Tuesday, 27 March 2018


John Boorman & Bill Stair Zardoz (1974)
I wasn't even aware of there having been a Zardoz novelisation until my friend Steve mentioned it on facebook as something which had become difficult to find, which was a week or so prior to my happening upon a copy in the Mansfield branch of Half Price Books - which was all pretty fucking weird, if not actually as weird as Zardoz itself.

I first encountered Zardoz as a trailer seen in the cinema in Leamington Spa when my grandmother took me to see The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. I would have been eight, so the spectacle of a giant stone head flying through the sky and delivering edicts in a booming voice made an enormous impression on me, as you can probably appreciate. Strangely, it's only in the last couple of years that I actually saw the film, having found it on Netflix or Hulu or one of those. I'm still not sure what I think of it. I cautiously veer towards regarding it as a work of genius, although I'm undecided as to whether I'm confusing genius with just not like anything else ever.

Zardoz is the manufactured God of a future, roughly post-apocalyptic society divided into Brutals and Eternals. The Brutals are the survivors reduced to a medieval existence in the wasteland, while the Eternals are the cultured and isolated upper class elite - like that Charlotte Rampling, persons who drink their tea with the little finger pointing outwards at an angle. The film is mostly related as experienced by Sean Connery's Zed, a horny, grunting man with a gun and a red codpiece. His job is to hunt Brutals and to keep any awkward questions to himself. It's a roughly familiar scenario with a subtle twist, namely that Eternal society seems to be a comment upon the more progressive youth movements of the sixties, specifically commenting upon how alternatives and subcultures become the status quo, given time and opportunity. Were it not for this detail, Zardoz would otherwise be a fairly straightforward critique of class and elitism; straightforward but for the fact that it's Zardoz.

The novel is short and sufficiently literate to keep it from reading like a cinematic moneyspinning tie-in, and some labour of love is suggested by it having been written by Boorman, writer and director, and Bill Stair who was also something to do with the film. That said, the novel makes about as much sense as the film, being so closely related. The story of Zardoz is told on the big screen by means of acting, rudimentary lighting effects, and quite a lot of what looks like expressive dance, and it's mostly told from the viewpoint of Zed, essentially a primitive who tries to understand unfamiliar things. The novel does its best, but there's probably a limit to what it could have done without veering off into some other narrative place, which clearly Boorman didn't want to do. So there's not much in the way of dialogue and instead we focus on descriptions of Zed trying to work out what the hell is going on, phrased in terms consistent with his innocence - not quite yellow orb come up from hill and make crops grow good, but something in that direction. Additionally, as the film attempted to express certain abstract, vaguely philosophical ideas with weird flashing lights, dance, and other psychedelic effects, the novel takes a similar approach by simply describing what we saw on the screen.

Turning, he saw that the Apathetics had advanced like animate deadly plants, somehow inhuman but manlike still. In the forefront was the girl he had embraced, fondled, and then thrown down in disgust. She opened her mouth and tried to speak. Horrifyingly they were all trying to touch him in a spidery, floating way, their arms like seaweed undulating in a deep sea current.

So it evokes the film, perhaps a little too well, and if slim in terms of page count, the book has a tendency to confuse just as it did on the screen. It's good but the film probably worked better, although I did enjoy this particular bit of exposition:

Fearful gullible people had been cowed by shabby but extraordinary tricks. In awe they had worked for a charlatan, a jackanapes in God's clothing. He had bullied them and in exchange had given them cheap advice dressed up as religion, the while stealing from them, forcing them to live in uncertainty, using them to maintain his high position over all.

Strangely, more than anything, Zardoz reminds me of Robert Graves' neoclassical science-fiction novel, Seven Days in New Crete, and so much so that it's hard not to wonder if Graves' book might have been an inspiration on some level, at least in terms of atmosphere. I couldn't quite settle on what Seven Days in New Crete was really about, so it's probably worth mentioning that Zardoz is at least unambiguous on that score.

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