How Philip K Dick transformed Hollywood

Feature Ryan Lambie 28 Sep 2012 - 08:52

Thirty years after his death, author Philip K Dick continues to influence the movies. Ryan looks at how his work changed Hollywood…

American author Philip Kindred Dick died in 1982, leaving behind an astonishing 41 novels and around 120 short stories. But despite his prolific output, and the success of the adaptations of his work – most famously Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report – Dick passed away in relative obscurity. Celebrated though he was in sci-fi circles, it was only in the 30 years after his death that his fame gradually grew – as of 2009, adaptations of his novels and short stories grossed an estimated total of $1bn at the box office.

So how did this most post-modern of genre writers, who published his first novel in 1951 and continued to work at a ferocious pace up to his death at the age of 53, become such a widely adapted and influential figure? 


By the late 1960s, Dick had already spent well over a decade writing short stories and novels. Following a prolific run of celebrated books, including The Man In The High Castle, The Tree Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch (1965), and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (1968), interest in his work began to accumulate. This prolific run of novels was followed by Ubik (1969), and it’s here that Philip K Dick had his first brush with the movie industry. 

Ubik is set in a complex future where psychic phenomena are commonplace, and dead people can be kept in a curious purgatorial state in which they can still dream and communicate with the living. The book’s protagonist, Joe Chip, is caught up in a terrorist attack that appears to tear a hole in reality itself; everything is decaying at an accelerated rate, and time appears to be going backwards. One of Dick’s very finest novels from this period, Ubik deals with the subjects of dream-states and malleable perceptions of reality uncannily like Christopher Nolan’s Inception

The cinematic potential of Ubik wasn’t lost on the French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, who contacted Dick in 1974 with the hope of making the book into a movie. Within a month, Dick had written a screenplay – the only feature-length script he ever wrote. Although rough around the edges, it was a brilliant rendering of the ideas present in his book, and it’s a sad fact that the movie never happened; the script languished in obscurity until 1985, when it was published as Ubik: The Screenplay.

Coincidentally, 1974 was also the year that a young writer named Ron Shusett contacted Dick about his 1966 short story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Despite its brevity, Shusett immediately saw the cinematic potential in the tale. He wanted to rename it Total Recall, and imagined the short story as the film’s first act – the launch pad for an adventure movie which he’d later describe as “Raiders Of The Lost Ark Go To Mars.” Shusett paid Dick $1000 for the rights to the story.

“Phil Dick was then not a known author at all,” Shusett said, in the documentary Imagining Total Recall. “Dick was a struggling pulp writer until Blade Runner got made. [We Can Remember It For You Wholesale] was the first story that knocked me right out, which I knew would make an incredible movie. I also knew it would be incredibly expensive.”

Too expensive, it turned out, for Hollywood’s studios in the 70s. Shusett struggled to find a financial backer for Total Recall, so he and Dan O’Bannon put it aside, and worked instead on something they would later call Alien


It was around this time that interest began to build around another of Dick’s works – his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? United Artists producer Herb Jaffe was interested in adapting the book into some sort of sci-fi comedy, but the deal quickly turned sour. Herb’s son, Robert, had written the screenplay, which was so despised by Dick that he threatened to assault the screenwriter as soon as he met him. “Shall I beat you up here at the airport,” Dick reportedly asked Robert, “or shall I beat you up back at my apartment?” 

That early production soon fell apart, as did Martin Scorsese’s attempt to adapt the novel. It wasn’t until screenwriter Hampton Fancher’s version of the script was optioned in 1977 that the rusty gears finally started to creak into motion; director Ridley Scott was signed up in 1980, and pre-production on what would become Blade Runner (a title cribbed not from Dick’s work, but a novel by William S Burroughs) began in earnest. 

By this point, Dick’s years of relative poverty were over. His reputation was starting to grow outside the usual sci-fi circles, as the pre-release hype over Blade Runner built. “His whole life had been very chaotic and unhappy,” recalled his friend and fellow sci-fi writer Tim Powers, in the 2007 documentary, The Penultimate Truth About Philip K Dick. “He was finally making what was, to him, infinite money, from the Blade Runner movie and a lot of books selling domestically and overseas.”

“At the time I knew him, he never was rich,” agreed another friend and author, Ray Nelson. “But just before he died, he suddenly started to get rich, with a lot of options on his books. The first one was Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

Although Dick remained distrustful of Hollywood’s handling of his work, and disliked Hampton Fancher’s Blade Runner screenplay, he was much happier with a later rewrite by David Peoples, even suggesting that the script served as a satisfactory counterpoint to his novel. When Dick was shown some early footage of Douglas Trumbull’s special effects – of a benighted future city illuminated by jets of flame and flickering neon – he was astonished.

Philip K Dick sadly died of a stroke on March 2nd 1982 – just three months before Blade Runner’s release. Although he never got to see the movie in its finished form, he did have time to enjoy some of the fruits of his success. He often wrote to friends about his growing celebrity overseas, and in an interview with the Denver Clarion, he said, with more than a hint of satisfaction, “Movies like Westworld used ideas I’d thought of a long time ago. Now, I’m finally cashing in on it.”

When Blade Runner was released in the June of 1982, it wasn’t an immediate critical or financial success. From Dick’s novel, about a bounty hunter named Rick Deckard who hunts androids in a post-nuclear war future, Ridley Scott had spun out a noir thriller that owed almost as much debt to detective fiction and the film Metropolis as it did to the novel that inspired it.

The production of Blade Runner wasn’t an easy one, and several changes were forced on Scott following muted responses from test audiences, including a happier ending (which famously employed left-over footage from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) and a rather dreary narration from leading man Harrison Ford.

Early reviews for Blade Runner were sharply polarised. One reviewer dismissed it as “Science fiction pornography,” while an LA Times critic dubbed it “Blade Crawler” on account of its meditative pace. Its visuals, however, were widely praised, and its cinematography, special effects and art direction were given numerous accolades in various film awards ceremonies, including two Oscar nominations. 

Gradually, respect for Blade Runner has grown, and by the time the Director’s Cut appeared in cinemas in 1992 – an early workprint that lacked the narration and happy ending of the original release – the movie was widely regarded as a cult classic. And as Blade Runner’s cult celebrity grew through the 80s and 90s, so too did Philip K Dick’s.

“The so-called Philip Dick cult of the 80s began with Blade Runner,” argued Dick’s former literary agent Russell Galen in the 1994 documentary, A Day In The Afterlife. “I don’t think it would have begun without Blade Runner – or maybe it would have taken him 30 extra years had it not been for Blade Runner. The movie tie-in edition of the book was, and remains, the single most successful publication with which he was ever involved. It just reached this mass market he’d never before been able to reach.”

Lasting fame

In 1990, Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon finally got their adaptation of We Can Remember It For You Wholesale onto the big screen. Now a big-budget action movie directed by Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Total Recall was, unlike Blade Runner, an immediate financial success.

Total Recall ushered in a wave of movies based on Philip K Dick’s work, from the low-budget Screamers (1995), based on the short story Second Variety, to the lavish and successful Minority Report (2002), directed by Steven Spielberg. Other adaptations included John Woo’s Paycheck (2003), Richard Linklater’s animated version of A Scanner Darkly (2006) and Next, a Nicolas Cage action vehicle very loosely based on the story The Golden Man.

Movies like Total Recall and Next are good examples of how Hollywood’s approached Dick’s stories, in fact. While some are extremely faithful – A Scanner Darkly hews extremely closely to the original text – most take an idea or two from the author’s work, and head off in an entirely new direction.

Total Recall, for example, takes parts of Dick’s short story as its opening act, before setting off on a wild action adventure on Mars. The Adjustment Bureau (2011) takes the idea of fate being surreptitiously altered by a shadowy group of unseen agents, and grafts it onto a breezy romance starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt.

This makes sense in many cases, since Dick’s stories are often either too complex or too brief to make into saleable movies. Even Blade Runner, which takes character names and story ideas from Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, departs significantly from the novel. The film lacks the book’s mood machines, which allows its characters to ‘dial in’ emotions, and there’s no mention of Mercerism, the strange religion Dick created for the book.

In this regard, it could be argued that Dick’s stories aren’t so much adapted as used as a springboard for the imagination. Aside from the works mentioned above, just look at the range of movies that have been inspired by Dick’s reality-bending brand of fiction: The Truman Show (1993) and The Matrix (1999) are both about relatively ordinary people discovering that the world around them is an immaculately-constructed lie.

In one public speech recorded back in 1977, Dick even appeared to outline a significant part of what the Wachowskis would later incorporate into The Matrix trilogy. 

“We are living in a computer-programmed reality,” Dick said to an audience at the Metz Sci-Fi convention, “and the only clue we have to it is when some variable is changed, and some alteration in reality occurs. We have the overwhelming impression that we were reliving the present – déjà vu. Such an impression is a clue, that in some past time point, a variable was changed – reprogrammed as it where – and as a result of this, an alternative world branched off.” 

The Truman Show, meanwhile, bears several similarities to Dick’s 1959 novel, Time Out Of Joint, in which a man living in what he thinks is a quiet American suburb of the 50s discovers that everything around him is a fabrication; it’s actually the year 1998, and he’s being used as an unwitting pawn in a future war.

Dick’s stories constantly dealt with notions of repressed memories, false pasts, strange doubles and simulated realities. Such themes can be found in everything from the noir sci-fi of Dark City (1998), the romantic drama Eternal Sunshine Of A Spotless Mind (2004), and the mainstream thriller Unknown (2011), in which Liam Neeson undergoes an identity crisis not unlike the protagonist of Total Recall.

Rian Johnson’s Looper, out today, is another sci-fi movie that deals with similarly PhilDickian themes. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, an assassin who’s paid to kill mob victims sent from the future, no questions asked. But when his future self suddenly appears one day (played by Bruce Willis), he’s faced with the absurd task of hunting his older self down.

This premise is a little like one found in Philip Dick’s 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly (though taken to murderous extremes), while Looper’s freeform structure is more akin to a Dick novel than any official adaptation yet seen; like one of the author’s works, it heads off on unexpected, startling tangents, often suggesting one path for the plot, before hurtling in an entirely different direction.

None of this is to say that Johnson, or any of the makers of the movies mentioned above, have intentionally taken Philip Dick’s ideas, but the echoes are distinct and familiar. Looper’s terse dialogue and characterisation are Johnson’s alone, and it’s an intelligent, brilliant thriller. What’s significant, though, is that Philip K Dick was writing about such similar topics, often decades before moviemakers explored the same things. It took many years for Dick’s unique form of storytelling to proliferate, but in the 21st century, the themes in his novels and short stories seem all but inescapable.

Lasting influence 

In his finest work, such as Ubik, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and The Man In The High Castle, Philip K Dick appeared to anticipate a coming age of virtual realities, ubiquitous technology and surveillance. It’s undoubtedly significant that, although writers such as Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein were more famous in their own lifetime, it’s Philip K Dick whose work is still so often adapted by Hollywood filmmakers.

The reason for this, perhaps, is because the author grew up in California. He saw the transformation of the state from leafy idyll to an industrialised, prosperous hive in the post-War boom, and this was something that he repeatedly worked into his novels. “Life in California was a commercial for itself, endlessly replayed,” Dick wrote in The World That Jones Made (1956). “Nothing changed. It just spread further and further and further in the form of neon ooze.”

Hollywood itself is rather like a Philip K Dick novel: a place with one foot in fiction and reality, where the two bleed into one another freely. It’s this, perhaps, that Hollywood’s filmmakers have seen and subconsciously understood in Dick’s work. Hollywood is a town full of sets and sound stages, where false realities are constructed and torn down every day; here, the writer's stories resonate like a bell.

Some of Dick’s predictions for this century’s advances were somewhat wide of the mark – the androids, flying cars and space travel have yet to materialise – but his simulated realities and dual identities can be readily found in videogames and on the internet, where both the truth and reality are often fluid. Sometimes, even news stories appear to be ripped straight out of his novels; only a few weeks ago, a Yahoo news report read, “Missing woman unknowingly joins search for herself”. Dick didn't predict the technology of the 21st century, but he did appear to anticipate some of its mind-bending effects.

Twenty years after his death, Dick’s work is still finding its way onto our screens. This year saw the release of Len Wiseman’s Total Recall remake. A film adaptation of Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said is thought to be in the works, and there has been talk of a TV series based on The Man In The High Castle. Walt Disney Animation Studios is working on an adaptation of the short story, The King Of The Elves, while director Michel Gondry is reportedly working on a film version of Ubik – the novel that narrowly missed out on a movie adaptation way back in 1974.

When Jaws ushered in the age of the high-concept blockbuster in 1975, and Star Wars proved that science fiction was profitable two years later, Hollywood began to look for similarly lucrative, grand ideas. And in the stories of Philip K Dick, there's much that's complicated and strange and eccentric – but distilled to their core, many of his narratives are simple and extremely compelling. A bounty hunter in pursuit of androids. An ordinary man discovers that he might be a government assassin with no recollection of his past. A rather lazy resident of an American suburb begins to suspect that his surroundings are little more than a kind of movie set. 

In an industry where concepts have to be distilled down into a snappy sentence, Dick's stories continue to provide a reliable source of compelling ideas. 

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he died in 1981... or 82... ...
or is this being written 10 years ago ?

Odd, on facebook it says 20 years ago but here it says 30. Curiouser and curiouser...

I think he died while they were shooting Blade Runner (Scott showed him footage of the city plus fx work, which he endorsed, though he didn't live to see the film released). So that would make it er...1981...or 82

Erm ... this is downright silly. As someone who's read several of the shorts and longer works of Dick, they bear little resemblance to the screenplays and films you're citing to make your arguments. While it's safe to safe that Dick clearly influenced screenwriters who then, in turn, played with his concepts, it's more than a bit of a stretch to say that Dick influenced Hollywood.

Factoid: The building you see in the photo above from Blade Runner, is actually the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars recycled. Interesting huh? ;)

Dick may have talked about the Matrix in those terms but he was certainly pulling from William Gibson and you're doing Gibson a disservice to try to claim that the Matrix films came from Dick. Not only was the concept of a completely virtual world(more akin to Tad Williams' Otherland than the Matrix however) penned entirely in Neuromancer but the Coup de Grace is that Gibson actually coined the term Matrix in relation to a virtual simulation of the real world, or at least a virtual way of interfacing complex computer networks. Claming the Matrix movies, which were literally named after a term which Gibson himself coined and a concept which Gibson himself penned in Neuromancer, were inspired mainly by Dick might not be the best assumption. Not that certain concepts couldn't be influenced by Dick, but I would say that the the father of all cyber-punk is Gibson, not Dick.

All that being said Dick was brilliant and his works should be read at length. As the article states and is so very true, his brillance doesn't necessarily lie in the specifics of his content but in the broader ideas that he puts forward that are a fertile seed-bed for an infinite amount of new ideas and ways of thinking about our world and the future

Dick didn't get anything from Gibson's neuromancer. Neuromancer came out after Dick died. Dick originated the sci-fi idea of not living in the world you thought you were (e.g. the three stigmata of palmer eldritch). Gibson like everyone else probably got some inspiration from Dick.

The real point here is that his children are really taking his arsenal of works and pushing to get as many of them adapted as possible. They are producers on some of them, and are heavily involved in UBIK especially. That's one of the main reasons I think so many have been made recently.

I consider Philip K. Dick to be a strange sort of cat among the Science Fiction fellows. I do think that Blade Runner built his reputation. And obviously the movie is very different than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Something has happened with Philip K. Dick's work over the last few years. For a while he was just one of those Science Fiction guys, like Heinlein, like Asimov, but now they teach his stuff in college. I think that part of the reason he has grown in popularity is a weird spin off of fame from the films that have come out and the fact that he does write some depressing stuff. And they like to teach depressing stuff in college. They don't teach do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but they do teach A Scanner Darkly. He is able to fit in both realms of existence, both Pop Culture (Total Recall, Blade Runner, Minority Report) and Intellectual Existentialism (A Scanner Darkly, The Man in the High Castle). It's like he can be totally fun and taken completely seriously at the same time. So he appeals to a pretty broad audience.
I'm a little pissed that other Science Fiction authors from the same time period seem to have fallen by the wayside. I don't understand why Roger Zelazny or William Gibson are fading in our collective memory. But for whatever reason, Philip K. Dick has grown into a post mortem celebrity.

You should remember about S. Lem and his idea
of the network and computers with is much earlier than Gibons or Dick.

Seriously? I was outraged when I saw "The Truman Show" in the theater and it didn't include a writing credit for Dick. This is without needing an Internet blogger to point out the obvious inspiration to me. I will agree that the case connecting "Looper" to "A Scanner Darkly" is pretty weak, but go and read the PKD short "The Skull" to see where the germ of the idea for "Looper" came from.

E. Lee Zimmerman writes: "they bear little resemblance to the screenplays and films you're citing to make your arguments."

OK smart guy, tell me whether this elevator pitch describes "The Truman Show" or "Time Out of Joint:"

Unbeknownst to him (but common knowledge to everyone else) the life of the most important man on Earth is a complete fiction.

One example does NOT a trend make.

I spent most of the 90's wishing that Terry Gilliam would pick up "Ubik" (or any PKD novel, for that matter) and make it into a film like "Brazil" or "12 Monkeys". I felt similarly about other books and authors that I loved. I don't think that way so much anymore. I would rather that people take the time to read the original books and discuss them. I would rather that writers and director produce wonderful films that aren't associated with wonderful books (though I don't care if they are influenced by them...however, if direct plagarism is involved with no credit that does bother me). Even when a book is meticulously adapted, the film usually either disappoints me in comparison or wrecks a book that I haven't read yet. I won't let my daughter see book-based films until after she has read them (luckily she loves to read but we'll see how long I can control what she watches). I think that some books are so alive that they play like films in our minds, so it seems obvious that they would make great films, but that is easier imagined than done and isn't even necessary as long as people are literate. We want to share our passions with others and film and television reach a wider audience than books (and we can sit next to someone and watch something together, but unless one is a parent reading to a child that doesn't happen with books).

I think that PKD was cursed with brilliant ideas and an ability to see the world from angles that many people are afraid to (with good reason). Paranoia, solipsism, altered consiousness... PKD didn't invent these mental states nor did he invent or cause the culture that feeds them. I don't know that he influenced these directors directly, planted seeds in the collective unconscious or just tapped into a way of examining reality that many people (I'd daresay most artists) can if they allow themselves to go there. Let people take any seeds he may have planted in their minds (or simply made OK to present to the public) and grow them into unique stories. As Benjamin commented, PKD is being taught in colleges and rightly so, IMHO. I disagree that they are taught because they are "depressing". I think they are taught because they are philosophical and great to talk and write about. PKD wasn't a "science" fiction writer as much as he was a philosophical writer writing in the only genre that would have him. The physical science in his books is often stunted, immature, and in many cases wrong and impossible, though it can be very funny (colonists on Mars can't get many supplies from Earth, so appliance repairmen become very necessary). He wrote about the human condition both internal and external (I still fight the good fight against "kipple" - google it - and it still multiplies if I leave it overnight). PKD should be read by anyone interested in transhumanism, altered states of consciousness, game design, ethics, politics, revisionist history, psychology, drugs, religion, God, or the human condition (does that cover everyone who is interesting to talk to or might make a good film?). I think anyone living in 2012 should be reading both new and classic science fiction (including Heinlein, Asimov, Vonnegut, Gibson, Orwell, etc. and the writers that influenced them and are influenced by them) and following real advances in science and technology as they happen. It's a tragedy that PKD stuggled so much and died before he could reap his rewards just as it was a tragedy for Van Gogh to suffer a similar fate, but out of those struggles came great art. "So it goes." (To quote Kurt Vonnegut, an author who saw plenty of sucess for similar work). Picasso's quote, "Good artists copy, great artists steal" gets thrown around a lot lately. I don't really care if the Wachowski brothers lifted ideas from PKD, Gibson, or Doctor Who - they made a damn good series of films.

Although I don't necessarily agree with all of the assertions made in this article, I am very glad to see it written and to read it. If just one person (that I know - JK) gets turned on to PKD by stumbling onto this article, that is great. We should be talking and arguing about books, and film, and tv, and art. It's called "culture".

Dude, writing credits are given to people who actually write some of the film. You're thinking of a story credit or an idea acknowledgement. Very different things in Hollywood. The Writer's Guild would yell bloody murder if a writer were given credit without having worked on the film.

Heh, The Skull is exactly what I was thinking. I read the premise of Looper and thought "Where have I read that before?"

you don't get a writing credit if another story has a similar premise, or setting. most action films follow the same formula, but each screenwriter is credited for what he writes.

In the Odyssey, at one point the characters are fooled by an illusionary world, perhaps both Dick and the writer of the Truman Story should have shared some credit.

The Truman Show was a much darker, more uncomfortable story because, instead of the setup being a way to get a PTSD war strategist to do his job, the fabrication was for the utter banality of television entertainment. If Dick was the inspiration, they took the idea and ran in an interesting and relevant direction with it.

i might just add (because you felt film makers should refrain from filming books) that many people will get turned onto PKD by seeing an adaption; the same is true of a great many authors. I don't think adaptions have ever been a deterrent to reading, usually the opposite.

and the fact is film and books are very different kinds of mediums and we experience them differently. Many adaptions are loose, sometimes because of laziness, sometimes because of the demands of the medium, either way something is added to the collective narrative, and new connections are made. That said, it is easier to make a standalone satisfying product that cannibalizes elements of a sci-fi novel, than taking a 19th C russian epic with 50 main players and political and religious arguments and reducing it to a love triangle set against a lush backdrop.

i just wanted to add that because I grow weary of the standard kinds of responses one hears in a discussion of books and film adaptions

Because he's a romantic figure? Struggling poor artist, misunderstood, etc, etc finding fame after death is a repetitive theme in reality. Also possibly he doesn't have a strong estate that can protect his postmortem intellectual rights?

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