Big Ideas On The Big Screen – Phillip K. Dick In Hollywood

Words like “imaginative”, “mind-bending”, and “psychologically unsettling” are often applied to the science-fiction novels of Phillip K. Dick. He wrote stories with big ideas.

At the same time, his novels have been almost uncomfortably fertile ground for adaptation into big-budget Hollywood films – some faithfully, and some very, very loosely. And while we’re on the subject of Total Recall, let me mention Dick’s short story, “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale”. The story of a quiet, unassuming man who tries to book a virtual vacation only to find out that it’s actually happened has become a massive, explosive, ultraviolent action movie not once, but twice.


Dick often operates in an ambiguous vein: many of his stories ask epistemological questions, presenting scenerios that make it very unclear how much of reality is actually happening, and how much of it is something we think we know, while actually being an artifically-implanted memory.

This idea is easy to grasp – as an idea – but sometimes it’s very difficult to illustrate on screen. Which is why, for the most part, adaptations of his stories start with the idea, and then take very little else – setting, characters, pacing, tone. His short stories have yielded a few movies, usually fun little digressions: Next (from “The Golden Man”), Paycheck, Minority Report, and even . Seldom very meaty, but usually derived from a fascinating “what-if” question. The rest of these films were usually just packed with typical mainstream action filmmaking, which is fine, but definitely gives the impression that “adapted from…” is more of a branding exercise than a thoughtful inspiration.

A pair of his more accessible novels – “A Scanner Darkly” and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” – have become adaptations that truly embraced the complexity of Dick’s inquisitive nature. Richard Linklater’s jarring, computer-rotoscoped adaptation of “Scanner” is deeply respectful of the original story’s treatment of surveillance culture, drug use and mistrust. It’s a recommended watch, and a fascinating melding of Linklater’s “Waking Life” style with Dick’s challenging narrative.

“Do Androids Dream”, of course, was adapted – not slavishly, but interpretively – into Ridley Scott’s science-fiction masterpiece Blade Runner. While Dick never saw the final cut of the movie, he did get to see the work in progress, with Syd Mead’s incredible concept design (the “visual futurist” credit was invented for that role) inspiring an effusive letter of praise from the author. Some fascinating ideas of Dick’s – like the question of pet ownership and empathy, and “mood dials” – were left in the dust, while sophisticated, nuanced characterizations of the Nexus Six androids, particularly Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, were expanded into moments of perfect cinematic beauty. A great book, a great film, but in different ways.

Dick was prolific, which means that a lot of his absolutely fascinating works are still unadapted, at least in name. “VALIS”, where he attempts to semi-autobiographically confront the nature of depression, schizophrenia and cosmology, might be unreasonable to consider for film. Filled with digressions and meditations, the book is almost without narrative, however fascinating. Its thematic sequels – “The Divine Invasion” and “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer” – are more straightforward, but similarly mindbending. I’d love to see the adaptation of “Radio Free Albemuth”, an earlier version of “VALIS”, but it’s elusive.

Two novels, while not actually adapted, have inspired later writers and filmmakers. The alternate-World-War-II-history novel, “The Man in the High Castle”, has threads that can be seen everywhere, from Stephen Fry’s “Making History” to the anime “Jin Roh”. In fact, alternate history as a genre owes a lot to this book, though the book’s conclusion on the nature of alternate history is even more compelling than the premise itself.

In “Time Out of Joint”, on the other hand, one of Dick’s most straightforward works, a reader confronts what is in many ways the first draft of The Truman Show, “Ender’s Game”, The Matrix, and perhaps a dozen other sci-fi classics. The tale of a man who starts to suspect that the world he’s in is not what it seems, and the conspiracy behind it, is an accessible, engaging story. It asks a simple question: “how do you build a world to make a person happy and useful?” It also asks the question, “is it right to deceive someone to keep them happy and useful?” And it does it without hurting the reader’s brain quite so much.

While Dick’s value to moviemakers has largely been as a source of high-concept scenarios, digging a little deeper into his books yields stories that are much more rewarding than a generic template, slapped onto good ideas, to produce generic action movies. Paul Verhoeven can be a quirky, satirical filmmaker (Robocop is a lot more complex than people give it credit for!), and the original Total Recall had a little more going on than your average shoot-’em-up. Hopefully, Len Wiseman and Kurt Wimmer will find something in the complexity of Dick’s work to give us something more interesting than a re-skinned presentation of a simple idea.

2 Replies to “Big Ideas On The Big Screen – Phillip K. Dick In Hollywood”

  1. Mea Culpa: “Adjustment Bureau” should be the last movie in the list in the fourth paragraph (after “Next”, “Paycheck”, and “Minority Report”).


  2. A good read Ilan. I have not read more than a few Dick stories (I limit my sci-fi to Heinlein and Gibson – one cause I am a pervert and the other because I am über-hip), but you certainly piqued my interest – not in seeing the new Recall, but in picking up some books.

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