Hunter S. Thompson on Film: A Brief Guide to the Gonzo

Hunter S. Thompson on Film: A Brief Guide to the Gonzo

Oct 28, 2011

The Rum Diary arrives in theaters this week, offering audiences yet another taste of the surreal stories penned by famed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas author Hunter S. Thompson.

Based on a novel Thompson wrote in the early 1960s about his time as a sports reporter in San Juan, The Rum Diary casts  Johnny Depp as Thompson stand-in Paul Kemp, a significantly more subdued version of the man whose epic, drug-fueled adventures later gave birth to the term “gonzo journalism.”

The role is a return to familiar territory for Depp, who portrayed Thompson's pill-popping, gun-wielding alter ego Raoul Duke in the 1998 adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Still, it 's worth noting that Johnny Depp isn't the only actor to portray Thompson (or one of his alter egos) on the screen, and his wild San Juan and Las Vegas adventures aren't the only stories Thompson had adapted.

Here's a brief guide to some of the other movie and television projects involving Thompson and his work – including a few you might already know about, and some that might surprise you!



In this 1980 film based on several essays (and an obituary) written by Thompson, Bill Murray played the visor-wearing, pill-popping writer during his attempts to cover 1972 Super Bowl and presidential election. Murray spent so much time with the author during production that his Thompson-inspired mannerisms are noticeable in many of the Saturday Night Live episodes the actor filmed after the project wrapped.

Along with Murray as Thompson, Where the Buffalo Roam also casts Peter Boyle as the writer's attorney associate Oscar Zeta Acosta (renamed “Carl Lazlo” in the film) – the same role that Benicio Del Toro later played in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.



Terry Gilliam's 1998 film based on Thompson's most famous work may have been a critical flop when it premiered in theaters, but the film went on to become a cult favorite when it arrived on DVD.

For the film, Depp famously took his education in all things Thompson to another level, living in the author's basement for four months and trading in his car for the convertible “Red Shark” seen in the film. He even let Thompson shave his head to achieve the same pattern-baldness of the author. Del Toro displayed similar dedication to his role by gaining over 45 pounds to play Thompson's unpredictable lawyer (referred to as “Dr. Gonzo” in the film).

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is also notable for featuring a cameo by Thompson himself during one of the film's flashback scenes. Depp actually calls out the cameo in the midst of his narration, saying just before the camera pans over the real-life Thompson, “Mother of god, there I am!”



While there's some uncertainty regarding the extent of Thompson's involvement in the much-maligned Don Johnson and Cheech Marin television series, one thing that has been confirmed is the writer's role as an originator of the story that would become Nash Bridges.

"My neighbour and friend, God rest his soul, Hunter Thompson and I were sitting around talking about television,” explained Johnson in a 2008 interview about the origin of the series. “Hunter and I came up with one idea and out of that idea it evolved and underwent a metamorphosis. I took that idea and I brought it to Carlton Cuse to help format Nash Bridges into the show that finally made it on the air."

According to various reports, Thompson initially conceived of Nash Bridges as a two-hour television movie about a drug-addicted cop and his Latino partner, but the idea was later reconfigured into the first season of the series. Thompson is also credited with the “story” for several episodes of the series – one of which features Johnson's character investigating bodybuilders who go crazy after injecting a dangerous steroid.

A popular rumor also pegs Thompson with an uncredited cameo in the first few episodes of the series, but online clips claiming to show his “cameo” clearly feature a much younger man.(Thompson would have been in his mid-50s when the episode was filmed.)



Adult Swim's popular animated series features a character named “Hunter Gathers” who's clearly based on Thompson and has many of the same mannerisms of the writer. Voiced by Christopher McCulloch, Hunter Gathers is an eccentric superspy who sports Thompson's signature aviator sunglasses and cigarette holder.

A recurring character in the series, Hunter Gathers underwent gender-reassignment surgery and lives life as a woman in later episodes, despite looking like an animated version of Thompson from the neck up.



As if all that wasn't enough, there have been numerous documentaries made about Hunter S. Thompson that make for quality additions to any HST marathon. Here are a few standouts from the bunch:

Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood – This documentary can be found on the Criterion Collection edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and follows Thompson and artist Ralph Steadman, his frequent collaborator, as they travel to Hollywood along the same route he traveled in the original Fear and Loathing essays. The short film was produced by BBC in 1978, and offers an interesting look at the author in his prime.

Breakfast With Hunter – One of three documentaries about Thompson directed by Wayne Ewing, this 2003 film features quite a bit of footage of the author before, during, and after the production of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It's especially notable for a scene in which Thompson explains his problems with the movie's original screenwriters and their plans to incorporate animated sequences at key moments in the film.

When I Die – Another film directed by Ewing, this documentary was made after Thompson's death in 2005, and chronicles the efforts of his friends and family to give him the send-off he requested, which includes a gigantic cannon in the shape of a fist firing his ashes into the sky.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson – This 2008 film was directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, known for his 2005 film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. The film includes an immense amount of never-before-seen footage of Thompson, including home videos and other material that had otherwise never found its way to the screen.

And there you have it, folks – a brief look back at Thompson's on-screen history.

With The Rum Diary hitting theaters this weekend, Thompson's legacy continues to find its way to audiences long after his death, and with many more volumes of his work still unexplored, there's a good chance we haven't seen the last of the man who famously advised his readers to “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”

Heck, it seems like good advice for movie fans, too.

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