Roadside Picnic in Adaptation
Reprinted here, in it’s entirety, by massive request (one person!), is the paper I presented at this year’s ACLA. As a reminder, this paper was prepared for a conference, and thus it lacks the finesse of a published / meant-to-be-read paper. This is not a complete academic analysis, but rather a “current-state-of-it” sort of document. Bare that in mind when reading. Roadside Picnic in Adaptation.
Roadside Picnic in Adaptation
Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s 1972 Science Fiction Novella Roadside Picnic inspired two vastly different adaptations. First, in 1979, influential Soviet Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky adapted Picnic into his film Stalker. Later still, in 2007, Ukranian game designer Anton Bolshakov adpated into the popular computer game STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl. Although, at first glance, the story is entirely different between these three texts, there are key structural similarities: they share a consistent fictional world structure. Interestingly, this structure is used to emphasize vastly different ideologies. Roadside and its adaptations centre around a simple question: what is at the centre of the post-industrial man? and the answer is generated by the imaginative fictional world they take place in. Picnic asks the question from an anti-bourgeoisie vantage point, to explore the effects of, to quote Boris Strugatsky himself “decaying capitalism and triumphant bourgeois ideology.” (203) ; Stalker explores the same question with a lens of technological pessimism and spiritual optimism; and Shadow of Chernobyl looks at the center of the post-industrial man using a post-Soviet, and post-Chernobyl eye. Each adaptations offers a very different answer to this core question, a cross-adaptation poetic dialogue about the nature of man in the face of the post-industrial era.
At first glance, Picnic, Stalker, and STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl are vastly different stories. They differ in philosophy, tone, setting, characters and medium. Nonetheless, the core structure of the narrative found in Picnic is retained through the adaptations. All three texts feature a centre-facing narrative structure: an inwards quest propelling the protagonist towards their innermost desires: very different than the outwards-facing narratives more characteristic of Science Fiction. Although the geographical and temporal location is different, each text occurs in a post disaster-city, and an anomalous Zone left by that disaster. In each, the Zone is a marvellous place wherein the laws of physics and causality no longer apply, filled with supernatural traps and horrors, along with mysterious treasures and possibilities. Each narrative involves an outlaw stealing across a military border erected around the Zone in search for a device rumoured to grant wishes. Finally, each of these outlaws realizes they have nothing to wish for by the time they reach this centre.
To understand how these similarities facilitate different ideological conclusions, I will be using Russian literary critic Mikhal Bakhtin’s concept of the “chronotope.” A chronotope is a text’s internal relationship between space and time, as represented by the formal elements of its medium. Bakhtin uses the term “chronotope” as a borrowed metaphor from physics, I find it similarly helpful to use metaphors to discuss the chronotope of individual texts. The chronotope of Picnic and its adaptations is best described as a black hole. Spatially,the black hole center is the wish granter, at the centre of the Zone. The border between the city and the Zone itself is the event horizon of our black hole. When a character is drawn by the wish-granter at the centre, and upon crossing the event horizon is forever on a path towards the centre. Passed the border, the laws of space and time break down: space becomes disorted and difficult to navigate, and time slows to a stop as it loses its traditional markers.
As you may have noticed, these worlds involve two chronotopes: the space-time of the city, and that of the Zone. Staying with out metaphor, a black hole can only be detected in relation to a normative point of reference, and the city is our point of reference. The interaction between these two chronotopes is best discussed using Lubomír Doležel’s concept of narrative world modalities. Doležel proposes a set of categories that allow for a methodological dissection of a narrative world. His system involves separating the constituents of a text into domains based off modal similarities. Stories are generated by the differences between domains, which Dolezel calls modal divides. The worlds we’re dealing with today have two primary domains, the city and the Zone. The quest of the protagonist is generated by wish possibility’s modal divide: a wish is possible in the Zone, but not possible in the city.
This is a diagram of the chronotope. The plane at the top is the city domain. The hole is the military border separating the city from the Zone– the event horizon. Finally, the black hole is the Zone where space and time stretches and appears to stop as you go down to the bottom… and at the bottom is the wish granter, the dense core of the black hole.
The city’s chronotope is characterised by ennui: in Picnic and Stalker in particular, the city is marked by clear passages of time without a change in space. The city sets the tone for the type of black hole we’re criticising: for example, by setting Roadside Picnic in a North American city, we are able to analyse the sort of black hole that can only exist in capitalist cultures. The border is characterised by a force clearly separating the people of the city from the Zone. Depending on the ideology informing the Zone, the border can either be oppressive (such as in Stalker) or protective (such as in Roadside Picnic). We’ll look at the border in more detail soon. The funnel structure is the Zone itself. In an actual black hole, this funnel is the space time curvature, wherein time is expanded to be simultaneously infinite and stopped. All space is twisting and becoming similarly elongated and compressed. Time and space can now only be measured in relation to the black hole: “towards” the center is the only direction that matters. Finally, there’s the center of the black hole: the wish granter. If the wish granter is reached, the narrative finishes.
2. Roadside Picnic
2.1. Picnic’s Plot
With the black hole established as a metaphor, let’s analyse its function in Picnic first. Picnic is set in a rural North American town called Harmont. Recently, Harmont was the site of an alien Visitation that left a “Visitation Zone” on the West side of town. These aliens never interacted with the humans: they simply stopped by and left. The Zone is littered with discarded alien artefacts and physical anomalies: strange gravitational centres, spheres of time compression, and other marvellous impossibilities. According to one of the novella’s scientists, the Visitation was just a roadside picnic to the Aliens, and humans are like baffled woodland critters picking through the garbage they left. The visitation recentred the town on the west: the government establishes an outpost to carefully study the arefacts for potential military and consumer application, and young uneducated men sneak into the zone illegally at night to find artefacts and to sell on the black market. Picnic follows the story of one of these career criminals, called stalkers, named Redrick Schuhart. Red’s story culminates in the quest for the golden sphere: an artefact capable of granting wishes.
Given its origins, Picnic’s Zone is poetically constructed as a pessimistic depiction of materialistic consumption. The stalkers are capitalist gangsters, smuggling alien contraband that amounts to meaningless. Picnic is a dystopian exploration of technological consumerism. The increased possibility of the Zone, the Wish, is the possibility for capital gain on the black market. The Zone draws the corrupt government, criminals, tourists and consumers to what was a functioning, rural, blue collar township.
Let’s look at the chronotopes as present in Picnic. The chronotope of the city is characterised by this longing for a better life, a preoccupation with fantasy and, subsequently, a sense of being stuck. Before the visitation, Harmont was a pleasant, blue-collar town. Post visitation, however, the townsfolk have been consumed by agitatation and ennui. The old have left – understanding in their wisdom that the Zone has created a Harmont that is not for them – and only the young and ruthless remain. With the Zone so close, the townsfolk can see the riches it offers: it is possible for life to be better, if only they had more. With the exception of scenes focalized on a stalker, Harmont chapters are characterised by long conversations, speculating on the meaning of the Zone and its impact on human life. The passage of time during these conversartions is heavily marked: people order drinks, a bar will close, acquaintances will come and go, people will smoke cigarettes, or get increasingly more red in the face. As time takes on weight, the characters never move even as they talk about possiblities: the Zone has offered fantasy which makes life seem unsatisfying. They now know that they could have more.
2.2. The Meat Grinder
To discuss the chronotope of the Zone, we’re going to look at a specific anomaly present in all three adaptations, to compare them: the meat grinder. In Picnic, the protagonist Red seeks the golden sphere to ultimately wish for money, but the meat grinder is in the way: an invisible alien anomaly that painfully kills anyone who enters it. The trap only “sets off” once per every few hours though, and so after being set off, there’s an opening for someone else to slip through to the golden sphere In other words, to get to the wish granter, the black hole, you must offer a human sacrifice at the meat grinder. Red, being a proper capitalist gangster on the search for infinite wealth tricks a young boy named Arthur into the trap so he can make his wish.
This is a minute clip from Olenka Bormashenko’s translation, when Red watches Arthur set off the meat grinder. This clip, and the page before it, happens several meters from the orb. This passage is temporally short – the time it takes to walk a few meters – yet Red’s thoughts meander absent of timely markers. In his narration, Red continuously revises his account of how Arthur moves: in only a few meters, Arthur manages to dance, and skip, and find a rhythm in his step. He’s also able to shout several sentences in only a few “seconds” time. Time takes on flesh: space feels stretched because more text flows than the space set up allows. When the meat grinder is finally set off, Red describes the trap as both “abrupt” and “slow,” and composed of “transparent emptiness” that he “sees.” Space is allowed to exist contradictorly: invisible and seeable, abrupt and slow. The traditional relationship between space and time is lost as a result of these effects.
These moments are normal to Red’s cognition because he is searching for a “meaning in life” centered around the black hole of capitalism: his symbolic crossing of the event horizon. Red’s desire for material gain led him to kill an innocent who only wished for utopian happiness for all. The chronotope of the Zone allows Red’s reflections and constantly diminishing moral character to take flesh in absence of time. When Red reaches the sphere, he has no wish: there is nothing he truly wants: his capitalist black hole is a meaningles, empty pursuit that destroys him.
3.1. Stalker’s Plot
Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker is the story of a nameless Stalker, who leads people through a strange anomalous Zone left by a meteorite crash. The meteor’s crash site – an old nuclear power plant -has become the mysterious Room, capable of granting your innermost desires. Stalker’s plot involves Stalker guiding two other men – the Professor and the Writer – through the Zone so they may access the Room at the center. Though the Room can be seen only a few hundred meters from where they enter, the journey takes substantially longer due to dangerous metaphysical traps peppering the Zone.
Stalker’s city is a non-geographical industrial town – characterised by some obvious Soviet symbols that may or may not be incidental- heavily characterised be ennui. The camera frame lingers as character’s enter and exit, giving their actions less weight than it takes to dolly or pan. The constant clicking of train tracks marks the passage of time with military precision, while the camera remains fixed. Framing is also duplicated to build the sense of repetition: the shot will show multiple nested door frames, the cieling and the walls on both sides. Finally, the city is filmed in sepia tone, drained of colour.
Compared to Picnic’s, Stalker’s Zone was born in ambiguous circumstances: a meteor crash and a nuclear meltdown are both suggested. The government erected a military boundary around the dangerous Zone, and nature quickly reclaimed it the abandoned space. The Writer and Professor are both drawn to the Zone by its expanded possibilities: the Writer wishes for perfection in his craft, and the professor wishes to destroy the Room before its used for evil. Notice that neither wish is capitalistic in nature, though they’re still selfish.
Whereas Red was a thug, Stalker is a spiritual guide: he leads people to the Room to teach them deference to the Zone. When Red first enters the Zone in Picnic, he jump to the ground because he sees a pricey artefact. When Stalker first enters the Zone, he collapses into the fully coloured grass and embrasses the earth. The camera lingers, but space is no longer tightly framed by walls and doorways. Instead, the frame freely drifts around the room, focalizing abandoned military gear, characters and nature with equal importance. By emphasizing different objects in this freefloating manner, time slows: it’s freed from traditional markers such as plot progression, daylight, the train track clicking… and instead, moments are allowed to take flesh, as Bakhtin calls it, a film technique Tarkovsky called “painting in time.”
Compared to the Picnic’s Zone, Stalker‘s Zone is arguably an optimistic metaphor for the spiritual nature at man’s heart. At the center of Stalker’s Zone is one’s “innermost desires,” instead of a wish. Stalker’s Zone offers what you need – not want. While the industrial world is depicted with “depressive pointlessness,” nature’s return in the Zone is characterised by soft lighting, slow panning shots, gentle streams, softly tussling grass, and wide open shots. A Utopia to the city’s dystopia.
3.2. The Meat Grinder
To get to the Room, the three travellers must pass through the meat grinder: an invisible anomaly that, according to Stalker, has caused killed many wish-seekers. Whereas Picnic’s meat grinder requires a sacrifice, Stalker’s meat grinder exists to ensure that “you are positive, good, honest people.” The meat grinder starts as a twisting pipe, lit only by columns of sunlight slipping through pipe’s cracked top. This camera frames the space to disassociate time with spatial progress: the camera follows the Writer so closely, it is impossible gauge how far he has progressed. The twists make it impossible to see how far is left to go. An apt chronotope metaphor for life in generally. The same techniques make it impossible to gauge how closely Stalker and the Professor follow him. The party gets through the pipes unharmed, and exit into the end of the meat grinder: an eerie, sand filled room.
The uneven relationship between the passage of time and movement through space from Picnic is preserved, but to very different ends. The two men drop, look up, and cower all before the metal nut falls to the ground. The Writer is far ahead of the others, but then instantly huddled in a puddle that was missing from the establishing shot’s frame. The cinematography refuses to clarify the space: where is the puddle? How far is he from his companions? Time and space are interrupted by the flight of a bird that ends before its lands. A second bird flies, and lands as if the first never happened. We’re shown “moments” absent of their spatial relationship. Every action is slow, calculated and given ample time to unfold, and shown regardless of simultaneity. This cinematographic approach enhances Tarkovsky’s fantastic vision of the Zone: we never learn if the traps or wishes are real, or if they’re an invention of Stalker’s mind to act as parables to teach the faithless.
Most importantly, it’s silent. Picnic stretched time using Red’s thoughts. With Stalker, we are left to our own reflections, and our own sense-making from these paintings in time. The stretching of time becomes more intrsopective and interpretive and less literal, as a result. A particularly powerful aspect of this is how horrific and unsettling Stalker can feel: a fear that comes from the same lack of faith Stalker sees in the Writer and the Professor. We lack the faith in Stalker’s ability to guide them to the Room, and our lack of faith scares us further.
Picnic found at the centre of capitalism an unfulfilling black hole of consumption and greed. In Stalker, the politics are all but shed, and the city speaks to all post-industrial urban life- everywhere where scientists and writers live. The “black hole” at the center of human existence is hope, but modern life has made us afraid of it. We, the writers and scientists, lack the faith to truly jump passed the event horizon.
3. Shadow of Chernobyl
3.1. SoC’s plot
In Anton Bolshakov’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, the player plays the “Marked One,” a Stalker who wakes up with amnesia and one task on his PDA’s to-do list: kill Strelok. The game is set in an anomalous zone of alienation left in the wake of a second catastrophic failure at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. In response to this failure, the government erected a quarantine border. All stalkers – including the player – are stuck in the Zone. The border was built around them – they are transformed by its presence and become one with the Zone, by government force. Stalkers venture towards the zone’s centre for supplies and to find mysterious biological artefacts – strange living organs of intense power – left by the in the wake of the anomalies. At the centre is the power plant, where the golden orb, capable of granting wishes, exists.
Shadow of Chernobyl is a first-person video game – meaning the player sees through the character’s eyes. It is also exploration focused, so the player is able to freely explore the virtual Zone in their pursuit of survival. Tarkovsky’s Fantastic ambiguity is, as a result, impossible: a player could run into any anomaly to verify its presence. The non-player characters – including hundreds of other stalkers and thousands of animals – are controlled by an artificial intelligence program called A-Life. This system allows the non-player characters to conduct their own day-to-day survival: they search for supplies, brave dangers for artefacts, and engage in wars with other stalkers to control key facilities.
This is a unique formal technique not previously employed in a video game: the world of Chernobyl treats the player dispassionately. Traditionally, the player character is the centre of the action: when they are not in the room, time freezes. Non-player characters cease to exist until the player interacts with them. In Chernobyl, players lose this central focus: the non-player characters survive, die and wage war through complex simulations regardless of player input. Chernobyl translates Tarkovsky’s technique of sculpting in time to a video game format: time is allowed to pass evenly in every nook of the game world, regardless of the current “spatial focus” surrounding the player. Stories emerge from the simulated interactions the A-life system allows.
The player character’s quest is to discover their identity. Doing so requires them to travel to the centre of the Zone, where a wish can unlock his identity. Although the Chernobyl power plant is only a kilometres from the player’s starting position, the twisting anomalies displace the normative space-time relationship. A trip that should only take the player-character 20 minutes to navigate may instead take several hours.
3.2. The Meat Grinder
Let’s take a quick look at the meat grinder phenomenon in Shadow of Chernobyl. Nothing is called the meat grinder explicitly, but several anomalies are often arranged in a pattern very similar to a combination of the two other visuals. This is one such example.
If you recall, Red was able to “see” the invisible force of the meat grinder. Chernobyl tries to offer this impossible relationship, but it’s more difficult in a visual interactive medium. Instead, it offers players a set of options for navigating the anomaly. First is the Geiger counter – I’m sure you heard it clicking away – that detects radiation, a sign of anomalies. This allows players to “sense” the invisible, as Red was able to. Players can instead take Stalker’s tactic from Stalker, and throw metal bolts. The bolts will fizzle when they enter a trap, letting the player gauge the trap’s dimensions. Finally, the player can channel Red and use a sacrifice: by waiting to see if an animal or other non-player character enters the area, and then luring them into the trap to set it off.
The meat grinder distorts the relationship between time and space using interactive techniques. The implied player assumes that the path will take a short amount of time, because its short spatially. As you saw, this is not the case: feeling your way around invisible anomalies greatly stretches time. Space fails to act as an indicator for the passage of time, as a result.
In Chernobyl, the Golden Sphere ends up being a lie created by the Soviet government. In the game, the Soviet Union decided to use the Exclusion Zone surrounding Chernobyl for special research into collectivising thought: essentially, radiation-based mind control. The wish granter at the centre of the Zone is propaganda, designed to lure the most determined and individualistic stalkers. The sphere brainwashes anyone who touches it, and the player learns that their character had made it to the sphere once before – hence his amnesia. The government locks him into this repeated cycle of searching for his centre, learning his centre is a lie, repeat.
Our cross-adaptation dialogue about “what is at the center of man?” is finished. In Roadside Picnic, the Strugatskys ask “what is at the centre of the capitalist man?”, and answer, “a black hole of materialistic consumption that draws you into a immoral spiral.” In Stalker, Tarkovsky broadens the question, and asks “what is at the centre of the modern man?”, answering, “the same thing at the center of all men: hope, but postindustrial life has made us lose faith and subsequently hope.” Finally, in Shadow of Chernobyl, Anton Bolshakov weighs in on the question from a post-Soviet perspective. “At the centre of post-industrial men,” Shadow of Chernobyl’s narrative answers, “is a government keeping you ignorant of its atrocities.” One sees a dystopia in capitalism; one sees a dystopia in modernism, and one sees a dystopia in communism. Yet all three stories use the same chorontope and world structure to explore the relationship between the world man inhabits, and the center at which he’ll find meaning.
 Picnic’s pro-Soviet and anti-capitalism undertones have been previously elaborated on by Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan (1986); Potts, Stephen (1991, 80); Boer, Roland (1999, 111); Jameson, Fredric (2005, 294) and many others.
 Spirituality in Stalker has been analysed thoroughly: see Johnson, Via (1994), Schreck, Gregory (2001); Golstein, Vladimir (2008); Renfrew, Alastair (2008); Tsymbal, Evgeny (2008); Kowalczyk, Andrzej (2011) Dyer, Geoff (2012)
 Early translations in English, French, Hungarian, German and several other countries explicitly place the action in rural Canada, likely Northern Ontario. This is not made explicit in the original novella, and subsequent translations have removed these specific allusions to Canada.
 Kowalczyk, 2006, 116