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Roadside Picnic

Thoughts on the book by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

I only knew of the brothers Strugatsky from the various film adaptations of their works. Specifically, the film Stalker (1979) by Andrei Tarkovsky, which is adapted from the book in question, and Hard to be a God (2013) by Aleksei German, based on the book of the same name.

Stalker has been one of my favourite films since I first discovered it during my teenage years and began those first tentative, adolescent steps towards a cinema made outside of the Hollywood mainstream.

To this day, the film's formalist aesthetic - its long tracking shots and carefully choreographed camera movements, its cross-cutting between images of both colour and sepia-tinted monochrome, its voice-over digressions and quoted poetry, its foggy landscapes and falling rain, its wind pushing through blades of grass and its preoccupation with ruined architectural spaces - remain part of my understanding of what many critics would call "pure cinema"; something that can't be translated to any other medium, but has to be experienced through that combination of sound and moving pictures, which only film (or visual content) can convey.

Stalker [Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979]:

While punctuated by earlier scenes of action and even a moment of suspense, Tarkovsky's film is a largely slow, vaguely academic treatise on philosophical and metaphysical themes. Like his earlier film, Solaris (1972), Stalker is recognised as a work of science-fiction, but unlike that earlier adaptation of the book by Stanisław Lem, the science-fiction elements have been made vague; pushed to the background of a story that's more concerned with atmosphere, imagery and ideas. Stalker gives the impression of themes like extra-terrestrial visitation, post-nuclear devastation, telekinesis and mutation, but without necessarily having to commit to an explanation as to why these events have occurred.

Approaching "Roadside Picnic" with an impression of what the book might be like from having seen and loved Tarkovsky's film was quite an experience. While the book expresses the same basic plot – a scavenger, known as a 'stalker', leads willing participants into a dangerous hinterland known as 'the zone', which has been transformed by an alien visitation – the structure, character and general tone of the book is remarkably different.

Roadside Picnic [Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, 1972]:

While Tarkovsky's film is quiet and reflective, "Roadside Picnic" has the tone of a hardboiled 40s detective novel. The character is cynical, violent and world-weary. He's closer to Harrison Ford's characters in either Star Wars (1977) or Blade Runner (1982) than the portrayal by Alexander Kaidanovsky in the subsequent film. The book's protagonist is a professional who's in it for the money; conflicted and marked by past experiences, and in a sense as much a prisoner of the lifestyle and the cruel economic realities of the brutal world that he inhabits.

The book is fragmented; it begins with a television interview (written in the same format), in which characters that drift in and out of the narrative as peripheral figures set-up the backstory and exposition. From here the book presents different episodes of the Stalker's life, establishing a narrative that feels more like a mosaic. Something made up of incredibly small, seemingly disconnected details that only become clear the further we step away from it.

Anyone going into the book expecting something akin to Tarkovsky's film will be disappointed. But the book is its own beast, and while fragmentary and episodic, I found it completely compelling. The atmosphere and world that is evoked by the brothers Strugatsky and the slow accumulation of details which add to our understanding of the character of the Stalker are each brilliant, with the writing teasing out moments of suspense, action, horror, humour and even the same philosophical concerns that Tarkovsky had elaborated upon in his subsequent film. In particular, the discussion that gives the book its title, "Roadside Picnic", is beautifully written, expressing the existential anxiety of human beings left feeling deficient or insignificant when touched by the presence of something greater than themselves.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky [Photographer unknown]:

"Roadside Picnic" confounded my expectations, but it turned out to be a great work of pulp science-fiction. Having never read anything penned by the brothers Strugatsky, the book in question has definitely left me interested in experiencing more of their work. "Hard to be a God" (1964) is already of interest because of its connection to German's bizarre and (intentionally) alienating film, but I'm also keen to read the beautifully titled "Ugly Swans" (1972) and "The Doomed City" (1988).

After finishing the book, I was compelled to return to Tarkovsky's film to contrast and compare the differences between the two works. I think Tarkovsky and his collaborators capture an atmosphere of 'the zone' that exists in the book, but it's genuinely remarkable that Tarkovsky read "Roadside Picnic" and arrived at the character and narrative found in the finished film. It feels like he adapted the film from a plot synopsis rather than the book itself. That said, Stalker remains an absolute marvel and one of the great works of twentieth-century cinema.

While often considered a key work of the supposed 'slow cinema' movement, the first half of Stalker is actually briskly paced and relatively action packed; easing us into a mesmerising second-act expedition that connects the physical to the metaphysical in a profoundly dramatic way. Tarkovsky's aesthetic had matured into something unique here; his reflections on nature and existence finding the perfect expression in both content and form.


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