While reading this novel, I joked with a few friends that this book was writing my inevitable blog post for me. A man seeing semi-real manifestations of women, often focusing on their breasts, created from the imaginations of men? To any gender and sexuality focused student, it seemed like a tantalizing fruit ripe for the picking. I was not disappointed, though I thought that the novel portrayed Harey, the main female character, better as a whole than I anticipated from the first half of the novel. Ultimately, I was pleased with Solaris on a basic level—it was fun to read. There were times where I gasped aloud due to the stress of a situation, Lem was undeniably talented at writing a character’s inner thoughts on impossible situations.
Just as the book was, I was interested in the personhood of the false women on the station. Kelvin, the point of view character, is haunted by memories of his late wife. His failure to take her threats of suicide seriously after an argument they had resulted in him finding her dead body, cold in their shared bed. This guilt housed within was perhaps seen by Solaris’ ocean to be his most prevalent memory, reaching out to him by presenting him with a copy of his wife for himself, Harey. Her presence complicates the nature of memory, yet at the same time, it questions the nature of possession. If she is a presence that only exists due to Kelvin’s memory, does that make her his? Throughout the length of the book, this second Harey rejects the idea that she and the original are the same and proclaims her own identity as an existence. And, in turn, Kelvin claims to love this Harey, the Harey he knows now. This idea, while easy to comprehend written in a sentence, is much harder for the main characters to struggle with. Eventually, this second Harey (or third, if you count the Harey that Kelvin sent off in a rocket when she first appeared) also commits suicide like her original counterpart, freeing Kelvin of her presence forever. Though this act is proof of Harey as an individual exerting free will that goes against the wishes of her creator, it is easy to extend this experiment one layer further: It is not truly Kelvin that is her creator, but of course, it is Lem himself.
This avenue of thinking opens many questions, such as “Is it possible for an author to create a character who is autonomous?” Of course, the answer to that is no. An author, no matter how talented they are, still needs a character to perform the actions that are limited by their own creation. However, altering the question slightly creates an interesting thought experiment for Solaris. “Is it possible for a male author to create a story of a female creation autonomous from her male creator, if he too is her owner and creator?” This is where, I feel, Tarkovsky’s 1972 film adaption comes into play. For I might answer the aforementioned question for the novel with no, it is not possible. The gaze upon Harey, the focus on her youth, her body, and her sexual availability makes me ponder too hard on the idea of her as a woman herself. The film, however, has the advantage of Harey being a real woman, played by Natalya Bondarchuk. Her performance is powerful, she is emotional, she is grappling with the idea that she is not real. And suddenly the presence of Harey shifts from a voyeuristic perspective of the viewer from a sense of perversion to a sense of wrongness—while reading the novel I felt uncomfortable reading of Harey’s presence as a wife not mine, while watching the movie I felt uncomfortable watching a woman find her own sense of identity.
This is not, unfortunately, a glowing review of the film. I am a fan of Tarkovsky’s, and I thoroughly enjoyed his adaptation of the novel Roadside Picnic, Stalker. I was coming into this viewing with the idea that this adaptation, too, would be different in story but similar in messaging. A truly good adaptation does not and should not recreate a 1:1 depiction of what happens in a novel. As long as the central message is preserved and communicated, the movie has done its job. In the case of Solaris (1972), many of the changes from novel to film shifted the centrality from an introspection of man to an introspection of one man, Kris Kelvin. And, honestly, I do not care much about Kris Kelvin. The film has the advantage of allowing the characters to appear more human simply by nature of seeing other humans on screen. It answers the question of an author’s possession of their characters, but seemingly on accident, a byproduct of a work that was preoccupied instead with questions of memory and man.
As I said before, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Solaris. The descriptions of the red and blue suns casting their tinted light, the eerie presence of Harey, and the lingering presence of the Venus of Willendorf (who could warrant having another article written on her alone!) all presented a more than entertaining story. However, the author’s relationship with Harey, the constant reiteration of her long, beautiful lashes, her hypnotizing hair, caused me to pause on the thought that she could ever, truly, be her own entity.