Philip K. Dick is one of the best American writers. The themes he tackled time and time again have had a profound influence on what we know as modern science fiction today. So, with the latest Dick adaptation, Adjustment Bureau, premiering this Friday, March 4, and a director for Ubik finally announced, I thought I'd take a look back at all the films that have been adapted from his massive repertoire of short stories and novels over the years and see how they all stack up.
Top image: Blade Runner art by Stephen Youll.
I've put the films in order of my own personal preference. Obviously many of you will probably disagree with my order, but I think because I tend to enjoy Dick's earlier writing which tends to lean towards high concept, fast paced scifi weirdness I tend to go for the more hard scifi, or action oriented films.
While opinions vary on each PKD adaptation that comes along, Blade Runner still continues to be considered the granddaddy of all the Philip K. Dick movies. In fact, the film still tops most "best scifi films of all time" lists almost 30 years after it was first released. To me, everything about the film still holds up. The dreamlike pacing, the great cast, Ford's performance, Vangelis' amazing score and the practical FX work still amaze after all this time.
How faithful is it to its source material, the oddly titled "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" In tone, I'd say the film is dead on. The dystopic world Ridley Scott paints is an overcrowded megalopolis where nobody connects and everything's synthetic, which is thematically in line with Dick's novel. The story is very different however, the most notable change being that there is no discussion of religion which is a huge part of the character in Dick's book.
Bottom line: A classic scifi film that lives up to it's classic source material.
Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall may not be the most faithful PDK adaptation, but damn if it's not still one of the best, mind-bending scifi actioners of all time. To me, it epitomizes the Schwarzenegger era with its epic body count, unabashed boobage and classic one-liners (Screw you, Benny!).
Made right on the cusp of the digital FX revolution, Total Recall benefits from a perfect blend of practical visual FX including miniatures, matte paintings and kick ass make up FX from the master, Rob Bottin, and just the right amount of CGI. Thankfully, it doesn't push the CG too far. I still remember seeing the X-ray scanner scene for the first time and being blown away and while it's starting to look dated that scene still manages to work great.
The movie is based on the short story "We Can Remember it for you Wholesale," first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1966. In classic PKD fashion, Quail (not Quaid) is hardly a Schwarzenegger, but rather a regular working class shmo (I think an accountant) who finds himself wrapped up in craziness.
In the movie, Verhoeven plays up the notion that the film could have all been played out in Quaid's head giving it an added layer of what-the-hell-is-really-going-on-here that raises the film's
Seeing a pattern here? Yeah, I like the old ones best. Screamers isn't perfect, but for a mid-nineties actioner with a budget of only $20 million or so, it packs a punch and stands as a great example of how Philip K. Dick's short stories have the ability to ignite the imagination to create entire worlds.
The movie, directed by Christian Duguay (Art of War), is based on the story "Second Variety" which is really simple and has a couple great twists. Since, as usual, the title doesn't really give away the plot, I remember the first time I read the story I was shocked by a couple of its revelations. It's not wonder writer Dan O'Bannon (Alien) saw potential in it.
Dick said of his story, published in 1953: "My grand theme — who is human and who only appears (masquerading) as human? — emerges most fully. Unless we can individually and collectively be certain of the answer to this question, we face what is, in my view, the most serious problem possible. Without answering it adequately, we cannot even be certain of our own selves. I cannot even know myself, let alone you. So I keep working on this theme; to me nothing is as important a question. And the answer comes very hard."
Well said, sir.
I still say that if this movie had ended with the shot of John Anderton being lowered into suspended animation, Minority Report would be one of the best science fiction movies ever, perhaps even surpassing Blade Runner, and one of the best PKD adaptation. Because not only does Spielberg's film for the most part stay true to Dick's story of the same name but it is exciting and visually striking to boot. Personally I think there could have been a way that Anderton could have become caught in the paradox of the Pre-Crime prediction, become a hero and still been imprisoned. The story would have more resonance that way. But nope, Spielberg had to get all Spielbergy on us and end with everyone living happily ever after.
But you know what? Despite that, Minority Report is still a high point in science fiction of the new millennium. A perfect blend of future noir, action, ideas and whimsy Spielberg, turned Philip K. Dick's dire high concept about a "utopia" where crime can be predicted so it no longer exists into a rollicking Indiana Jones style chase movie full of OTT cliffhanger set pieces and government conspiracies. Good stuff when you can get it.
A Scanner Darkly
Purists will argue, but I think Richard Linklater's adaptation of A Scanner Darkly is probably the most faithful adaption of any PKD movie (Radio Free Albemuth coming in a very close second). For one thing it hasn't been re-tooled to create an action adventure mystery like most of Dick's work is when it's prepared for the screen. Some details are shifted around to make the film, well a film, but for the most part it's all there which is why some viewers walk away a little perplexed by it.
Another reason A Scanner Darkly is so different from the majority of movies based on Dick's work is that the novel was written in the late 70s, a darker period when Dick was working through drug addiction, failed marriages and inner turmoil. Arguably his most potent period though, his later stuff also gave us works like VALIS, which nerds will know as a "Vast Active Living Intelligence System".
In what is now Linklater's signature style, A Scanner Darkly is rotoscape animation and looks extremely trippy - which is befitting the tale - and allows for stuff like the Scramble Suit to work and look great. The film is about a totalitarian society in a near future where you're always being watched. An undercover detective, Bob Arctor, workds with a small time group of drug users trying to reach the big distributors of a brain-damaging drug called "Substance D." His assignment is promoted by the recovery center New Path Corporation, but soon Bob begins to lose his own identity and exhibit schizophrenic behaviour.
Radio Free Albemuth
Radio Free Albemuth is the newest Dick adaptation to hit and like I said above it's an extremely faithful to the source material. I know most, if not all, of you haven't had the chance to see it yet, but it was recently scooped up by 7 Arts for distribution so I expect all you Dick heads out there will be able to see it soon.
When Ben Austwick reviewed a workprint that screened at Scifi London last year he said "I came away from the film with that unique Dickian sense of unease, insignificance and wonder, and it's good to see his work reproduced so faithfully on the big screen, flawed or not."
The film is about Nicholas Brady, a regular guy who runs a Berkeley record shop. His life is going nowhere until he receives a powerful night-time vision urging him to move to Los Angeles. The success he finds in the city vindicat an increasing obsession with his dreams, which he believes are being beamed to him by an orbiting alien satellite called Valis. His partner Rachel is less convinced, and puts Nick through therapy to cure what she sees as a mental illness putting serious strain on their relationship. Their novelist friend – Philip K Dick himself, or at least a very Dickian version of him – is more sympathetic, and is gradually sucked in to the complex conspiracy Nick finds himself at the heart of.
All right, now we're really getting into the fluff. It really starts to become a toss up in terms of which one of the next few titles you prefer. They're all fairly similar in quality and it probably comes down to whether of not you like Nicholas Cage, Ben Affleck or Gary Sinise.
Me? I like John Woo, even when he's sort of ruining one of my favourite Philip K. Dick stories called Paycheck about a guy with no memory who gets a package of random objects from himself and has to figure out what they mean and how they can help him. It's a classic Dick adventure concept and when I first read it I remember wishing I could adapt the screenplay myself. Well, it wasn't too much later that I found out Dean Georgaris beat me to it.
Don't get me wrong here. Paycheck is a fun movie with lots of twists and turns and a nifty we-can-see-into-the-future plot device that keeps the thing moving. And Woo was going for a classic Hitchcock vibe which helps. However, I've seen the film a few times since 2003 and it seems to age worse and worse as each year passes. No wonder Woo went back to Asia.
Drive Angry's Nic Cage plays a Las Vegas magician cursed with the ability to see a few minutes into the future in Lee Tamahori's Next, based on the novel "The Golden Man".
Sounds like a pretty awesome ability to have right? Except the FBI wants cage to stop a nuclear attack and, well you know Cage, he just wants to be left alone to sulk and be crazy so he and his new girlfriend Jessia Biel go on the lam.
Next is very much in the vein of Paycheck. It's an easily digestible, mid-budget scifi adventure romp that is fun while it lasts, but is ultimately not as fulfilling as Dick's original tale. They've kept the basic concept, added some new characters and situations and wound up with something new. Also, upon another viewing, the CGI is starting to look a little haggard, which considering there's only two or three scenes with big pieces of it it's really a shame.
To be honest my memory of Impostor is growing dim. I haven't seen it in probably four or five years, but the things I do remember are the left over Starship Troopers costumes used to dress the army, Madeline Stowe's dead black eyes and Gary Sinise strapped to some James Bond style laser device. Not much to go on I guess.
In Impostor, Gary Sinise plays an engineer who creates the ultimate weapon in a seemingly never ending battle against aliens. Is he hailed as a king and savior to human kind though? Well, this is a PKD story, so nope. He's quickly suspected of being an alien himself and has to go on the run.
Impostor feels like a TV pilot, but it actually got a pretty wide theatrical release in 2001. Far from perfect, it's still a fun matinee scifi outing and if you've never seen it you probably should.
Barjo is a French Canadian film based on the novel "Confessions Of A Crap Artist." I haven't seen it, so I can't comment on it but it has an IMDB rating of 6/10 and is apparently pretty wacky.
This article by agentorange originally appeared at Quiet Earth.