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

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. Caroline 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.

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