Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, published in 1974, describes a 1968 motorcycle trip by the book’s author, Robert Pirsig, and his son, Chris. For the first half of the trip they were joined by Pirsig’s friends John and Sylvia Sutherland, though Pirsig and his son completed the journey on their own. The book operates on a couple of different levels: 1) as a story about relationships as the narrator, haunted by Phaedrus, the ghost of his former self, comes to understand his relationship with his son in a new light as he struggles to reconcile his current life with the one he led before a mental breakdown; and 2) as a series of philosophical discussions on the metaphysics of quality. Using motorcycle maintenance to illustrate the philosophical component of the story, John Sutherland represents a “romantic” perspective in the sense that he would rather be in the moment and doesn’t care much about the particulars of how it all works, while the narrator represents the “classical” outlook with his attention to the details.

Robert Pirsig describes how Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance came about
in an undated BBC interview

ZMM, as Pirsig abbreviates it, has sold something like 5 million copies worldwide (if the Wikipedia is to be believed) making it the most successful philosophical road-trip novel of all time. Despite the difficulties of adapting such an intellectual book to the screen, Pirsig has had a number of offers to turn the story into a movie. In 2006 Pirsig did an interview with Tim Adams of The Observer that he (perhaps jokingly) claimed would be his last. In his article, Adams writes, “Robert Redford tried to buy the film rights (Pirsig refused).” This statement makes it sound as if Pirsig brushed off the offer with little consideration, but that is hardly the case. Pirsig was actually quite eager to work with Redford and they discussed the project over a period of several years. Robert Redford even makes an appearance in Pirsig’s 1992 novel, Lila, his follow-up to ZMM, as Redford travels to New York to meet with Phaedrus to discuss a film adaptation of ZMM. Pirsig describes how Phaedrus and Redford were having a pleasant conversation before the subject turned to buying the rights to ZMM.

A funny woodenness has crept into his speech, as though he had rehearsed all this. Why should he sound like a poor actor? “I really would like to have the film rights to this book,” Redford says.
“You’ve got them,” Phaedrus says.
Redford looks startled. Phaedrus must have said something wrong. Redford’s biographies said he was unflappable, but he looks flapped now.
“I wouldn’t have gotten this involved if I hadn’t intended to give it to you,” Phaedrus says.
But Redford doesn’t look overjoyed. Instead he looks surprised and retreats to somewhere inside himself. His engrossment is gone.
He wants to know what the previous film deals were. “It’s had quite a history,” Phaedrus says, and he relates a succession of film options that have been sold, and allowed to lapse for one reason or another. Redford is back to his former self, listening intently.

This passage reveals not only that Pirsig had great interest in adapting ZMM as a movie, but also that he was willing to wait for someone he could work with. Pirsig clearly viewed Redford as someone who could do a credible job of bringing ZMM to the screen. Pirsig told Tim Adams, “Redford and I talked to twice. He’s a brilliant guy. I liked him personally. I liked his liberalism.” Pirsig had established a close relationship with his editor, James Landis, while he was writing ZMM, and he appears to have been trying to establish the same sort of relationship with Robert Redford. In 1981 Pirsig wrote a long letter to Redford describing his vision of how ZMM might be adapted for a film. This letter, reprinted in the Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, reveals a great deal about how Pirsig viewed his work. Pirsig suggested using the point of view of the narrator until he reconciles his personality with Phaedrus. For the leading role (which is actually two roles: Phaedrus and the narrator) Pirsig suggested Peter Coyote, then a little known actor who had become friends with his son, Chris. Also, Pirsig offered his 1964 Honda Superhawk he rode in the 1968 road trip for use in the film, though he admitted that it was in need of some maintenance!

I have no doubt that ZMM could have been (and could still be) an excellent movie. For one thing, it would be a road movie, which is always a big plus. The Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as well as the Gary Wegner’s Travelogue and Psybertron have produced maps of Pirsig’s 17-day trip. It starts in my home state of Minnesota and proceeds through some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the United States. Also, the relationships in ZMM are easily accessible and Pirsig conveys his story in a heartfelt way that a movie could capitalize on. Any film adaptation would no doubt simplify the philosophical discussions, but Pirsig was well aware of this as he observed, “Two different books are comingled here, one about ideas and the other about people. If a reader just wants to know about the people, that’s ok.”

In a new afterward to ZMM, Pirsig pondered why a book about philosophy would be so successful. He used a Swedish word, kulturbärer (roughly translated as the cognate “culture-bearer”), to describe how ZMM captured the spirit of the time. Pirsig thought the hippie counterculture had rejected material success without offering a positive alternative. To Pirsig, the hippie notion of “freedom” was essentially a negative goal. Being “free” meant rejecting Western notions of success, but without an alternative this often led to indulging in hedonism. Pirsig felt that ZMM “offers another, more serious alternative to material success. It’s not so much an alternative as an expansion of the meaning of “success” to something larger than just getting a good job and staying out of trouble. And also something larger than mere freedom. It gives a positive goal to work toward that does not confine. That is the main reason for the book’s success, I think. The whole culture happened to be looking for exactly what this book has to offer. That is the sense in which it is a culture-bearer.”

At the end of ZMM the narrator has reconciled himself with his past and suggests that its possible to reconcile the romantic and classical worldviews, not as conflicting viewpoints but as complementary approaches. In this light, the film adaptation of ZMM could have been an answer to the 1969 movie Easy Rider. At the end of Easy Rider, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) enigmatically tells Billy (Dennis Hopper), “We blew it.” Perhaps he was lamenting that they had failed to strive for the sort of positive alternative that Pirsig suggests.

While this conflict may have been more closely associated with time that ZMM was initially published, this basic message of ZMM still has resonance these many years on.So why was the movie never made? Pirsig offers very little explanation on that score, though he does state, “But they insist on the right to change anything they please without asking me.” Despite his desire to see a film adaptation of ZMM, Pirsig was unwilling to give up his vision of how the themes of the film should be communicated to the audience. But while Pirsig may have given up the idea of making ZMM into a movie, Robert Redford was still talking about making ZMM into a film as late as 1997. But even if Redford doesn’t make the film, perhaps someone else will have the opportunity at some point in the future. Pirsig relates, “I told Wendy [Pirsig’s wife] she should sell it as soon as I die. I’m 78 now: someone might as well make some money from it.”