Does Philip K. Dick Dream of Unfaithful Adaptations?

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, hailed by many readers as one of the most prolific and influential visionaries of the twentieth century, died in the early 1980s, but his legacy remains relevant today to an extent that he probably could never have imagined. What viewers of Dick-inspired films and series like Minority Report, Total Recall, and Blade Runner might not know, however, is how drastically some of the adaptations of his works differ from their source material.

To help understand why filmmakers and showrunners are simultaneously drawn to Dick’s works yet find it advantageous to alter them, it’s useful to consider why the stories remain so popular. Douglas A. Mackey, in his book Philip K. Dick, suggests that one of the reasons for Dick’s lasting appeal is that he challenged readers by demanding more from them than the average science fiction writer might. To test this theory, try getting into a conversation with a Philip K. Dick fan. Trust me, it’ll get deep really quickly.

Dick’s cinematic heyday began soon after his death in 1982, when viewers discovered what his readers had known for years with the release of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. This film would come to be known as one of the most groundbreaking science fiction pieces in cinema history. Scott’s vision of Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is haunting, nightmarish and compelling, much as Dick likely intended, but there are a few key differences.

Rick Deckard, the blade runner in the film, has qualities unlike those of his counterpart in the novel. While novel Deckard is insecure, self-absorbed and nervous, film Deckard (played by suitably intrepid actor Harrison Ford) is at least somewhat heroic and believes in what he does for a living—tracking down and terminating replicant androids—although he does experience a mounting ethical crisis as the film progresses.

Similarly, the important, but nevertheless secondary player Roy Baty from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? becomes an integral film character, Roy Batty, portrayed by Rutger Hauer in a tour-de-force performance. Film Batty is shown, unlike novel Baty, as sympathetic and anguished, despite his murderous ways. He is, in essence, given a reason for being the way he is. The Dick-written Baty is self-absorbed, a lot like his novel counterpart, Rick Deckard.

The next Dick translation to hit theater screens was an adaptation of a short story called “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” the 1990 action sci-fi epic Total Recall. In the film, the short story protagonist, a timid and downtrodden guy named Quail became a macho construction worker named Quaid. Soon enough, Arnold Schwarzenegger was cast in the lead, and the rest was history. Blade Runner, through the advent of home video, had become a cult classic, but Total Recall was a box office smash.

In 2002, another notable adaptation of a Dick source was released, Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report. “I’m getting bald. Bald and fat and old,” thinks John Anderton in the opening line of the short story “The Minority Report.” Could this possibly be the same character played by Tom Cruise in the film? Sure, just imagine a Tom Cruise character saying a line like this. (Okay, other than the guy in Tropic Thunder.) In addition to a body-morphed protagonist, however, Minority Report contained something else, a plot device Dick avoided at all costs: a happy ending.

So why the differences? How does the nebbish Quail of “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” become Quaid, the macho, gun brandishing hero of Total Recall? Why does the aging, paunchy policeman Anderton of “The Minority Report” become the heroic, non-flabby Tom Cruise character in the film? Where within the gritty, no-nonsense Deckard of Blade Runner can we find the remnants of the self-absorbed Deckard from Dick’s novel?

One essential problem filmmakers may have with Dick’s short stories as they stand is their lack of a third act that carries a film to its most marketable 90-minute time length. A way around this problem is to add a third act, of course, an addition that often includes a thing Dick never emphasized, a clear-cut idea of right and wrong. In “The Minority Report,” Anderton is more concerned with who has framed him and how he can use a precognitive psychic to clear himself of murder than he is with the ethical problems of pre-crime. The film version, of course, pulls no moral punches and it ends with an unequivocal recommendation of freewill and the American justice system. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In this one-two-three punch scenario, the ideas behind Dick’s stories are what draw people to them, the moral ambiguity leaves ample room for screenwriters to fashion films with emotional impact, and with a little tweaking, the protagonists, who were never really virtuous in the stories, make for perfect heroic screen roles. To be fair, Blade Runner, with its film noir sensibilities and rather ambiguous ending, doesn’t entirely conform to this pattern. However, it’s also considered by many Dick fans to be one of the more satisfying, if not necessarily faithful adaptations.

Over the past few years, additional Dick works have been adapted, some more well-received than others. In 2006, Richard Linklater directed a critically acclaimed version of the novel A Scanner Darkly, Total Recall was made again in 2012, and Ridley Scott has produced a successful television series based on the Hugo Award winning The Man in the High Castle. Still more have been released or are in the works. A couple of weeks ago, Popular Mechanics ran an article titled “10 Great Movies That Owe a Deep Debt to Philip K. Dick.”

Despite the fact that Dick’s works aren’t what would be considered typically contemporary, their ideas and premises are more relevant now than ever and continue to appeal to something deep inside us. Questions about privacy, humanity, morality, abuse of power, and the nature of reality will always be with us, and they should never have easy answers.

So keep the faith, true Philip K. Dick believers. If the daily newsfeed is any indicator, he won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. And when all else fails, read the original stories.

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