Article reproduced from Geeky Monkey issue 8 (2016): written by Chris Hallam
Make no mistake: science fiction author Philip Kindred Dick was a man like no other. Paranoid, difficult, prone to visions of pink beams of light and strange God-like heads looking down at him from the sky, yet somehow simultaneously charming and hugely intelligent. Dick somehow managed to produce a wealth of novels and short stories during his 54 years. Works which formed the basis of the films Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and TV series The Man In The High Castle. 34 years after his death we assess the legacy of a science fiction colossus…
Perhaps no man has had as much impact on modern sci-fi as Philip K Dick. Assuming your favourite sci-fi films were produced in the last thirty years, there is every chance they were either based directly on one of Dick’s 44 books or around 120 short stories, or at least strongly influenced by them. Admittedly, some adaptations have been better than others – is Paycheck or Next among anyone’s favourite movies? Probably not. But all are linked by common themes, which arose from the eventful life of a deeply troubled genius.
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
“Ironically, he had gotten exactly what he had asked Rekal, Incorporated for. Adventure, peril, Interplan police at work, a secret and dangerous trip to Mars in which his life was at stake – everything he had wanted as a false memory. The advantages of it being a memory – and nothing more – could now be appreciated.”
We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (1966)
Douglas Quaid: “I just had a terrible thought… what if this is a dream?”
Total Recall (1990)
It is an all too common story. Or rather, it isn’t. A man dreams of going to Mars. This being the future he could actually achieve this in theory, but the planet is off limits to everyone except ‘Government officials and high officials’. Our hero Douglas Quail is nothing more than a lowly pen pusher, and being unable to afford the trip goes for a cheaper option: having false memories deliberately implanted into his brain by a company called REKAL. Quail will feel like he’s had the experience of enjoying a ‘James Bond in space’-style fantasy adventure as a secret agent on Mars, without ever having actually been there.
From the beginning of Dick’s short story, ambiguity reigns. Has Quail been to REKAL’s offices already? Is he in fact already a secret agent being controlled by REKAL, or is this just part of a carefully constructed fantasy too?
Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film adaptation of We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, Total Recall, picks up the initial concept and runs with it. Dick’s story remains only in essence, but in essence it is always there. Changes were made: Doug Quail becomes Doug Quaid, presumably because Quaid (like the actor Dennis Quaid) was a cooler name than Quail which in 1990 would have reminded people of the much mocked US Vice President, Dan Quayle.
Schwarzenegger’s hero now also becomes a construction worker, doubtless in recognition of Arnie’s unusually muscular physique. Yet even the notion of Arnie as a loser (or more accurately as the sort of ordinary Joe he appears to be at the start of the film) still takes a bit of swallowing, particularly as he’s married to someone who looks like Sharon Stone.
The film had a long gestation period with actors as diverse as Richard Dreyfus, Patrick Swayze and William Hurt all being considered for the lead role before Schwarzenegger stepped in and hired Verhoeven. The source material was not obvious cinematic gold either, being one one of 120 Philip K Dick short stories. The only significant previous Dick adaptation was Blade Runner, at that point still considered a flop whose reputation was only slowly starting to rise. It is easy to see why filmmakers might have been wary.
The end result is less cerebral than the short story. Packed with action, violence, special effects and typical Schwarzenegger one liners. “Consider this a divorce!” is memorably uttered, seconds before Quaid guns down his wife, or perhaps ‘wife’). Total Recall was in contention to be one of the most expensive films ever made up until that point, and it went on to be a smash hit at the box office. Although I would be wary of advising any readers to type the words “Dick films biggest gross” into a search engine to check this, it is a fact that on inflation-adjusted figures, Total Recall is the biggest commercial success from Dick’s oeuvre, surpassing that of Spielberg’s Minority Report in the following decade.
For like Verhoeven’s later sci-fi based on Robert Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers (1999), or if you’re a fan of politician Boris Johnson, Total Recall manages the clever trick of being both silly and clever at the same time. While it seems likely the intelligence underlying the film was lost on many viewers who just saw it as an Arnie shoot-’em-up set on Mars, both the film and the story tap into a long standing Dick preoccupation: the idea that there is another reality underlying our own.
It is a concept explored again in Len Wiseman’s inoffensive but unnecessary remake of Total Recall (2012) starring Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale. It is also touched upon in some of Dick’s other works, notably Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and the less well known Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974). The latter is a novel in which the main character, famous TV star Jason Taverner, wakes up to find that the world he lives in has forgotten him. Indeed, it is as if he has never existed. Colin Farrell would briefly experience the same thing after appearing in Oliver Stone’s Alexander later in the decade.
The idea has had an impact on cinema way beyond straight adaptations of Dick’s work too. For example, in The Matrix (1999) in which Keanu Reeves’ hero discovers that reality as we know it is merely a façade shielding us from a far more horrible existence. Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2002) sees a young couple, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, deliberately choosing to have all memories of their relationship erased following a bad break up. Soon, without even realising that they have met before, they meet and fall in love all over again. Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1999) sees the main character Truman Burbank, also played by Jim Carrey, slowly begin to realise that his apparently ordinary suburban life is in fact an elaborate construct for a reality TV show watched by millions since his birth.
Original stories? Of course. But they all owe a debt to Philip K Dick.
What if…? Alternative worlds
Few of us will ever forget the terrible history of the end of the second World War. With Franklin Roosevelt assassinated in 1933, the United States proved unable to defeat Germany and Japan. The former USA was thereafter divided between the Japanese established Pacific States of America in the west and the Nazi-controlled former eastern states.
Of course, this isn’t what happened. Roosevelt in fact narrowly survived an assassination attempt shortly before his first inauguration. The Mayor of New York sitting next to the President Elect heard the gunshots and immediately stood up. He was shot and killed. Roosevelt, crippled by polio and thus, unable to stand, remained seated and survived. And (spoiler alert!) Germany and Japan lost the war.
The possibility that it might have ended in victory for the forces of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan is almost too horrendous to contemplate. Yet this very nearly happened. Little wonder then that Dick’s The Man In The High Castle (1963), one of his most acclaimed novels and now a successful Amazon Prime TV series, is only one of a number of stories which explores this theme.
Robert Harris’ novel Fatherland (1992) for example, imagines a Nazi occupied Britain in which the dethroned King Edward VIII (he of the abdication crisis) had been reinstalled by the Nazis, receptive to the King’s fascist sympathies. Set in 1964, with Hitler preparing to celebrate his 75th birthday, the US president in this world is Kennedy. Not the famous JFK, but his father Joseph P Kennedy, who in our reality had seen his own political career flounder due to his anti-British and pro-appeasement tendencies during the war. In Harris’ world appeasing the Third Reich is still fashionable into the 1960s, much to the ageing (and corrupt) JPK’s advantage. Similarly, CJ Sansom’s novel Dominion (2012) sees Churchill crucially failing to become leader in 1940. The Prime Minister Lord Halifax ends up making peace with the Nazis after the British leadership loses its nerve in the face of apparent certain defeat in 1940. The war is thus dramatically shortened, but peace comes at a terrible price. Finally, Philip Roth’s acclaimed The Plot Against America (2004) sees the US coming under the fascist spell when the popular but pro-Nazi aviator Charles Lindbergh unexpectedly wins the presidency in 1940, beating Roosevelt.
The Man In The High Castle predates all of these, but certainly was not the first book of its type either. Dick in fact seems to have been directly inspired by a combination of the revived interest in the Third Reich brought on by the high profile trial of the leading Nazi Adolf Eichmann, captured and ultimately executed in the early 1960s, and by a book by Ward Moore called Bring The Jubilee. This 1953 novel envisaged what might have happened had the Southern Confederacy rather than the Union won the American Civil War of the 1860s. This ultimately leads to Germany beating Britain and France in a shortened version of the First World War and the 20th Century world becoming divided between American Confederate rule and a German empire.
Dick’s The Man In The High Castle was to be one of his biggest successes. It also features a novel within a novel entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which imagines what the world would be like had the Allies won the war after all. Even this differs from what actually happened, Churchill remaining in power after the war (in fact he returned to power only in 1951, having been defeated in the 1945 election) and the 1949 Communist takeover in China never occurs.
Like most Dick adaptations, the TV series follows his writing quite loosely (the USA becoming a victim of atomic attack for one thing) and this seems likely to continue with a second season in the pipeline. But the essence of Dick’s vision: a living, breathing, authentic alternative world is apparent in every scene.
Regular Geeky Monkey readers will have already read an extensive feature on the making of Blade Runner in issue three (you can get a back issue from http://www.get-geeky.today). Despite this, it should be emphasised what an impact the collective vision of Philip K Dick and director Ridley Scott had on subsequent filmmakers.
We are now in 2016 and thus only three years away from the 2019 setting of the film, and while the Replicants and (as with Back To The Future Part II) flying cars are unlikely to become a reality by then, in other respects the film seems eerily prescient. Dick, who had set the novel in 1992, never lived to see the completed film, but was pleased with what he saw of Scott’s polluted neo-noir dystopian vision during his final months.
It is true, Dick can hardly be credited with inventing the notion of a dystopia. But despite the inherent pessimism of much of Seventies cinema (a time when it was quite normal for many films to have unhappy endings), much of the sci-fi scene in the early Eighties was still surprisingly optimistic. The visions of the future presented in the Star Trek or Star Wars films were all for the most part upbeat. The authentic-looking heavily polluted gloom of Blade Runner was, ironically, a breath of fresh air.
1982 was a big year for box office flops for seemingly every film except ET: The Extra Terrestrial. Blade Runner joined The Thing and Tron among the box office failures. The author was now dead and the prospect of more Dick adaptations initially seemed slim.
In an act three twist no one saw coming, the years ahead would see Blade Runner’s reputation slowly rise and its influence grow. The film has been credited with influencing everything from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), Akira (1987), Kathryn Bigelow’s Millennium-set virtual reality drama Strange Days (1995), Alex Proyas’s Dark City (1998), Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006).
Second Variety (1953) was another Dick story bought for movie rights before his death, but was slower to make it to the screen. Screamers (1995) starring Robocop’s Peter Weller focuses on soldiers being pursued by manmade machines designed to destroy them in the late 21st Century. Although badly received on its release, it did ultimately spawn a cult following and a sequel, Screamers: The Hunting (2009).
The age of paranoia
“Paranoia, in some respects, I think, is a modern day development of an ancient, archaic sense that animals still have – quarry type animals – that they’re being watched… And they’re being watched probably by something that’s going to get them… and often my characters have that feeling.”
Philip K Dick interviewed in 1974
Most people have a healthy degree of scepticism about the world around them. Dick, however, took this to unusual extremes. Initially, his paranoia seemed to have some foundation: as a young author soon after the end of the McCarthy era anti-communist witch-hunts, he was visited several times by FBI agents. This despite the fact Dick himself was never overly political, although he was enjoying something of a beatnik existence at that time.
Later he began to use amphetamines heavily and his mental health (though not his creative abilities) began to decline. By the early 1970s, according to his biographer Anthony Peake in A Life Of Philip K Dick: The Man Who Remembered The Future he was, “Extremely paranoid, believing at different times that communists, Nazis and the FBI were on his trail.”
Dick’s visions and hallucinations are too many and varied to detail here. While undeniably interesting – he once believed he saw a giant head floating in the sky, another recurring theme was a vision of a pink beam of light – they are really only relevant insofar as they influenced his work and increasingly turbulent domestic life. This probably peaked in an incident in which the author appears to have burgled his own house (what exactly happened will probably never fully be known).
Not surprisingly, this paranoid tendency was soon reflected in his work. The Adjustment Bureau (2011) is only based very loosely on the early Dick short story The Adjustment Team (1953) but both feature the recurring motif of the course of reality being determined by powerful external forces beyond human control. In the case of the film the mysterious bureau men and the lives of ambitious young politician David Norris (Matt Damon and his new girlfriend Ellise played by Emily Blunt).
This sense of paranoia extends into Minority Report (later filmed by Steven Spielberg with Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell, the future star of the Total Recall remake) in which a society has managed to eliminate crime through the deployment of pre-cog psychics. They are able to predict crimes before they occur and thus prevent them from ever actually happening. This early Dick story is one of the most successful adaptations, although a recent attempt to make a TV series flopped. Richard Linklater’s animated A Scanner Darkly (2006) based on the 1970s novel also reflected strongly Dick’s descent into drug culture.
Listen up Philip: PDK in the 21st Century
“My God, my life is exactly like the plot of any one of ten of my novels or stories. Even down to fake memories and identity,” Dick once admitted. “I’m a protagonist from one of PKD’s books.”
Philip K Dick died only a few months before the first major adaptation of any of his works, Blade Runner, was released. Not all of Dick’s works have translated well to the screen. Paycheck (2003) sees Ben Affleck undergo a memory wipe, tackling similar themes to Total Recall. Next (2007) starring Nicolas Cage as a man employed by the FBI to predict and prevent terrorist attacks is only very loosely based on the Dick story The Golden Man.
While his novels and stories are undoubtedly still widely read, a second series of The Man In The High Castle already underway for 2016 and a Blade Runner sequel starring Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling coming in 2018, it is clear the screen has given his work a new lease of life. This is only fitting. For with most of his work still potentially ripe for adaptation, it is possible we could be seeing more Philip K Dick adapted films and TV series for many decades to come.
What’s in a name?
Why is Blade Runner called Blade Runner? It’s a fair question. There is, after all, no reference to the term in either the book or the film. Deckard is only ever referred to as a bounty hunter and Replicants are not mentioned by that name in the book at all. It is easy to see why director Ridley Scott wanted to condense the memorable but cumbersome Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? but why Blade Runner?
In fact, The Bladerunner was the name of a book by Alan J Nourse from 1974 which Dick’s friend, celebrated Naked Lunch author William Burroughs, had written a treatment for a movie version of called Blade Runner (a movie). In Nourses’s book, the title made sense as the main character ran ‘blades’ as part of a futuristic black market medical supply operation. To cut a long story short, the film never got made but Ridley Scott loved the name and bought the rights to it.
Dick had very nearly called the book The Electric Toad, Do Androids Dream? or oddest of all The Killers Are Among Us Cried Rick Deckard To The Special Men. The book also had a strong influence on the 2000AD comic story Robohunter which was created before Scott’s film in 1978.
Philip K Dick, it is fair to say, had a flare for an unusual title. Among his many novels are The Man Who Japed (1955), Dr Bloodmoney or How We Got Along After The Bomb (1965), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1970), The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike (1970) and Humpty Dumpty in Oakland (published posthumously in 1986).
Some are great, some are bad. But which of Philip K Dick’s movies have done the best at the box office?
(Source: Box Office Mojo, March 2016)
Worldwide total grossing opening weekend figures, in millions of US dollars, unadjusted for inflation.
- Minority Report (2002) $358.4
- Total Recall (1990) $261.3
- Total Recall (2012) $198.5
- The Adjustment Bureau (2011) $127.9
- Paycheck (2003) $96.3
- Next (2007) $76.1
- Blade Runner (1982) $27.6
- Impostor (2002) $8.1
- A Scanner Darkly (2006) $7.7