The Ultimate Trip: "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" Heads to the Big Screen

Film version of Tom Wolfe's book on Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters comes closer to reality

By |

The onscreen version of Tom Wolfe's literary cult hit The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is primed to hit theaters by 2010. When published in 1968, the book shattered cultural perceptions of the peaceful, passive hippie zeitgeist by introducing the Merry Pranksters, author Ken Kesey's roving gonzo army of LSD-fueled pioneers who tripped about the country, mixing it up with rowdy Oregonians, Bay Area hippies, Hollywood rockers, Hell's Angels and a flurry of left-handed characters that launched the psychedelic movement into mainstream America and ushered in the Grateful Dead.

Over the years, footage and audio of the Oregon-based Merry Pranksters have surfaced, but was little more than ragged, disjointed documentation of the group tripping and weirding out. Except for Neal Cassady's endless speed-jacked rap, there was little narrative. Now, director Gus Van Sant, an Oregon native, is helming the book's adaptation to the big screen with Milk and Big Love writer Dustin Lance Black. Milk's director of photography Harris Savides is also committed to the film.

After several false starts, the project is coming together. "These seeds have been in the wind for a long time," says Ken Babbs, Kesey's best friend and fellow Merry Prankster. "I talked to Gus. And I was happy he was making the movie. Back in the 1970s, Kesey and Gus were friends and Ken told him if anyone ever made the film he wanted Gus to do it."

Van Sant originally pictured the late Heath Ledger for the Kesey role, but now has two marquee names in mind: Woody Harrelson and Jack Black, which might make the film more of comedy than a zany drug jag. Carolyn Garcia (a.k.a. Mountain Girl), a Prankster and former wife of Jerry Garcia, said Harrelson visited Kesey shortly before he died. "They went out into the field and had a pretty good mind meld," Garcia says. "I just know he could play the role." Garcia mentioned Black might be a fit for "The Mad Chemist," the infamous LSD impresario Owsley "Bear" Stanley, who launched an untold number of minds into outer space and was an artist and early sound engineer for the Dead (he's credited with revolutionizing live stereo sound). Black's camp had no comment. And who will play Caroline Garcia? She suggests Scarlett Johansson. Maybe Maura Tierney. "Well, I'm 5'10", so she would have to be tall. I mean, I ride a Harley Davidson."

Lynn Nesbit, Wolfe's literary agent, said the writer will not likely be involved or play a major character in the film. Instead the focus will be on Kesey and his acid-guzzling band of Merry Pranksters. She added Wolfe left the twisted tales years ago and never looked back, "But I should call him before he reads about this in the papers."

And then there's the music. Should it reflect the actual Prankster playlist, it will be an outstanding soundtrack.

Kesey's crew took earnings from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest to fund their legendary Acid Tests, where they hired a relatively unknown band called the Warlocks (later named the Grateful Dead). But at the time of the bus trips, Babbs says they played Ray Charles and John Coltrane: "But mainly we did our own music, which was a form of communication without words." Garcia says there was also plenty of Bob Dylan, early Beatles, Miles Davis, lots of Motown and Pete Seeger. "We also played kids' music," she says. "That and classical music like Beethoven, Wagner, Strauss. Some John Phillips."

Being in the wheelhouse during the early heady days of the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead, Garcia has strong feelings about LSD, the book and those Halcyon days. "This is a very valuable substance and appeared on the planet at the same time as the atomic bomb," she says. "We called it inner space. I'll do it now time to time, but I never took it lightly. When LSD came into my life I realized there was another way. Now, I'm about bringing LSD out into the front."

There are still questions about how the film will bring the book to life — similar dilemmas plagued another chemical classic, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. Can certain aspects of the book be translated, or will third-party observations and interior monologue flow naturally through the storyline? Bear says "a very large CGI budget" could do the trick. "I think I, along with a design crew of my choosing, can work it out."

Now that the movie is closer to becoming a reality, both Owsley and Garcia are reexamining their relationship to Wolfe's text. "If you ask the people [Wolfe] spoke with they will tell you he wrote what they told him, and that may be true as to the words said — much of which was designed to prank him," Bear says. "The book however is more than the results of his interviews. The real tragedy was that they did not manage to dose him, a common practice of the era."

When Wolfe spoke with Rolling Stone's Mark Binelli for one of our 40th anniversary issues in 2007, he described his Kool-Aid reporting process: "One day Kesey said to me, 'Why don't you put the notebook and the pen away and just be here, and then write about it.' The idea was, join in, take some acid, have a few trips, and then write about it. I didn't say anything. The next day I arrived with my notebook and ball-point pen. He didn't say anything, but that was the answer."

"The movie is long overdue," Garcia says. "On the surface, the book ain't bad. But Wolfe didn't dig into the darker, weirder corners. As a film it will reflect the party. But hopefully it will get the meaning of it all."