What you are about to see, or what you have seen, is not the best version of Solaris.
Of course I am provoking you. You are here because you are a Tarkovsky aficionado or maybe because a friend dragged you along to see this fantastic film on the big screen in a proper cinema, instead of on your laptop. That is great. But Tarkovsky did not like this film .
To start of, we should find that Solaris exists in many versions, four of which have reached a public in either filmic or written form. Chronologically, we start with Polish author Stanisław Lem’s novel, published in 1961. Many would now skip to Tarkovsky’s Solaris released in 1972. Yet, an obscure two-part television-film directed by Lidiya Ishimbaeva and Boris Nirenburg titled Solyaris, which was first screened in 1968, should not be forgotten. Restricted to television broadcast within the Soviet Union , it may well be the closest filmic version of Lem’s novel in terms of setting (exclusively within a space station) and referential scientific focus (how to deal with the planet Solaris). Tarkovsky’s Solaris follows, (ironically) winning the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival. Last but not least, Steven Soderbergh’s version released in 2002 stars no other than George Clooney as the main protagonist.
Back to Tarkovsky. He wanted to make another movie in 1968, which carried the working title A White, White Day, which would later, in 1975, be produced under the title Mirror . In 1968, in the wake of having released his first full feature film Ivan’s Childhood in 1962 (and it winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival of that year), Tarkovsky had a plan and vision that would redefine his cinematic language: an openly autobiographic film that would feature his mother and father, and would rely on dream- and memory-like fragments rather than visual continuity. The foreboding of this desire you might recognize in Solaris’ dream sequences.
Mosfilm, the largest of about forty government controlled film studios in the Soviet Union, through which Tarkovsky would make all of his Soviet feature films, was not convinced by his vision and refused the essential allowing for and state sponsoring of the project. Frustrated, and in need of money, Tarkovsky refocused on his interest in the 1961 novel Solaris, written by Polish author Stanisław Lem. Lem’s Solaris, in short, deals with the scientifically studying of and inability to communicate with a non-human, alien, sentient life form: the planet-shaped being Solaris. To Lem, it was a philosophical novel about the human confrontation with the Unknown, primarily through (the limits of) science. One chapter of Lem’s novel is entirely dedicated to documenting the history of the (pseudo)scientific study of Solaris, and all of the action takes place inside a space station hovering over the planet.
Mosfilm approved Tarkovsky’s project to start with adapting Solaris into a film initially – in that time, Russian directors would often convince Mosfilm with project proposals including scripts and directors scripts, yet change these during shooting, which happened after an OK and financial support from Mosfilm was obtained- as it saw potential in Tarkovksy addressing a broad audience through the then popular genre of science fiction.
Science fiction in the Soviet Union in that time was a popular genre aimed at a public to marvel at visual prophesies of technological advancement and the further conquering of space. Tarkovsky, however, had no particular interest in the genre of science fiction and its usual tropes , as he found films such as Planet of the Storms (a Soviet production from 1962) and 2001: A Space Oddysey relying too much on visualising a technologically exotic future . He even wished to escape the genre in his Solaris, in which he, according to himself, ultimately fails . Tarkovsky believed that in “true art”, the “fake” (and with it any hidden intentions of the artist) should be eliminated, or, in other words, that cinema should catch the filmmaker’s very personal experiences –as he himself feels and sees the world .
As for the novel, Tarkovsky was interested primarily in the premise it shaped for moral, therefore human, problems that arise from new discoveries in science and the physiology of the human mind . In many ways, this follows the Romantic tradition against scientific rationalization of the unknown . In line with that, Tarkovsky set out to take Solaris -the planet- as a setting next to earth, refocusing the theme of impossibility of communication to inter-human relations and to the inner self, thus drafting a proposal that did not need a science fiction setting: two-thirds of its length would take place on earth, and it would include a family around the main character of the film.