Script Analysis

A Comparison of the Terry Gilliam/Tony Grisoni and Alex Cox/Tod Davies screenplays

gonzo journalism

In early 1998 the Writers Guild of America deliberated upon the official credits which would be featured on the film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Terry Gilliam (who had replaced the film's original director Alex Cox) had adapted the book with co-screenwriter Tony Grisoni, disregarding the version of the script by Cox and Tod Davies that was originally going to go before the cameras. When the WGA announced that Cox and Davies were to receive sole screen credit, Gilliam protested that his and Grisoni's work had not been validated, and made a rather public demonstration of his antipathy for the credit arbitration process. He went so far as to make a short film to be attached to prints of FEAR AND LOATHING that would inform the audience that what they were about to see was not really written, since it was based upon a script that was credited to nobody.

The following analysis of the Gilliam/Grisoni and Cox/Davies scripts was done by this author to objectively discern what, if any, influences the original script had upon Gilliam's adaptation, in order to help determine how much of the final, filmed screenplay was original and unattributable to the WGA-credited authors. This information was provided to Gilliam at his request during his arbitration process.

[FYI: The Daily Script Web site had posted HTML versions of the Cox/Davies and Gilliam/Grisoni screenplays.]

There are three basic criteria upon which I believe different versions of an adaptation of a book may be judged.

Structural Choices
Which story elements of the source material (basic plot, characters and dialogue) were chosen to be included in the screenplay, and which ignored? This reflects primarily editorial decisions on what to keep and what to forgo, but these choices determine the mood, pace and moral tone (if such a term can be applied to FEAR AND LOATHING!) of the piece.

How were selected elements changed to suit the demands of film? This would include translating prose to dialogue or voice-over, or giving a book character's lines to a different character in the script; combining scenes and characters to compress time; or altering the order of scenes to change the timeline of the book's plot. There were surprising differences between the two scripts as to how the book's disjointed, mostly interior viewpoint was dramatically depicted.

New material (scenes, locations, characters, dialogue) created by the screenwriters. Both teams of writers created new material, for different purposes; how much of the first team's new material was used by the second, and to what end?



The scenes preserved from the book FEAR AND LOATHING were very closely matched by the two scripts, not surprising in as much as they were by and large the main scenes of the book. [This would be similar to comparing two screenwriters' adaptations of GONE WITH THE WIND; both would definitely maintain the burning of Atlanta, but may not both incorporate Bonnie Blue's sucking her thumb.] The scenes selected by both Cox and Gilliam very closely paralleled one another, but in most instances there were changes in dialogue and often in stage direction; some scenes ended in one script whereas their parallel scenes continued further in the other.

There was much greater divergence when ancillary characters or sub-plots were involved. The Cox script chose to play up the Innes/selling an ape sub-plot (including an ambulance at the scene of the ape's rampage) which the Gilliam script virtually ignored.

The following scenes from the book were used in the Cox script and not in Gilliam's:

  • The sound equipment store in Los Angeles
  • Duke and Gonzo inside the auditorium of Debbie Reynolds' stage show
  • News reports of Muhammed Ali
  • The Doctor's examination of Duke

The following elements were in the Gilliam script and not in Cox's:

  • The cocaine blowing away from Gonzo on the highway
  • "Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley"
  • Gonzo in his Malibu law office
  • "Fantasy court room" of Duke and Gonzo's trial re: Lucy
  • Matrix nightclub
  • Duke firing on lizard in desert
  • North Star Coffee Shop (Back Door Beauty?)

Both adaptors translated the book's newspaper accounts of tragedies and war reports into background radio as a dramatic device, although each script selected different news reports.

What is of greater distinction is how emphasis was different within the same scenes. For example, in Cox it is not indicated that the audience would ever see the acrobat act involving nymphettes and wolverines — they may simply be a part of Duke's exaggerated world view; in Gilliam we clearly do see them. There is also a greater emphasis in Gilliam placed on the fact that Duke's voiceover and spoken dialogue often blur — within his own mind and from the audience's P.O.V. as well.

Under this first criteria I would say that there was little in common between the two scripts that would not have been found by comparing any other two (or more) screenwriters' adaptations of this same book.


What is being judged here is which changes in the book made by the first team were kept by the second.

The non-linearity of the book (which incorporated flashbacks and recalled memories of Duke, "recorded" events, news reports and "found" transcripts of conversations) was a primary factor to be judged- there was also a shifting of events from within the book's "true" chronological timeline in order to facilitate a preferred dramatic order, or to suit one adaptor's vision of a character. The Cox script was much more interested in presenting a straight time-line to the story whereas no such linearity existed in the book. In this regard the Gilliam version is a more honest retelling of the book.

There were changes made by Cox which were not carried over into the Gilliam script; these include:

  • Reporter's phoned-in story on road race was moved before Debbie Reynolds stage show
  • Flashback of Gonzo's encounter with blonde reporter in elevator changed to a real-time account
  • After Gonzo's "White Rabbit" episode, Duke decides to flee (it was Gonzo who left Vegas in the book)
  • Duke's talk with Gonzo re: Lucy takes place on their hotel suite patio, not in the hotel corridor towards the elevator as in the book
  • Duke's fantasy of mimeographed bulletin board notice about drug fiends changed to a slide show
  • Duke and Gonzo describe L.A. witchcraft to two DA's from Georgia, not one as in book and Gilliam
  • Duke's adrenachrome episode is broken up into two scenes (the second set "An hour later") whereas in book and Gilliam it is one extended episode
  • Some of Duke's narration in book given as dialogue by Gonzo
  • Duke is awake and on phone, not asleep in bed, when maid is attacked by Gonzo
  • Duke's encounter with CHP officer, in middle of book (where it is an example of Duke's dealing with his paranoia of not being able to escape Las Vegas) is placed at the end, as a climactic encounter (will Duke be arrested after all he's gone through?)

Of changes from the book made by Gilliam which did not appear in Cox there were the following:

  • We see the bloody carnage of the killed pedestrian mentioned offhandedly in book and virtually ignored by Cox
  • Dialogue with divorced guy at Gun Club shifted to after start of race
  • We see "Bazooka" carnival barker scenes, described by Duke in the book, acted out
  • When Gonzo leaves hotel and goes to the airport following White Rabbit episode, he does it without Duke's prior knowledge and assistance (therefore, the race to the airport by driving across runway marks Gonzo leaving Vegas a second time); this leaves Duke alone. His desire to get away is now not a desire to escape a threatening Gonzo but a fear of being left alone with a huge room service bill
  • Phone message to Duke from Lucy (and chat with desk clerk) moved later
  • Some of Duke's encounters were recreated as "found" memories via a tape recorder
  • Gonzo vomited while boarding the plane

Both adaptors' changes shifted the focus of characters 'in their respective scripts, revealing how different the emphasis was in each script's story. In Cox, Duke was a central victim in a swirling vortex of insane, bizarre and often threatening scenes. His experiences, even his own drug episodes, were to be depicted from an omniscient objective outside P.O.V. His voice-over served as ironic counterpoint to events that the audience saw for themselves. In Gilliam, the audience's P.O.V. was less omniscient and more subjective of Duke's experiences; Duke absorbed the crazy life around him, as much as it may have repulsed him. His interior monologues (voice-over) was less a visceral or ironic reaction to events and more an exploration of what these events meant in a changing society.

Of changes in book elements made by Cox which were incorporated in the Gilliam script, there were six:

  • Duke missed the check-in of the bikes for the Mint 400, so Lacerda the enthusiastic photographer fills Duke and Gonzo in on events
  • When Duke receives the telegram from the bellhop (re: drug conference), he doesn't read it right away
  • Duke's request for room service liquor in front of slack-j awed patrons waiting to get their rooms
  • Duke takes the adrenachrome during Gonzo's phone call with Lucy, not after
  • The Hardware Barn, a scene in the middle of the book, was placed at the end
  • Duke leaves town via car rather than airplane, so his farewell to the two Marines takes place as he drives off

Of these six, the first four were primarily instruments for compressing time; it is only the last two wherein dramatic emphasis on location and character were shifted from that of the original source material (Duke's admission that he is a D.A. following his escape from Las Vegas comes as an ingratiating fib, not a self-protective mask of paranoia; and his departure via car better suited logistics as well as the "road" aspect of the story).

Given the overall length of the script, these changes represent only a minor influence by Cox's script on Gilliam's. In fact, Gilliam's seems closer to the original source material.


This section will measure original material (created scenes, new characters and invented dialogue) that appear in each script, and how much of Cox's invented material appears in Gilliam's.

In Cox, there were the following additions to what had appeared in some form in the book, which Gilliam did not use:

  • Gonzo is seen wearing the nautical garb first spotted in their hotel bar
  • Lacerda takes pictures of "nothing" outside the bar because of the obscuring clouds of dust
  • When Duke tries to flee following White Rabbit episode, he boards plane that is turned back to Vegas; he sees dwarf waiting for him with a telegram, a repeat of the Drug Conference message
  • In Hardware Barn the proprietor is typing on a Remington when Duke comes in

In Gilliam the following new material had not appeared in Cox's adaptation:

  • The suggestion of a live (or rather, dead) bat at scene of Duke's hallucination
  • The prolonged efforts of the Polo Lounge waiter/dwarf to get Duke and Gonzo to pay their bar bill
  • Gonzo waves Magnum in car with hitchhiker
  • Duke witnesses paisley patterns of rug gyrate and creep up walls
  • Duke's dialogue speeds up crazily to stop the reservation clerk's face from morphing
  • The road race is seen beginning in fits and starts, as reporters race to and from the bar to catch each group of departing motorcycles
  • Invented dialogue at bar and with frog-eyed woman
  • Duke gets out of the press Bronco 'in the midst of the race course and stands alone in a cloud of dust
  • Driving 'in circles over speed bumps/dividers in parking lot
  • Wall of Duke's room appears as white noise
  • Duke watches as Gonzo grows horns and turns into a devil figure, then back to normal
  • Flash forward of stockbroker who witnessed bizarre sleeve-sucking episode at Matrix Club, years later, a ruined man
  • The CHP officer holds Duke's car door for him and he climbs back in
  • In witchcraft scene, disbelieving dialogue of bartender given to waitress, an invented character
  • The label on the bottle of adrenachrome reads "Drink Me"
  • Invented scene at Safeway supermarket where Duke and Gonzo trash their car in front of shocked witnesses
  • Lucy is spotted on the street by Duke
  • At Hardware Barn the proprietor is fixing a pot-bellied stove when Duke comes in
  • An American flag unfurls from Duke's car as he drives off

Most of the new material in the Gilliam script that was borrowed from Cox was comprised of stage directions that were not explicitly spelled out in the book; there was little invented dialogue in Cox's version, and hardly any of that was reprised by Gilliam. Some of the repeated descriptions and text include:

  • The Pinto's "rusted out smashed door panels"
  • Duke signs the car rental agreement while sitting in the Red Shark
  • The "Rundown Beach House" is the location mentioned for the swimming scene
  • The Buddhist setting himself on fire on the TV news
  • "Nautical" inscription for bar, although theme is not carried out in costume in Gilliam's
  • Lacerda is drinking club soda at the race
  • CHP officer's introductory line ("What the FUCK do you think you're doing?")
  • The police officer "waving a postcard" as he tries to secure his room at the Flamingo
  • Lucy's "aura of a pit bull" description
  • The "dozen" low fidelity loudspeakers (a single one in the book)
  • "Duke shakes his head" when Gonzo tries to explain attack on maid
  • In Hardware Barn, a young girl (a daughter in Cox's, a granddaughter in Gilliam's) kisses the proprietor; however, in Gilliam's she shares the somewhat dismissive attitude taken when Duke claims he's a D.A.; in Cox's she is oblivious to it. In both versions Duke registers his shame

It appears that whatever new material created by Cox that was kept by Gilliam was primarily stage directions or descriptive material, none of which materially altered the narrative, locations or characterizations, except for the Hardware Barn scene and the introduction of the CHP officer. In some instances stage directions were kept although the dialogue itself was altered, so the dramatic focus of the scene might be different from the first to second scripts even if the staging were similar.


I believe the Gilliam script, although benefiting from Cox's work in that he had broken much of Thompson's prose into stage directions and voiceover/dialogue (a task Gilliam would otherwise have had to do himself), is a separate entity, in its tone, narrative and audience P.O.V. If Cox's script had never existed, or had never been read by Gilliam, the subsequent Gilliam script would be little different than the present one, except for the closing scenes (the Hardware Barn and Duke's farewell to the Marines) which represent the last three pages of the screenplay.


Gilliam ultimately won the battle over credits with the WGA, albeit in an unusual fashion: He and Grisoni received FIRST credit on the script, FOLLOWED by Cox and Davies!

Regardless, Gilliam was sufficiently dismayed at the arbitration process, and by the fact that writer-director hyphenates have seemingly less power over receiving writing credits than do screenwriters that -- accompanied by Tony Grisoni -- he publicly burned his WGA membership card (torching his middle finger in the process) outside of a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Manhattan.

For Related Articles on FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS by David Morgan:

  • "A Savage Journey" — Interview With Gilliam

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