Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

First edition
Author Hunter S. Thompson
Illustrator Ralph Steadman
Country United States
Language English
Series Gonzo Series
Genre Gonzo journalism
Publisher Random House
Publication date
November 11, 1971 and November 25, 1971 (magazine)
July 1972 (book)
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 204 pp
ISBN 0-679-78589-2
OCLC 41049769
070/.92 B 21
LC Class PN4874.T444 A3 1998b

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a novel by Hunter S. Thompson, illustrated by Ralph Steadman. The book is a roman à clef, rooted in autobiographical incidents. The story follows its protagonist, Raoul Duke, and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, as they descend on Las Vegas to chase the American Dream through a drug-induced haze, all the while ruminating on the failure of the 1960s countercultural movement. The work is Thompson's most famous, and is noted for its lurid descriptions of illegal drug use, its early retrospective on the culture of the 1960s, and its popularization of Thompson's highly subjective blend of fact and fiction that has become known as gonzo journalism. The novel first appeared as a two-part series in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, was published as a book in 1972, and was later adapted into a film of the same name in 1998 by Terry Gilliam, starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro who portrayed Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, respectively.


Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta in 1971

The novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is based on two trips to Las Vegas, Nevada, that Hunter S. Thompson took with attorney and Chicano activist Oscar Zeta Acosta in March and April 1971. The first trip resulted from an exposé Thompson was writing for Rolling Stone magazine about the Mexican-American television journalist Rubén Salazar, whom officers of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department had shot and killed with a tear gas grenade fired at close range during the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War in 1970. Thompson was using Acosta—a prominent Mexican-American political activist and attorney—as a central source for the story, and the two found it difficult for a brown-skinned Mexican to talk openly with a white reporter in the racially tense atmosphere of Los Angeles, California. The two needed a more comfortable place to discuss the story and decided to take advantage of a Sports Illustrated magazine offer to write photograph captions for the annual Mint 400 desert race being held in Las Vegas from 21–23 March.

Thompson wrote that he concluded their March trip by spending some 36 hours alone in a hotel room "feverishly writing in my notebook" about his experiences.[1] The genesis of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is in that notebook.

What originally was a two-hundred-fifty-word photo-caption-job for Sports Illustrated grew to a novel-length feature story for Rolling Stone; Thompson said publisher Jann Wenner had "liked the first 20 or so jangled pages enough to take it seriously on its own terms and tentatively scheduled it for publication — which gave me the push I needed to keep working on it". He had first submitted a 2,500-word manuscript to Sports Illustrated that was "aggressively rejected".[2]

Weeks later, Thompson and Acosta returned to Las Vegas to report for Rolling Stone on the National District Attorneys Association's Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs being held from 25–29 April 1971, and to add material to the larger Fear and Loathing narrative. Besides attending the attorneys' conference, Thompson and Acosta looked for ways in Vegas to explore the theme of the American Dream, which was the basis for the novel's second half, to which Thompson referred at the time as "Vegas II".[3]

On 29 April 1971, Thompson began writing the full manuscript in a hotel room in Arcadia, California, in his spare time while completing "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan", the article chronicling the death of Salazar.[1] Thompson joined the array of Vegas experiences within what he called "an essentially fictional framework" that described a singular free-wheeling trip to Vegas peppered with creative licenses.[1]

In November 1971, Rolling Stone published the combined texts of the trips as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream as a two-part article illustrated by Ralph Steadman, who, two years before, had worked with Thompson on a Scanlan's Monthly article titled "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved".[4] Random House published the hardcover edition in July 1972, with additional Steadman illustrations; The New York Times said it is "by far the best book yet on the decade of dope",[5] with Tom Wolfe describing it as a "scorching epochal sensation".[6]


The novel lacks a clear narrative and frequently delves into the surreal, never quite distinguishing between what is real and what is only imagined by the characters.

The basic synopsis revolves around journalist Raoul Duke (Hunter S. Thompson) and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo (Oscar Zeta Acosta), as they arrive in 1971 Las Vegas to report on the Mint 400 motorcycle race for an unnamed magazine. However, this job is repeatedly obstructed by their constant use of variety of recreational drugs, including LSD, ether, cocaine, alcohol, mescaline, and cannabis. This leads to a series of bizarre hallucinogenic experiences, during which they destroy hotel rooms, wreck cars, and have visions of anthropomorphic desert animals, all the while ruminating on the decline of both the "American Dream" and the 60s counterculture in a city of greed.

Major themes

The preface quotes Samuel Johnson: "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." The quotation alludes to the protagonists' profuse drug use in escaping the coarse realities of American life; passages detail the failed counterculture, people who thought drug use was the answer to society's problems. The contradiction of "solace in excess" is thematically similar to The Great Gatsby, while the travelogue of counter-cultural protagonists struggling with conservative mainstream America draws comparisons to On the Road; both were favorite novels of Thompson's.

Thompson posits that his drug use (unlike Timothy Leary's mind-expansion experimentation drug use) is intended to render him a mess; that he is the poster boy of a generation of "cripples and seekers..."; their erratic behaviour depicts the restless failure his generation feels.

Throughout Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the protagonists go out of their way to degrade, abuse, and destroy symbols of American consumerism and excess, while Las Vegas symbolizes the coarse ugliness of mainstream American culture.

The "wave speech"

The "wave speech" is an important passage at the end of the eighth chapter that captures the hippie zeitgeist and its end.

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of "history" it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder's jacket booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)... but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Thompson often cited this passage during interviews, choosing it when asked to read aloud from the novel.[4]


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is Thompson's most famous work, and is known as "Fear and Loathing" for short; however, he later used the phrase "Fear and Loathing" in the titles of other books, essays, and magazine articles.

Moreover, "Fear and Loathing", as a phrase, has been used by many writers, the first (possibly) being Friedrich Nietzsche in The Antichrist. In a Rolling Stone magazine interview, Thompson said: "It came out of my own sense of fear, and [is] a perfect description of that situation to me, however, I have been accused of stealing it from Nietzsche or Kafka or something. It seemed like a natural thing."[7]

He first used the phrase in a letter to a friend written after the Kennedy assassination, describing how he felt about whoever had shot President John F. Kennedy.[8] In "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved", he used the phrase to describe how people regarded Ralph Steadman upon seeing his caricatures of them.

Jann Wenner claims that the title came from Thomas Wolfe's The Web and the Rock.[9][10]

Reactions to the novel

When it was published in fall of 1971, many critics did not like the novel's loose plot and the scenes of drug use; however, some reviewers predicted that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would become an important piece of American literature.

In The New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt told readers to not "even bother" with the novel, and that "what goes on in these pages make[s] Lenny Bruce seem angelic"; however, he acknowledged that the novel's true importance is in Thompson's literary method: "The whole book boils down to a kind of mad, corrosive prose poetry that picks up where Norman Mailer's An American Dream left off and explores what Tom Wolfe left out".[11]

As the novel became popular, the reviews became positive; Crawford Woods, also in The New York Times, wrote a positive review countering Lehmann-Haupt's negative review: the novel is "a custom-crafted study of paranoia, a spew from the 1960s and — in all its hysteria, insolence, insult and rot — a desperate and important book, a wired nightmare, the funniest piece of American prose"; and "this book is such a mind storm that we may need a little time to know that it is also literature. . . it unfolds a parable of the nineteen-sixties to those of us who lived in them in a mood — perhaps more melodramatic than astute — of social strife, surreal politics and the chemical feast." About Thompson, Woods said he "trusts the authority of his senses, and the clarity of a brain poised between brilliance and burnout".[12]

In any event, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas became a benchmark in American literature about U.S. society in the early 1970s. In Billboard magazine, Chris Morris said, "Through Duke and Gonzo's drug-addled shenanigans amid the seediness of the desert pleasure palaces, it perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the post–'60s era".[13] In Rolling Stone magazine, Mikal Gilmore wrote that the novel "peers into the best and worst mysteries of the American heart" and that Thompson "sought to understand how the American dream had turned a gun on itself". Gilmore believes that "the fear and loathing Thompson was writing about — a dread of both interior demons and the psychic landscape of the nation around him — wasn't merely his own; he was also giving voice to the mind-set of a generation that had held high ideals and was now crashing hard against the walls of American reality".[14]

Cormac McCarthy has called the book "a classic of our time" and one of the few, great modern novels.[15]

As a work of gonzo journalism

Main article: Gonzo journalism

In the book The Great Shark Hunt, Thompson refers to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as "a failed experiment in the gonzo journalism" he practiced, which was based on William Faulkner's idea that "the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism — and the best journalists have always known this".[1] Thompson's style blended the techniques of fictional story-telling and journalism.

He called it a failed experiment because he originally intended to record every detail of the Las Vegas trip as it happened, and then publish the raw, unedited notes; however, he revised it during the spring and summer of 1971. For example, the novel describes Duke attending the motorcycle race and the narcotics convention in a few days' time; the actual events occurred a month apart.[16] Later, he wrote, "I found myself imposing an essentially fictional framework on what began as a piece of straight/crazy journalism".[1] Nevertheless, critics call Fear and Loathing Thompson's crowning achievement in gonzo journalism. For example, journalist and author Mikal Gilmore said the novel "feels free wheeling when you read it [but] it doesn't feel accidental. The writing is right there, on the page — startling, unprecedented and brilliantly crafted".[14] Critics believe that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas should be considered a work of gonzo journalism because the characteristics of gonzo journalism are all characteristics seen in the novel.


Main article: Ralph Steadman

British cartoonist Ralph Steadman added his unique and grotesque illustrations to the Rolling Stone issues and to the novel. Steadman had first met Thompson when Scanlan's Monthly hired Steadman to do the illustrations for Thompson's first venture into gonzo journalism called "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved."

Many critics have hailed Steadman's illustrations as another main character of the novel and companion to Thompson's disjointed narrative. The New York Times noted that "Steadman's drawings were stark and crazed and captured Thompson's sensibility, his notion that below the plastic American surface lurked something chaotic and violent. The drawings are the plastic torn away and the people seen as monsters."[17]

Audio adaptation

An audiobook version was released by Margaritaville Records and Island Records in 1996, on the 25th anniversary of the book's original publication. It features the voice talents of Harry Dean Stanton as the narrator/an older Hunter S. Thompson, Jim Jarmusch as Raoul Duke, and Maury Chaykin as Dr. Gonzo, with Jimmy Buffett, Joan Cusack, Buck Henry and Harry Shearer in minor roles. Unlike most audiobooks, sound effects, period-appropriate music and album-like sound mixing are used extensively, to give it the surreal feeling characteristic of the book. Quotes from Thompson himself bookend the album.

The album is presumably out-of-print, due to its relative rarity, but is sought after by fans for its high production values and faithfulness to the book's tone. Excerpts of it were included in the Criterion Collection release of the movie.

Film adaptation

The novel's popularity gave rise to attempted cinematic adaptations; directors Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone each unsuccessfully attempted to film a version of the novel. In the course of these attempts, Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando were considered for the roles of Duke and Dr. Gonzo but the production stalled and the actors aged beyond the characters. Afterwards, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were considered, but Belushi's death ended that plan.[18] Art Linson's 1980 film Where the Buffalo Roam starring Bill Murray and Peter Boyle is based on a number of Thompson's stories, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

In 1989, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was almost made by director Terry Gilliam when he was given a script by illustrator Ralph Steadman. Gilliam, however, felt that the script "didn't capture the story properly". In 1995, Gilliam received a different script he felt worth realising; his 1998 film features Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro as "Raoul Duke" and "Dr Gonzo", respectively; however, criticism was mixed and the film was a box office failure.[19] It has since developed a cult following due in large part to its release on DVD, including a Special Edition released by The Criterion Collection.

Graphic novel adaptation

In July 2013, IDW Publishing announced plans to publish an adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in graphic novel format.[20] IDW's imprint Top Shelf Productions subsequently announced more details about the graphic novel, adapted by Canadian artist Troy Little, which was released in late October 2015.[21] In interviews, Little said "We decided right off the bat not to go the Steadman route, or be too influenced by the movie either, and draw Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro. So we wanted to make it its own unique thing... For me, capturing the manic energy and spirit of the book, and staying true to the feel of Fear and Loathing was my big goal."[22]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Thompson, Hunter S. Jacket Copy For Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream
  2. Thompson, Hunter (1979). The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time (1st ed.). Summit Books. pp. 105–109. ISBN 0-671-40046-0.
  3. Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing In America Simon & Schuster 2000 p.379-385
  4. 1 2 Gilmore, Mikal. (March 24, 2005). The Last Outlaw. Rolling Stone, 970, 44-47
  5. Woods, Crawford (July 23, 1972). Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. By Hunter S. Thompson. Illustrations by Ralph Steadman. 206 pp. New York: Random House. $5.95. The New York Times Book Review, pp.17.
  6. Back cover, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas 1972.
  7. O' Rourke, P.J. Fear and Loathing at 25 : Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone. November 28, 1996.
  8. Thompson, Hunter (1998). Proud Highway. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-37796-6.
  9. Wenner, Jann (2007). Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson. Little, Brown and Company. p. 112. ISBN 0-316-00527-4.
  10. https://books.google.com/books?ei=h5qQTsiJM4HYiQL6jo3NCA&ct=result&id=YM7ZAAAAMAAJ&dq=Thomas+Wolfe%27s+The+Web+and+the+Rock&q=%22fear+and+loathing%22#search_anchor
  11. Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. (June 22, 1972). Heinous Chemicals at Work. The New York Times, p. 37
  12. Woods, Crawford (July 23, 1972). Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. By Hunter S. Thompson. Illustrations by Ralph Steadman. 206 pp. New York: Random House. $5.95. The New York Times Book Review, pp.17
  13. Morris, Chris. (October 26, 1996). Hunter S. Thompson Brings 'Fear and Loathing' to Island. Billboard magazine, 43, 10
  14. 1 2 Gilmore, Mikal. (March 24, 2005). The Last Outlaw. Rolling Stone, 970, 44-47
  15. "Cormac McCarthy's Apocalypse". Retrieved 2015-09-11.
  16. Taylor, Andrew F. 1997 The City: In search of Thompson's Vegas Las Vegas Sun
  17. Cohen, Rich. April 17, 2005. Gonzo Nights. The New York Times Book Review, p. 12.
  18. IMDb article on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, trivia section
  19. "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Reviews - Metacritic". metacritic.com. Retrieved 2015-09-11.
  20. Graser, Marc (July 20, 2013). "Comic-Con: IDW Gets Graphic with Hunter S. Thompson". Variety. Retrieved 2015-11-12.
  21. "Hunter S. Thompson's FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (The Graphic Novel), Adapted by Troy Little!". Top Shelf Productions. May 27, 2015. Retrieved 2015-11-12.
  22. Rivera, Joshua (November 8, 2015). "How Do You Channel the Fear and Loathing of Hunter S. Thompson's Craziest Road Trip Into a Comic?". GQ.

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