How Philip K Dick transformed Hollywood

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. 

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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


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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.”

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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