Paranoid, mind-bending, unpredictable and surreal, the writings of Philip K Dick may have been keyed in to the counterculture, trippy era of the 60s and 70s, but decades after his untimely death in 1982, his best stories seem more relevant now than ever before. This perhaps explains why the author’s books and novels are so often a source of inspiration to filmmakers and other writers, in spite of their frequently bewildering nature.
Movies based on Philip K Dick’s work have regularly appeared on the big screen since Ridley Scott brought Blade Runner to the screen in 1982, and more adaptations have been announced for the future. Dick passed away before Blade Runner‘s premiere, and never had the opportunity to enjoy the huge following his work has gradually acquired, or the far-reaching effect his writing has had on the writers and directors that followed him.
While the style of last year’s Inception is very much director Christopher Nolan’s own, its dream-within-a-dream premise is straight out of a Philip K Dick novel, most obviously the comic nightmare that was 1969’s Ubik, in which reality turns out to be the product of a dead psychopath’s mind.
The constant poking at the seams of reality also appears to have rubbed off on maverick director, David Cronenberg, who makes similarly troubling enquiries in his lengthy precession of weird films. His 1999 movie, eXistenZ, nests simulated realities within simulated realities in a manner that Dick would, I think, have loved.
Nine of Dick’s stories have been adapted for the cinema so far, and as we’ll see, some are far more faithful to their source than others, while a tenth, The Adjustment Bureau, arrives in UK cinemas tomorrow.
To celebrate the arrival of this latest adaptation, we take a look back over some of Philip K Dick’s other cinematic translations, and look ahead to the author’s works set to appear in a cinema in the near future…
Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, was one of the most mesmerising, ambitious visions of the future since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Only loosely based on the source novel (one significant piece of dialogue and a few themes aside, the movie and book are entirely different beasts), the subtler nuances of Dick’s characters are lost among the epic sets, but the author’s philosophical musings survive intact.
One of the best films to have sprung from the pen of Phil, Blade Runner also stands as Ridley Scott’s finest work to date. And who can forget the career best brilliance of Rutger Hauer as a replicant called Roy, or his bleakly poetic final speech? A sci-fi classic.
Total Recall (1990)
Dutch director Paul Verhoeven followed up the violent satire of RoboCop with this equally blood-soaked interpretation of the short story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Dick’s slight tale of a meek everyman who discovers he’s actually a government assassin with an erased memory is mutated, in the hands of Verhoeven, into a clodhopping action fantasy, with the hulking Schwarzenegger shoehorned in as the protagonist.
Total Recall‘s about as subtle as a howitzer, but it’s a thrilling joy ride, with great performances from Michael Ironside and Ronny Cox as a pair of shouting rent-a-villains.
Confessions D’un Barjo (1992)
The only film on this list I’m ashamed to say I haven’t seen, this French drama adapts Dick’s 1975 non-science fiction novel, Confessions Of A Crap Artist, the only mainstream story Dick successfully had published in his lifetime.
Directed by Jérôme Boivin, Confessions D’un Barjo stars Hippolyte Girardot as Barjo, an eccentric inventor who obsessively cobbles together gadgets and fills notebooks with his weird ideas, before his scientific inquiries end with him burning down his own house.
Moving in with his sister, Fanfan, and her husband, Charles, his attention turns to their dysfunctional relationship, and he begins to catalogue the downward spiral of their marriage.
Dick’s source novel was a sorely underrated piece of work, and it’s unfortunate that Boivin’s adaptation is similarly obscure. Confessions D’un Barjo doesn’t appear to be available on DVD, in either its native France or anywhere else. A pity since, by most accounts, this is a faithful, well-made rendering of the book.
Based on the short story, Second Variety, Christian Duguay’s brilliant Screamers is one of the less widely known Dick adaptations, outside the geek community, at least. With a script written by Dan O’Bannon, Screamers has a great script, some awesome, creepy robot designs, and an engaging, post-RoboCop turn from Peter Weller.
Taking several liberties with the plot (Screamers is set on the distant planet, Sirius 6B, not Earth, for example), director Christian Duguay nevertheless captures Philip Dick’s usual preoccupations with identity, as seen in both Blade Runner and Total Recall.
The Screamers of the title are an advanced form of self-replicating robot, and earn their name thanks to the horrible screeching noise they emit. Early forms of these machines are easy to spot, thanks to their insect-like bodies and deadly circular saw, which they can use to slice off limbs. Later types, however, begin to display an unnerving ability to take on the appearance of humans.
Compared to the expensive shininess of Blade Runner, Screamers is a bit of a B-movie, with variable special effects and uneven performances from anyone who isn’t Peter Weller. It is, nevertheless, a bit of a forgotten classic, and well worth rediscovering.
Gary Sinise is great value in this 2000 adaptation of Dick’s 1953 short story of the same name. If it feels like a film with a tautly directed opening and closing half hour with a forgettable midsection, that’s because it began life as one section of a three-part anthology, before director Gary Fleder was asked to shoot additional footage to extend its running time to a feature length.
Imposter is, therefore, a film of mixed fortunes. On one hand, it has a suspense-filled opening, in which Sinise’s character is accused of being an alien invader in a besieged future Earth, before the film mutates into a tedious extended chase for its largely extraneous second act.
If you’re willing to endure the variable special effects and dubious editing of this section, however, you’ll be rewarded with a genuinely surprising conclusion that packs a satisfying dramatic punch.
Minority Report (2002)
Imposter was shot for a lean $40 million, while Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the short story of the same name cost more than twice as much. As a result, Minority Report is a far slicker looking film, and remains Spielberg’s best sci-fi effort since Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, in my opinion.
One laughably contrived scene aside (one of the most ridiculous escape sequences in living memory, I’d argue), Minority Report is a highly successful marriage of glossy thriller and the kind of philosophical pondering that was a trademark of Philip Dick.
In a future Washington DC, Cruise stars as John Anderton, a member of a law enforcement agency called PreCrime who, acting on the information provided by a group of psychics called precogs, swoop into action to prevent murders from occurring.
Anderton soon discovers that there’s a flaw in what appears to be a foolproof system, and finds himself framed for a crime he didn’t commit.
Like so many adaptations of Philip Dick’s work, Minority Report is only loosely based on the story from which it takes its name, but its themes about the importance of free will are still in evidence.
Spielberg’s attempt to predict future technology (the film’s full of animated cereal boxes and face-recognising billboard posters) is also worthy of praise, and while this aspect of Minority Report will inevitably date it in future decades, it’s certainly the best big budget adaptation since Total Recall.
Despite a great cast, which included Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, Uma Thurman and Paul Giamatti, not to mention the presence of seasoned director John Woo, Paycheck is one of the least satisfying Dick adaptations. Like the original short story, Paycheck deals with erased memories. Affleck stars as Jennings, a reverse engineer who agrees to an unknown and potentially dangerous mystery job in exchange for a huge sum of money.
Waking up three years later with no memory of what he got up to, Jennings finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy that involves a missing physicist, a looming nuclear war and the FBI.
Its premise is an intriguing one (and quite similar to Dick’s original story), but is soon ignored in favour of a succession of disposable chase and martial arts sequences, and there’s a notable lack of chemistry between Affleck and leading lady, Uma Thurman.
Their strand of the story, a romance forgotten by Affleck’s character, was explored with far greater depth and skill in Michel Gondry’s fantastic Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind one year later.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
By far the most faithful adaptation of a Philip K Dick story yet committed to film, Richard Linklater’s animated feature, A Scanner Darkly, is a stark, surreally beautiful film, though its depressing subject matter may be too much for some.
Set in a near future Orange County, California, Keanu Reeves stars as Bob Arctor, an undercover detective who, while out of his mind on the reality-warping drug he’s supposed to be obliterating, ends up investigating himself.
Dick’s 1977 novel, inarguably one of his very best, was originally meant to be a realist, purely autobiographical piece of work based on the drug dependency of himself and his friends. The sci-fi elements were later added at the suggestion of his publisher.
It’s the personal aspects of the novel that Linklater has captured so perfectly here. The use of rotoscoped animation allows the film’s hallucinations to meld seamlessly with reality, and the slang-filled dialogue of Dick’s book is gently reworked to sit properly in a 21st century context.
Robert Downey, Jr. provides a stunning supporting performance, and even Reeves’ woodenness doesn’t detract from the film’s overall tone. Even Reeves’ detractors would surely admit that, in the scene where he delivers the movie’s titular monologue (“What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart?”) with remarkable pathos.
Remarkably like Paycheck, Next takes a potentially fascinating premise from a Philip K Dick short story (in this instance, The Golden Man) and proceeds to do virtually nothing of interest with it.
Writer Gary Goldman takes the golden mutant of Dick’s story, a man capable of seeing all possible outcomes of near future events, and recasts him as a Las Vegas magician (Nic Cage). Again, like Paycheck, Next ignores the more subtle aspects of its premise, and embarks instead on an unimaginative action plot with some mediocre special effects and a deeply unsatisfying conclusion.
Next is a timely reminder of just how variable films based on Philip K Dick stories can be. In the case of movies such as Paycheck and Next, the author’s imaginative ideas are used as little more than a launch pad for by-the-numbers action flicks.
In the right hands, however, the results can be fantastic, regardless of how loosely they’re adapted, and movies such as Blade Runner, Total Recall and A Scanner Darkly are examples of how his work can inspire genuinely classic, varied movies.
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