An ancient Chinese philosopher once fell asleep and dreamed he was a butterfly. When he awoke, he was no longer certain that's what had happened. Perhaps he was just a butterfly dreaming he was a Chinese philosopher....
Themes of uncertainty are the key to one of science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin's most well-loved novels, "Lathe of Heaven," now coming to the small screen on A&E this Sunday.
Although a TV movie cannot hope to include the sprawling plotlines of the book, this two-hour film manages to convey the sense of mystery and metaphysical inquiry that has established Le Guin as one of the foremost science-fiction writers of our time.
With refreshing restraint for a film in the sci-fi genre, it does not pop or flash with special effects. Instead, the producers focus on these deeper, more reflective themes.
The story revolves around a young man, George Orr, who is afraid to sleep because his dreams appear to have the power to change reality not just his own, but everyone's.
The story is part science fiction, part supernatural thriller, says executive producer Craig Baumgarten. "It's kind of the ultimate mystery, as to what's real and not real," he says. "Are our dreams dreaming us, or are we dreaming them?"
Although the original is set in 2002, the film unfolds in some indeterminate future time, when Orr (Lukas Haas) starts taking drugs to stay awake. He consumes an illegal amount and ends up in court, facing what is called a "voluntary" sentence of therapy sessions.
His therapist (James Caan) quickly moves from trying to ease his patient's anxiety over his dreams to manipulating what appears to be the power to change reality.
While the young Orr feels certain the doctor is deliberately using him to better his own life, the therapist also induces the young dreamer to tackle world problems, such as overpopulation and disease.
When the therapist's attempts to create world peace backfire, both doctor and patient realize they are dealing with powers they don't fully understand.
"Dreams are very personal things and very important to people," Mr. Baumgarten says. "We're all constantly dealing with our dreams and how they impact our lives...."
The title also suggests some of the themes Le Guin herself considered central to the story.
The quote from Chinese philosopher Chuang Tse that appears before Chapter 3 in the novel reads in part: "To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven."
Director Philip Haas (no relation to the actor) says the story is in part a look at our own waking dreams, or fantasies, a meditation on the old saying: "Be careful what you wish for because you might get it." But it's also about the corruption of power.
"You have a psychiatrist who feels he can change the world through this dreamer, but ... in using this other person's power, he is affecting it adversely," Haas says.
The film has different meanings for the actors as well. David Strathairn plays a recurring character whose actual job changes in each scenario, but who appears to be the only figure who understands what's happening.
Mr. Strathairn sees his character as a sort of guardian-angel figure. "It is a very palpable and potentially insightful story about our own consciousness," he says, "and whether it's déjà vu, predestination, fate, will, or whatever."
Finally, the book is a love story. A woman enters Orr's life. She appears first as his court- appointed lawyer, and then takes on different roles in each new scenario his dreams create.
The story investigates the link that exists between people whose lives are meant to intersect with one another and how one person is meant to impact another life, regardless of the circumstances, says actor Lukas Haas. "To me, it's a love story," Mr. Haas says. "That's what it comes down to."
While the film is a cautionary tale about the role of consciousness in creating reality, Haas says a good story never loses sight of the individual. "When you bring it down to love and anything personal, it's great, in my opinion."