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Adapting an Askance Perspective: Philip K. Dick on Film

Written by Dario Llinares.

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This summer’s remake of Total Recall extends the list of films inspired by the writing of Philip K. Dick. His novels and short stories offer some of the most eccentric and imaginative conceits in American literature, and are designed to question the fundamental metaphysical realities upon which our perception of the world is based. To define PKD as merely a science-fiction writer fails to capture the intricacy of thought and unlimited possibilities that his stories evoke.

Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said, like many of his novels, envisages a technologically advanced dystopia where genetic engineering is the main tool of a repressive police state. Ubik and Valis display PKD’s interest in the transcendental mind and the human interpretation of God, and the classic The Man in the High Castle re-imagines a post-World War II era if the Nazis had been triumphant. The very strangeness of his titles reflect an author who looked at the world askance. It is not over-praising to mention him in the same breadth as Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury and Burgess; but while those authors are ostensibly influenced by the tumultuous events of the first half of the 20th century, PKD was more an évocateur-du-jour of the cultural turn of the 1960s and what has come to be termed postmodernism.

PKD’s somewhat tortured life contained episodes of paranoia and psychological uncertainty, which played out in the characters he created and the ephemeral situations they inhabited. His own experiences of drug use, religion, romantic relationships (he was married five times), and the tumult of the Nixon administration helped him to capture the dissolving vicissitudes of a shifting cultural zeitgeist. Loss of identity in an increasingly schizophrenic, technologically-led, drug-infused, media-saturated world underpins his allegorical stories, with protagonists searching for ‘truths’ that seem diffuse and ineffable. If there is one central theme running through his oeuvre it is the constant questioning of what constitutes a human being.

Although he was lauded in the esoteric sci-fi world, his books never achieved mainstream success and, in an almost conspiratorial twist of ‘fate’, he died of a stroke in March 1982, three months before the release of Blade Runner. PKD’s cinematic legacy is found not only in specific adaptations, but a wider saturation of his ideas through contemporary postmodern film aesthetics. David Cronenburg, The Wachowskis, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Christopher Nolan are just a few directors clearly influenced by the author’s writing.

In exalting such a visionary mind and its influence on contemporary cinema, however, a cautioning question somewhat inconveniently comes to mind. Why do so many PKD adaptations fail to live up to the intelligence, acerbic wit, strange imaginativeness or political insight of his original texts? For it is my contention that, even in the best examples of PKD-inspired cinema, much of the heteroclite themes, astute social representations and ambivalent outcomes are at best smoothed out, at worse omitted.

Of course, in the era of the CGI-laden blockbuster the futuristic speculative fictions of PKD are easily co-opted into the testosterone infused visual spectacle of event cinema. For example, John Woo’s Paycheck (2003) and Lee Tamahori’s Next (2007) would be highly contemptuous if they weren’t so forgettable. Both films, like most PKD stories, have the seed of an interesting scenario which links allegorically to contemporary issues. The former deals with intellectual property rights and industrial espionage, with corporations protecting knowledge by wiping the memory of employees who work for them. The latter deals with a staple PKD trope: the ability to see into the future and its consequences for free will and moral decision-making. Yet the ideas behind both films, rather than being explored with any philosophical imagination, are simply used as the skeleton for a premise, largely overlooked in favour of a series of formulaic and largely uninvolving action scenes.

Minority Report (2002), directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, does fall into a similar category in reducing its interesting premise into formulaic action/chase movie. However, there is a subtle evocation of mood here, with the cool washed-out palette imbuing a neo-noir atmosphere, which fits well with the conspiratorial vision of the original short story. The film also works on the level of future prognosis regarding the impact of foreseeable technological advances. Yet the final morality tale invokes a notion that free will wins, with Jon Anderton (Cruise) making the existential decision not to execute the murderer of his son. In the short story there is a sense that the protagonist’s journey is a complex, morally relative maze, where free will’s relationship to morality is wholly arbitrary and contingent. This Hollywood adaptation prefers the security of Manichean heroism underpinned by physical action and easy use of violence, thus eliding any real sense of danger or weakness. PKD protagonists are often weak (in PKD's Minority Report Jon Anderton is a fat, balding 50-year-old), uncertain and insecure. This is often tied to the shadowy conspiratorial milieu that is woven around them, where agents of the state, sinister scientists and androids with artificial intelligence inhabit an often surreal external world. Such an environment feeds into the internal psychosis of his characters, often leading them (and the reader) to the point of asking “do I really exist”? You never get the sense that Cruise’s Jon Anderton suffers from such existential angst.

The most successful adaptation in terms of critical legacy is of course Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. A box office failure upon its release, it has since attained almost mythological status as an aesthetic and thematic benchmark for subsequent science-fiction cinema. Blade Runner is, in my view, the best stand-alone PKD adaptation. However, the film is very different from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The main alteration is the omission of the central role that animals play as a societal status symbol. In the novel Dekard’s melancholia derives from his loss of a ‘real’ pet sheep (which died of tetanus) and the unsatisfactory replacement offered by the synthetic one he now owns. This bizarre notion is a figurative comment on how humans are overly invested in the symbolic value of their material possessions, and how corporations manufacture products to meet manufactured desires. Such abstruse thinking, which typifies PKD, also tests the limits of cinematic possibility. Can you really see Harrison Ford fawning over a pet sheep after a particularly nasty encounter with a Nexus 6 replicant? Although personally I would have liked to see that filmed, it is such esoteric aspects of PKD’s writing that are often omitted. One could postulate that this is again due to short-sighted commercial considerations. On the other hand, it is certainly arguable that certain scenarios can work on the page or in our mind’s eye, yet when committed to film their outlandishness may simply seem too surreal.

Perhaps the most ‘faithful’ translation would be A Scanner Darkly (2006), a trip into the drug-induced schizophrenia of undercover detective Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves). In depicting a technologically advanced surveillance culture attempting to control the spread of superdrug ‘Substance D’, Richard Linklater does not streamline a confusing and ultimately unresolved narrative. Furthermore, the use of rotoscope animation imbues the film with an hallucinatory aesthetic that perfectly captures the delusional paranoia of characters who are struggling to maintain a grip on identity and reality (see the site’s Alternate Take on the film for a further discussion of this). In this sense, in form and theme A Scanner Darkly is, I argue, closest to the spirit of PKD’s philosophy, which either makes it the best adaptation or, depending on your point of view, a testament to the notion that his novels are essentially unfilmable as written, requiring heavy surgery in the adaptation process.

This brings us to the two Total Recalls. The Arnold Schwarzenegger version does remain conceptually faithful to the original short story We Can Remember it for you Wholesale. Yet there is an over-the-top campiness to Verhoeven’s film, which seems to have its metaphorical tongue firmly wedged in his cheek throughout. The playfulness of the film is in fact the reason it works so well, since it allows the viewer to navigate the sci-fi action scenario without getting bogged down in obtuse metaphysical musings or laboured seriousness. Yet it also manages to retain a sense of class warfare being an inevitable byproduct of technologically advanced late-capitalist societies. Douglas Quaid (Schwarzanegger) battles the evil Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) over the people’s right to that precious commodity: air.

The 2012 incarnation of Total Recall dispenses with the humour and wit, trying to fuse blockbuster generics with a more cerebral approach to the themes of memory and identity. But this film exemplifies how a rewriting of the original story may not really add anything - and indeed can leave one asking ‘What’s the point?’ Visually, the debt to Blade Runner is more prevalent than any link to PKD’s work itself, with the CGI effects quite impressively fashioning a post-industrial dystopian wasteland of The Colony, with its constant rain, hybridised East/West subculture inhabited by the tech-worker Quaid (Colin Farrell), who is bored of being a slave to the machine. This is juxtaposed with the clean, corporate milieu of the United Federation of Britain, the dominant region whose power is accrued through exploitation of The Colonies human resources.

Two issues strike me here. First: why remove Mars as the central location, as it is in the book and the earlier film? It doesn’t produce a profoundly interesting new context, particularly as the ‘centre-of-the-earth train’ is, to say the least, clunky as a narrative device. The rewriting of the scenario seems only to serve as differentiation for its own sake. Secondly, if this has been done as an attempt to amplify a political allegory, it doesn’t work. There is no sense of impending revolution as the narrative unfolds, and thus the film simply becomes another high-octane chase from one action set piece to another. I am not suggesting that Philip K. Dick’s novels are untouchable masterpieces which one filmmaker after another has summarily butchered. Indeed, perhaps the central issue is the very process of adaptation between two ostensibly different media (a subject I have written about previously on this website). The latest adaptation, however, exemplifies how PKD-inspired films tend to be very much that: inspired by, rather than attempts to capture in any real depth the intricate themes or unsettling atmospheres of the books. In the main the troubling, astute and hugely involving ideas Philip K. Dick are flattened by the machinery of a mainstream generic cinema which remains by necessity more interested in spectacle than ideas.

This article was published on October 25, 2012.