I used to be very interested and invested in sci-fi, but in the last few years I grew weary of it – I think it’s mostly because I started to recognize the patriarchal bullshit that underlies so much of it. One of the things that survived, however, is my love for the Russian novel Roadside Picnic, by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I loved the book when I first read it in high school and that love has only grown with re-reads, so when I found out there was a movie based on it out there, I was thrilled. Completely ignorant at the time of Tarkovsky’s reputation, I was expecting a run-of-the-mill adaptation, with the usual pitfalls and merits of these things. But Stalker turned out to have a rather weird relationship with the book. They share too little for Stalker to be considered a movie adaptation of Roadside Picnic, but they share too much for them to be considered entirely different cultural products.
But as it happens, I think this relationship is perfect, because it makes them the best illustration of My Ultimate Division of Literature (tm), in which I am very invested these days, since I have exams and deadlines in an unrelated field. So, in the name of escapism and late night coffee rush, I hereby divide the world into narratives that treat the lives of the characters as ends in themselves, and narratives that treat them as means towards something greater. The criterion here is the perspective on what constitutes people's worth. I see two possibilities: (a) life as important by itself, with the characters' actions and choices being what's ultimately at stake and (b) life as a stepping stone that only makes sense in relation with something greater, where the characters' actions and choices are expected to amount to something that transcends them (or to actively fail to do so).
I hold that Roadside Picnic is the first, Stalker, the second. And they are particularly fit to illustrate the distinction, since they both attempt to make a point about human nature through the same device: humanity confronted with an inexplicable and powerful entity (the Zone). Of course, I will spoil both of them in analyzing this, so beware.
In both stories, strange events took place some time ago. In the aftermath, the area affected, now known as the Zone, was found to be filled with inexplicable objects and phenomena (in the book, there are six Zones, but only one features in the story). The scientists agree that what happened was a visitation by a technologically-advanced alien civilization, and the governments agree that it's best to put the Zone under military supervision and only allow access for purposes of research. In both universes, there are people who make a living out of entering the Zone clandestinely, defying both the dangers on the ground and the military, and these people are known as stalkers. In the book, contraband trade of artifacts taken from the Zone has developed, and a stalker is someone who steals these artifacts. In the movie, stalkers are paid guides that lead tourists into the Zone. Even though the role of the stalkers is different, the main lure is the same: in the book, as well as in the movie, there is something in the Zone that is believed to have the power to grant wishes. And even though the action is very different, the climax is the same: reaching the wish-granting device. And in both cases, the moral point is made through the nature of the Zone and the device, and through how the characters react to them.
In Picnic, the Zone is indifferent to people: it doesn't change its behavior around them or because of them. The stalkers learn empirically how to get around, from their own mistakes or those of other stalkers, and then successfully use that knowledge.
As for the origin of the Zone, different possibilities are discussed: a first contact by a friendly civilization that wants to help humanity, a first contact by a civilization bent on invasion, the mark of God, a temptation from the devil. The one that strikes the reader the most is this: the Visitors did not intend to send a message to humanity, they didn't even notice humanity. They stopped here like you would stop for a roadside picnic and left behind the ashes of their campfire, leftover food, trash, maybe some broken toys. The things that people get out of the Zone (the artifacts, the mutations, even the long-term bad luck), and then use for weapons or medical technology or just to get by, are not _meant_ for anything, they are not even missed by their previous owners. The narrative doesn't tell the reader whether that is the case or not (we never meet the Visitors, and they are the only ones that really know), but the most important extra-narrative element, the title, does. The authors chose Roadside Picnic, not The Devil's Temptation, for a title and that gives us a frame in which to interpret the story, establishing that the Zone is neutral.
In Stalker, it is clear that the Zone responds to people: it never lets them go back on the same path and it only allows some of them to pass ("the ones that are at their hope's end"). The stalkers find their way around based not on experience and educated guesses, like in the book, but on a sort of mystical intuition. When the Zone's meaning is discussed the options considered are "a message for the people […] or a gift". All this amounts to the idea that whoever created the Zone accounted for the presence of humanity.
Roadside Picnic is divided into four sections, each of them following a character's life for a few hours. From this, we get a picture of Redrick Schuhart's life over 8 years, as well as of the evolution of people's relationship with the Zone. The protagonist, a resident of a town located next to the Zone, is an on again, off again stalker. His association with the Zone takes its toll on his life (he goes to jail a couple of times, his daughter suffers from a mutation, he ends up selling dangerous stuff to people he despises), but he keeps going back, because he needs to support his family and he is more comfortable being on his own. In the last section, we see Redrick trying to mend his life by going into the Zone in search of the Golden Sphere, which is supposed to grant people's wishes, and pondering what his wish should be.
In Stalker, the action takes place in one day. The protagonist, known simply as Stalker, leads the Writer and the Professor (a scientist) to the heart of the Zone, despite his wife's pleading (she thinks the Zone is too dangerous). On their way there, they argue about the meaning of genius, the value of science, whether helping people to make their wishes come true is a good thing or a really bad idea. In the end, both the Writer and the Professor decide not to enter the room. They come back to the metallic sepia world of the non-Zone, and the Stalker talks to his wife about his disappointment in people and their lack of faith. The movie ends with the wife passionately talking to the camera about how she married Stalker, defying social norms and her parents' warnings, and how she sees now that it was worth it: without him she wouldn't have suffered so much but she wouldn't have known bliss either.
In Picnic, the main character does have a proper name, and a lot of nuance. We get to see Red at his best (he helps his friend, he professes hope for humanity, he takes responsibility for a family) and at his worst (he dehumanizes a kid so he can kill him for his purposes), so we know he has a wide moral range and is not meant to represent any singular trait of humanity, like the characters in the movie are.
His journey towards the Sphere deals with the question of faith as well. As dark thoughts about his problems threaten to overwhelm him, Red realizes that hope in the Sphere is all he has got left, and embraces it:
“And now this hope—no longer a hope, but confidence in a miracle—filled him to the brim, and he was amazed at how he could have lived for so long in the impenetrable, exitless gloom.”
He thrives on this faith, he is gleeful thinking that he has the power now, and that he will get to make decisions for everyone. But getting to the Sphere requires a sacrifice that goes against everything Red has ever done or believed. He goes through with it, but the enormity of his crime sullies his purpose and his hope. The more he tries to think of the greater good, of saving the people he loves, the less clear love appears to him:
„The memories, worn to the point of unrecognizability, [...] were all bitter, and they all evoked self-pity or hatred."
By the time he gets to the Sphere, he is no longer certain of anything. He got there thinking he had it all figured out: happiness for us, misery for them. But when he tries to establish what “us” and “them” mean, everything gets blurry, and he realizes that people's lives, desires, and plans are hopelessly entangled, and he is not better or more important than everyone else. Without placing himself as a pivotal point, he has no way of making sense of the mess of everyone trying to get ahead of everyone else, and he can't erase it all in anger either, because then there would be nothing left. He even begs the Sphere to look into his soul and reveal his wish, but the Sphere, like the Zone in general, seems neutral ("there was nothing disappointing or doubt-inspiring about it, but there was nothing to inspire hope either"), and the book ends with Red making the wish by himself, using whatever he finds in himself (the words borrowed from Arthur). When he looks past his relationships, his interests, his circumstances, he comes up with the desire for people's happiness. Not their faith or their redemption as Stalker wants, but the improvement of their lives.
Red's faith is, ultimately, a character development, and so is his wish. The title helps establish that there is no right choice to be made about the Sphere (like there is for the Room). But the choice you do make is telling.
The Bottom Line
There is a world of difference between what the powerful Unknown does to people in the two narratives. In Stalker, it is a place of judgement. a measuring of man In Picnic, it is a pretext for man measuring himself.
Personally, I am a much bigger fan of Roadside Picnic. Stalker is visually stunning, and some fragments of dialogue are really clever and interesting, but, at the end of the day, it failed to get me to care about the characters. And, more importantly, it left me with the impression that they don't matter to the movie, either. Roadside Picnic, on the other hand, manages to pack a lot of philosophical ideas, while keeping me invested in the characters' lives and choices.