“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
– Philip Kindred Dick (1928 -1982)
If I had to name my favourite author of all time, the answer would be Philip K. Dick. He may not be responsible for any literary classics, but the short stories and novels of this strange college drop-out from California continue to inspire. Most of the current generation of Science Fiction fans will be familiar with Dick’s work from the cinema. From Blade Runner to The Adjustment Bureau, there are more films based on PKD stories and novels than you might think.
1. Blade Runner (1982)
The first of Philip K Dick’s works to be adapted for the screen. The film did poorly on its original release, and was hampered by a lacklustre voice-over track by star Harrison Ford (which he was contractually obliged to do against his will). Despite being a complete flop at the cinema, it has gone on to be regarded as one of the best films of the 1980’s and several reworked versions and director’s cuts have been released on video, DVD and Blu-ray.
Philip K. Dick was thrilled to have one of his books made into a movie and was impressed by the rushes Ridley Scott showed him during the film’s production. Sadly, he died of a stroke on 27th February 1982 and never saw the finished product.
The film’s title Blade Runner is taken from a book by Alan Nourse called “The Bladerunner.” The original title of the novel on which it is based was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This typically Phildickian psychedelic title would not have suited the dark, post-apocalyptic cyberpunk aesthetic of Scott’s film, which seems to explain why it was changed.
There are major features from the original book that are completely missing from the film. The religion, ‘Mercerism,’ that plays a pivotal role in the novel is completely absent from the film, as is the high-tech ‘mood organ’ device that is used to participate in it. Animals, or rather their scarcity, are also crucial to Dick’s original. In Dick’s future L.A. a war has decimated the environment leaving almost all animals extinct. Real animals are expensive and seen as status symbols. Most people dream of owning one so they can impress their neighbours. The lead character, Brian Deckard and his wife own a synthetic goat which they pass off as real. The title asks a question about what it means to be human, what it means to be alive. Do androids dream of owning an artificial animal the same way their human creators lust after the organic variety?
Oh yeah, and did I mention Deckard is a detective who has to kill escaped humanoid robots who have begun to develop human emotions?
Despite being very different to the book, there are lots of similarities. I always get a feeling of deja vu when I re-read the book, which is mirrored by a similar surreal feeling when re-watching the film. This is arguably the best adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s work and is a must-watch. The result is a somewhat surreal science fiction film-noir that is as much art as it is entertainment. I can imagine many of today’s teens would find it really boring but I have been watching it on and off since I was seventeen and I love it!
I recommend the 30th anniversary Blu-Ray version which features the incredible ‘Final Cut’ alongside the original theatrical version and the work print plus many extras.
2. Total Recall (1990)
Directed by Dutch film maker Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct), this is about as far removed from Blade Runner as you can possibly get. If Blade Runner was a film, this is definitely a MOVIE. That film’s notoriety and later success on video was no doubt responsible for Hollywood’s sudden interest in Phil Dick stories, which lead to a slew of other, less memorable sci-fi flicks, such as this one.
Based on the short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,’ this movie version is nothing short of a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was box-office at the time.
Again, there is little of the essence of Philip K. Dick’s original story here, aside from the plot basics. A man signs up for a ‘virtual reality’ vacation on the planet Mars, only to find that his memory has been erased by a criminal mastermind (Vilos Cohaagen, played by Ronny Cox, best known as Dick Jones from Robocop) and his identity replaced. When he wakes up, he does not know if his adventures on Mars were real or simulated, and ends up accused of crimes he cannot even remember committing.
There are special effects galore, which now look quite dated, but the film does have nostalgia value for those of us old enough to remember it first time round. This movie was made eight years after Blade Runner but appears to be much older because of its low budget presentation. I’ve seen this a few times, but usually when it’s appeared at random on TV (same as Predator and Last Action Hero occasionally do). It’s far from essential, but at least it’s better than the 2012 remake starring Colin Farrell. I couldn’t finish that version!
Like many directors, Paul Verhoeven likes to form a working relationship with actors that spans more than one project. He likes them, they like him, and everything works out great. Notables in this film are Ronny Cox from Robocop and a young, sexy Sharon Stone, who was then busy climbing the success ladder. She would later reach the top playing the lead in Verhoeven’s 1992 erotic thriller Basic Instinct, alongside then-current Michael Douglas.
A computer game was made for the popular machines of the time. Commodore C64, Spectrum and Amstrad versions were released. You could probably play them on your PC using an emulator if you have nothing better to do.
The original story, entitled ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’ appears in many PKD short story anthologies and is an enjoyable read. Watch this first, then read the original. You’ll be amazed by the difference.
3. Screamers (1995)
Based on the short story ‘Second Variety,’ this mid ’90’s sci-fi thriller starred Peter ‘Robocop’ Weller.
The poster promises “an apocalyptic science fiction epic,” but to be honest “a forgettable sci-fi video to rent on a Wednesday night” is probably more appropriate. Blade Runner was big news, and then Total Recall was big news, which, by degrees led to this.
Based on the short story ‘Second Variety,’ Screamers is set on ‘a distant mining planet’ (that is very similar to Mars) that has been ravaged by war. Blade-wielding killer robotic devices scourge the planet, wiping out any living thing they come into contact with. Peter Weller’s character has to save the day.
Dick’s stamp is on the story, despite the film maker’s insistence on turning it into a derivative, commercial Sci-fi movie. It is the theme of mankind ultimately being wiped out by weapons it created that the author contributes. James Cameron and friends undoubtedly read Phil Dick’s books in their youth (or at least watched Blade Runner) and this led to The Terminator.
Screamers is an ultimately forgettable movie that is extremely dated by today’s standards. Unlike Blade Runner, the actors (even Weller himself) are almost all obscure today. As such, I can only recommend curious fans watch it once, and even then, make sure it’s at bargain-basement price or free.
4. Minority Report (2002)
This 2002 big-budget Hollywood movie (directed by Steven Spielberg) was based on Dick’s 1956 story of the same name. I remember that it did quite well at the cinema and on video at the time. It stars everyone’s favourite celebrity Scientologist Tom Cruise (that guy just won’t quit, will he?) alongside Colin Farrell. These two names may have gone some way towards explaining why I never watched it all the way through (even on TV).
While the Hollywood production has taken the usual liberties, the premise of the original story has been retained. In the not-too-distant future, technology has been developed that lets the government see people who are about to commit crimes, before they commit them. They use the services of three psychics (known as ‘precogs’) who are able to see these future events.
Tom Cruise plays PreCrime Captain John Anderton, and finds himself a suspect accused of a crime and forced to go on the run. He tries to prevent himself from committing said offence (some kind of murder) and clear his name.
The familiar themes of ethics and empathy are present here. Minority Report explores the role of free will and whether destiny really exists. Can individuals change the future if they have knowledge of it, or will their meddling make the inevitable outcome worse?
I can’t be too hard on this film, as I said, I haven’t seen it all the way through. I have read the story it’s based on and I found that quite interesting, so the premise is there. I’m just biased because neither Cruise or Farrell are what you might call my favourite actors. Judging by what I have seen, you can be sure of some fairly decent special effects and sound design (Spielberg is at the helm after all). Like the other films on my list, there is just something too ordinary about Minority Report to really set it apart. It was a regular movie designed to make money (which it did). It’s not a classic, though.
5. The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
The final film in my list is based on the short story ‘The Adjustment Team’ (1954). It follows the totally plausible romantic affair between a politician (Matt Damon) and a ballerina (Emily Blunt). The two are being kept apart by mysterious forces beyond their control and the whole thing just escalates from there.
Like Minority Report before it, the theme of this film is the ability to change (or indeed ‘adjust’) the future to achieve a particular end. This could by ensuring a particular politician never rises to power, or a child is never born, wars are created or prevented as required. I’m reminded of the classic Isaac Asimov novel The End of Eternity, which follows a similar premise, but revolves around altering the past to change the future. That didn’t appear until 1955 so it’s possible that he read a copy of Orbit Science Fiction the year before and thought “why the hell not?” I love Asimov’s novel. In fact it’s one of the best books I have ever read, but I’m just saying it’s possible. Lucas did it with Star Wars and Frank Herbert’s Dune (sand people? A mysterious force? A chosen one? Really George?).
Damon is watchable, despite the (usually justified) bullying he has to regularly undergo from the South Park team, he’s not that bad. Bourne was quite good, but I doubt how much range he actually has. He could well end up doing mobile network commercials (like his spiritual father Kevin Bacon) twenty years from now.
I’m giving Blunt a chance because I fancy her a bit and there’s always room for an attractive woman in a red dress in any movie I watch.
Anyway, I’m going off-topic.
The Adjustment Bureau is the newest film on my list and therefore benefits from a glossy production, as you’d expect from any current big budget movie. It suffers, however, from the same ordinariness that plagues three movies above. Blade Runner proves that the combination of Phil’s incredible novel, Ridley Scott’s visual skills, the right actors and Syd Mead’s design concept all combined to create something truly unique.
My advice is: save your money and time. Watch the 30th Anniversary Blu-ray of Blade Runner and then get hold of the original short stories and novels that these films were based on. You may well find yourself becoming a ‘Dick Head’ as I have (it’s what PKD fans are ‘affectionately’ known as!).
Films I left out:
Radio Free Albemuth (2014) – did this ever come out? I heard rumors it would come out soon. It could be a match for Blade Runner, but I’m skeptical.
A Scanner Darkly (2006) – I haven’t forgotten this one! I plan on re-watching this and re-reading the incredible 1977 novel and writing a dedicated post about it soon.