Adapting Philip K. Dick

Watching Blade Runner 2049 was a weird experience for me.   I was interested in seeing it, not because I thought a sequel was a great idea, but because I was interested in seeing whether it went back to ideas from the source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  As a concept, a sequel to Blade Runner seems redundant.  The original has been copied so much in the past 35 years that its novelty has been drained away, which wasn’t enough to make the original a hit in 1983 when there was literally nothing else like it.  I thought the sequel was very good, which was surprising, but I also thought it was thematically more similar to the works of Philip K. Dick than the film it was a sequel to, which was even more surprising.

The original Blade Runner is probably how more people know the name Philip K. Dick than any other source.  As a novelist, he was cranking out pulp sci-fi to make a living at an alarming rate, and also had a number of literary novels that were published posthumously after his death.  I have read most of them at this point, as well as a good chunk of Dick’s short stories, which he wrote 121 total.  Since Blade Runner, Dick has been adapted a number of times and he is somewhat on an upswing lately, with the Blade Runner sequel and the television series The Man in the High Castle and the upcoming series Electric Dreams.  (It already aired in the UK.)  The funny thing about this is that most of the adaptations of his work are so alien to the concerns and obsessions of the author as to be barely recognizable.

Dick’s science fiction  has been dubbed “epistemological science fiction” by many.  You can understand a Philip K. Dick novel once you know he operates under one key premise.   That premise is that every single person inhabits a reality all their own, which may contain some elements of “actual reality” but is distinct just that same.  To Dick,  “objective reality” is inaccessible to any individual human being and all human interactions are clashes of reality.  Without being able to know reality, but needing a collective reality, humans construct realties and try to enforce them on others as the “true objective reality.”  Several Philip K. Dick novels deal with totalitarian governments who create a false reality in order to control the population.

While not present in every Dick novel, it is important to note that Dick was a Christian, and a lot of his work explores theological concepts.  Dick was influenced by Gnosticism, so in much of his work there is a conflict between evil and good forces, represented by a malevolent creator God and a benevolent savior God.  In his later years Dick claimed to experience religious visions, and his works Radio Free Albemuth, Valis,  The Divine Invasion, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer and his unfinished The Owl in Daylight are all works that address these religious visions. In other words, Philip K. Dick was a really strange dude.

When adapting Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, original screenwriter Hampton Fancher made a number of changes, as did later writer David Peoples under the supervision of director Ridely Scott.  In the original novel Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter who agrees to hunt down seven androids because he wants to buy a real live animal, which are rare due to nuclear war.  All Deckard has is an electric sheep.   Androids can be detected through an empathy test, because they do not have memories that are developed as humans.  In order to separate androids from humans, empathy has replaced reason, which used to separate humans from animals.   Deckard’s society fetishizes empathy because it can be used as a distinction from androids.  There is a religion called Mercerism, in which worshipers watch their messiah be stoned to death in order to feel empathy for him.  The irony is Deckard doesn’t seem very empathetic throughout the novel, and in fact seems outright cold and inhuman.

The film version of Blade Runner makes a number of changes.  In order to simplify things Deckard is hunting four, not seven “replicants”, who are no longer androids but artificial persons made through bioengineering.  Deckard is married in the book, but not in the movie.  Several scenes are cut, including Deckard fighting his way out of a police station taken over by androids and Deckard running into a second bounty hunter who turns out to be an android.  The theme of animals being rare is pushed to the background and Mercerism is removed, even though the empathy tests remain. A foil character to Deckard, John Isidore, a man with “too much empathy” is still in the movie but is renamed “H. R. Sebastian” and most of his parts are cut, keeping only scenes that are necessary for the plot.  In the book, Deckard sleeps with the character of Rachel but discards her because she is an android, but in the film he becomes infatuated with her.

Blade Runner, despite being disliked by most critics and a box office bomb has become a classic in the years since, mostly due to Ridley Scott’s restored director’s cut and later final cut.  When the book and film are compared at all, it is usually to say that Scott took a slight sci-fi pulp novel and turned it into a great film.  That has not only been baffling to me since comparing the two, but I see Blade Runner as a visually stunning mangling of Dick’s work, with a great Rutger Hauer performance and art direction, but a complete misunderstanding of what it’s actually about.

When people think Blade Runner is “deep” this is usually because of the left over snippets of theme that still remain from Dick’s novel. How much Ridley Scott misunderstands his own movie is evident in his insistence that Deckard is a replicant.   In the novel, Dick toys with the idea that Deckard might be an android in the first half, but he reveals unambiguously that he is a human when he encounters another bounty hunter and they both suspect the other of being androids.  The android begs for his life and talks about how he has memories and feelings but this means nothing to Deckard.  He kills him without a second thought. The point is that Deckard is unfeeling, and the distinction between humans and androids is arbitrary and constructed.  By making Deckard a replicant in the movie, Ridely Scott destroys the main theme of the work and makes his film completely meaningless.

The sequel has a tricky job because there are a lot of people who feel the way I do, are fans of Ridley Scott’s interpretation, or feel that it is best left as ambiguous. These three groups of viewers can not all be satisfied at the same time so the writers go the least upsetting third option, and the sequel has a story where the question can again be read both ways, but in the end it doesn’t really matter.   I was amazed that they were able to do this, while I would have preferred the movie reveal Deckard was not a replicant, I have no complaints about how this plot point was handled.

Hampton Fancher, the first movie’s screenwriter is back as co-writer on this one.  He famously was not a fan of the Dick novel and his changes to the source material make this very clear.  The sequel stripes even the remains of the idea of animals as status symbols and the theme of empathy away.  However, while this hurt the first film in making its case that the difference between replicants and “normal” humans is arbitrary, this becomes a much more realized theme in the sequel.    Oddly, the writers do this through a messiah story, something that Dick as a Christian likely would have approved.  In addition the themes of real and fake, that had obsessed Dick in all his work, are explored in different ways in this one, delving into the idea of false memories and holographic companions.

Capturing the unique weirdness that is Philip K. Dick on the screen has had a checkered past.  Most of the time Hollywood tries to turn Dick’s work into an action movie or thriller and the results can be horrible, like Screamers or Paycheck, or entertaining like Total Recall and Minority Report, but they always stray from Dick’s vision to create something more palatable for a mass audience.  The only film that has gotten Dick right for the screen is Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, which stays reasonably faithful to Dick’s novel while using rotoscope animation to create a bizarre look and feel.  Michel Gondry has been developing an adaptation of Dick’s novel Ubik for years, and if it ever gets made this might be a second example, with Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind already having themes and a feel right out of a Dick novel.

Even television has not been able to get Dick right.  The Man In The High Castle tossed most of Dick’s philosophical questions aside early in order to explore the premise in as literal a way possible.   In the book, Nazis never appear and are barely mentioned.  The characters live in Japanese occupied San Francisco and Dick is more interested in questions about what shapes the tide of history and reality under a fascistic regime. Perhaps Electric Dreams will finally give us a more accurate adaptation of Dick’s work for the serialized medium.