Saturday, 19 November 2011

The Strange Case of Philip K Dick & Other Movies Inspired by Classic Works of Science Fiction

I recently watched The Adjustment Bureau, a movie ‘inspired’ by a story from Science Fiction writer Philip K Dick.  It was an amiable romantic fantasy about love and fate, in which Matt Damon plays a young senator whose chance encounter with an impulsive young woman inadvertently leads him into conflict with sinister forces who secretly govern our world.

The notion of a mysterious conspiracy to control the fate of the planet, along with their regulation 1950’s men-in-black wardrobe, is in keeping with the cold war paranoid tone of Dick’s source material, but little else bears more than a passing resemblance to the more sinister short story from 1954.

Philip Kindred Dick (1928-1982)
He saw the light...and a portal to ancient
Greece in his refrigerator.

From humble beginnings writing for pulpy magazines, when Dick claimed that he “couldn’t even afford the late fees on a library book”, the prolific PKD has risen in stature over the years since his death.  In 2005, TIME magazine named Ubik one of the hundred greatest English-language novels published since 1923.  In 2007, Dick became the first science fiction writer to be included in The Library of America series.  Despite this literary and genre acclaim, however, it is through the movie adaptations of his work that Dick has most prominently entered the popular public consciousness.

Dick’s posthumous rise to cinematic stardom began with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, released in 1982, the year of Dick’s passing.  Loosely based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), the film depicts a dystopian Los Angeles in which the powerful Tyrell Corporation manufacture genetically engineered robots called replicants, visually indistinguishable from humans. Their use on Earth is banned and the replicants are exclusively used for dangerous, menial or leisure work on off-world colonies. Replicants who defy this ban and return to Earth are hunted down and "retired" by police special operatives known as "Blade Runners". The plot focuses on a group of recently escaped replicants hiding in Los Angeles and the burnt out veteran Blade Runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who reluctantly agrees to take on one more assignment to hunt them down. 

Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner was a visual treat; a hardboiled detective story reset to a dark and raindrenched future of deteriorating hi-tech and oppressive neon. The narrative jumped ably between sporadic bursts of brutal action and the more sombre reflections of a weary Deckard, his uncertainty over his assignment and even his own humanity.  Although key scenes were replicated from Dick’s text, the broader world around Deckard and his prey was stripped away in favour of the existential detective story.  The movie stays within sight of the original story, although much is changed or excised – notably the religious elements – and Scott himself admitted that he hadn’t actually read the inspiration for Blade Runner.  In this case, Dick had the last laugh following an early screening of only major adaptation of his work he would see in his lifetime.  When asked what he thought of it, the famously hallucinatory writer apparently reported simply that he “loved the lightshow.  It looked very cool.” 

Blade Runner was not an instant hit and took almost a decade before it would creep from cult favourite to mainstream classic.  It would not be until 1990 that the eventual recognition of Blade Runner would see Dicks name once again bothering the cinema marquees.   This time, the fragmented and dreamlike We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (1966) was mangled into the hysterical Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Total Recall.  In the hands of splatter satirist Paul Verhoven, this was a high point for the Austrian muscle man and a lot of messy fun, but took only the principle character, theme and outline as a starting point for Verhoven’s own comic book stylism.

Three onscreen faces of Philip K Dick: Harrison Ford (Blade Runner), Matt Damon (The Adjustment Bureau)
and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Total Recall)

The successes of Blade Runner and Total Recall would see casual cinemagoers begin to associate Dick’s name with intelligent yet muscular science fiction – wild action with a little cerebral depth for good measure.  In an attempt to emulate the following of these two movies, the rush to market his properties over the next 20 years would be staggering, but fuelled by a principle misconception: what actually connected these two movies was not Phillip K Dicks writing, but the work of auteur directors at the top of their game.

Neither movie was truly representative of Dick’s staggering imagination, his unique blue collar spin on science fiction tropes or his wild conspiratorial fantasies, but at least they were genuinely inspired by his work and used key concepts, ideas and themes.   In stark contract, Dick’s tropes would be simplified to the point of parody in the slew of adaptions to follow. 

Screamers (1995), Impostor (2001), Minority Report (2002), Paycheck (2003) and Next (2004), amongst others, all recognise Dicks name as a marketable property but demonstrated ever diminishing evidence of the original stories.  It’s probably unsurprising that over half of all Dick’s adaptations to date are from short stories rather than his substantial canon of novels, the most acclaimed of which remain unfilmed. In a mess of good, bad and indifferent titles, the disappointment is that they clearly attempt to reimagine Blade Runner or Total Recall, whilst somewhere along the way, Dick became little more than a brand name and a handy double entendre for reviewers.

It is interesting to note that the two most faithful adaptions of Phil Dick’s writing to date are of books that contain the least science fiction elements.  A Scanner Darkly (1977) does have the misdirection of a dystopian near-future setting and a digital McGuffin that allows an undercover narcotics agent to conceal his identity, but primarily this was a device that allowed Dick to pen a tribute to the psychosis and paranoiac breakdown of the lost souls of early-Seventies suburban Californian drug culture.   In his animated 1997 adaptation, director Richard Linklater clearly recognises this and concentrates on the more domestic themes.  Linklater follows Dick’s text closely, concentrating on the characters and resisting the temptation to introduce any additional action. The focus is firmly fixed on psychological rather than phaser disintegration and the narrative is much stronger for it.

Alongside this is the French film Barjo (1992), based on one of Dick’s handful of non-science fiction novels, Confessions of a Crap Artist (1977).  Aside from the European resetting, this tale of bitter and complex marital conflict in 50’s suburban California, is a very faithful translation.

Neither Frank Herbert's 'Dune' nor Isaac Asimov's 'I, Robot'
would make it to the screen entirely intact

With this in mind, perhaps the problematic element is not Dick’s sociological, political and metaphysical themes, but actually the genre itself.  On reflection, it becomes startling apparent that, of all the many genres of fiction, science fiction alone inspires such wilful lack of respect in movie adaptation.  After all, Dick is not the only Science Fiction luminary to suffer such shameless misrepresentation.

In the hands of David Lynch, Frank Herbert’s masterpiece Dune (1965) became a typically Lynchian nightmare that takes extreme liberties with the novel in the service of its somewhat psychedelic journey. It was long hoped that Isaac Asimov’s similarly lauded and influential I, Robot stories would make it intact to the screen, but the considered and respectful screenplay developed for Warner Brothers by sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison was eventually ditched in favour of using the title alone for an existing project originally called Hardwired.  This entirely unrelated robot murder-mystery, once injected with a few additional references to Asimov’s laws of robotics and populated by a few of Asimov’s characters and Will Smith, stretches the credibility of the adaptation to breaking point.  In the resultant 2004 feature, Asimov is reduced to the indignity of a “suggested by” credit.

Steven Segal as I imagine he would look in
'Hard To Kill a Mockingbird'
Few writers of equivalent stature outside of science fiction have suffered such abuse.  I admit, by virtue of mass recognition alone, it’s probably understandable that the acknowledged classics of literature have escaped such blatant disrespect.  If, after several rewrites, an adaptation of Lord of the Flies evolved into the time travelling adventure of a group of young people lost on a mysterious island, their attempts to unravel the mystery of a mysterious scientific initiative, hindered by attacks of a time-slipped Tyrannosaurus Rex, I’m certain that William Golding’s name would be quietly discarded.  Likewise, Steven Segal waging a one man war against a small town racist hit squad in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is something I doubt that devotees of either Lee or Segal could tolerate. Of course, there have been a multitude of cinematic reimaginings based on classic tales, but even at the extreme and even when recast with garden gnomes or Leslie Nielson and space monsters, the narratives of Shakespeare are recognisably retained.

It could be added that science fiction is a pulp genre of niche interest which requires broadening in order to appeal to a popular audience.  Where this view immediately falls over is in the comparatively faithful treatment of other pulp literary genres, from the crime thriller to the western.  Even adaptations of lurid horror paperbacks are given better treatment.

Fans of the iconic horror writer Stephen King often rage against the cinematic treatments of his canon.  Even Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining (1980) is presented as an example of the Hollywood brutalisation of his work.  Whilst it is true that the narrative is condensed and trimmed, Kubricks glacial visuals and Nicholsons unhinged performance overwhelm and some plot elements are excised completely, the basic story is at least maintained.  In comparison to the wholesale evisceration visited on translations of classic works by Dick, Asimov or Clarke, The Shining renders King’s novel practically verbatim.

I’m afraid the explanation may just be more cynical.  The adaptation of established written works will always be a challenge; the magic of the word allows the reader to conjure their own images and own the look and landscape of familiar stories.  A movie adaptation has to reconcile and placate billions of very personal adaptations.

With recognisable historical or contemporary settings, it is much more likely that a realisation will land relatively close to audience expectations.  Conversely, Science Fiction as a genre is persistently popular but often immensely hard to visualise.  A high level of creativity and imagination is required to bring often wild and fantastical – thus very personal - imagery onto the screen.  I am not going to repeat the familiar accusation that there is no creativity or imagination left in popular cinema, but it does seem that, of all the creative industries, this most lucrative medium appears to employ the highest disproportion of distinctly uncreative people.

The end result is that those who lack imagination or creativity are incapable of bringing the classics of the science fiction writing to the screen with any resonance or recognisability, often misunderstanding and reducing the work to the simplest narrative or lowest common denominator.   Alternately, as demonstrated by Total Recall and Blade Runner, those filmmakers who are capable of genuine artistry are unwilling to be confined by the desire to exercise the slavish restraint necessary to appeal to the broadest audience and instead interpret these stories into their own very personal creations.  There is no shortage of quality science fiction cinema unencumbered by source material.  As an example, consider Moon and Source Code, the first two rich and rewarding movies from director Duncan Jones.  These original features evoke far more of the spirit and tone of Phil Dick than the majority of lacklustre, officially ‘inspired by’ adaptions.

Regardless of the critical reception, as long as literary adaptions open the wallets and purses of a built-in audience, they will continue to be a mainstay of popular cinema.  The obvious butchery of science fiction only makes the gulf between storytelling techniques more apparent, but it applies to all genres equally.  Perhaps fans of both words and moving picture should take some comfort in the disparity of such adaptations, as it proves the unique individuality of both media.  In digitally obsessed times, it’s reassuring to know that the written word still has a power that resists complete translation.

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