Beyond The Black Rainbow," a movie from 2010 which I just discovered and picked up on Blu-Ray. It's very much in the "beyond the 2001" vein, almost a love letter to Kubrick...and it was written and directed by the son of the guy who directed "First Blood II!!"

AndyDecker said...

Man, there will never be another time in Hollywood like the early ‘70s.)"

If this isn't true.

I re-watched the movie not so long ago and in hindsight it seemed like a blueprint of a lot of the sf of the time. The sociological elements, its idea of a kind of class-war, the psychedelic for its own sake, the topic of bored immortals and so on.

As far out this was - and a lot of time spectaculary failing - it is such a contrast to mainstream sf that it can give you whiplash. :-) If you like it or not, it made the genre richer.

I never realized that there was a novelisation of this. Good to know.
Another great write-up Joe!

OlmanFeelyus said...

You have done the internet a great service here. Many is the time I have seen Zardoz and never really cared too much what it was actually about, but now that I have read your explanation, I am glad to know.

Man, the scene that used to really drive me crazy was when the immortals did that super annoying 70s interpretative hand gestures to demonstrate that they were using ESP.

muskrat said...

Seeing this flick for the first time, I wondered why Sean Connery was dressed as Vampirella.