Yours truly had a feature on the influence of Philip K. Dick (right) on a whole generation of sci-fi movies published in last Saturday’s Irish Times. It ran a lot like this:
He Saw Things You Wouldn’t Believe
Philip K Dick’s twisted take on the world produced a wealth of ideas that inspired everything from ‘Blade Runner’ to ‘The Adjustment Bureau’, writes Declan Burke
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a movie adapted from a novel will generally prove inferior to its source material. There are exceptions to that rule, of course, although the most consistent exception is that of Philip K. Dick.
Some of the most intriguing sci-fi movies of the past three decades have been adapted from, or inspired by, Philip K. Dick’s stories, among them Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), Minority Report (2002) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). The most recent adaptation, The Adjustment Bureau, is a case in point. Set in contemporary New York, it stars Matt Damon as David Norris (no, really), an aspiring senator (yes, seriously) who meets the vivacious Elise (Emily Blunt). The chemistry between them is immediate and potent, but obstacles to their romance keep cropping up. We quickly learn that said obstacles are being strewn in their path deliberately by an ‘adjustment team’, whose job it is to ensure that the grand plan, or Fate, is not knocked out of kilter by those irritatingly frequent events we ascribe to chance, coincidence or luck.
When confronted with the truth of reality, and allowed a peek behind the illusion that is our perception of the world, Norris wonders if the ‘adjustment team’ are ‘some kind of angels’. Determined to fight for Elise despite the team’s dire warnings as to what will happen if he doesn’t accept his fate (“All I have are the choices I make, and I choose her,” Norris says), the hero poses the movie’s central question: whatever happened to free will?
That’s a conundrum that has exercised writers from Kafka to Shakespeare, Dostoevsky to Conrad, and many more besides. Unfortunately, Philip K. Dick’s prose errs on the prosaic side, at best. At worst, it’s akin to reading coal. And yet, as the movies above suggest, Dick was a fount of compellingly original ideas. He was brilliantly flawed, and produced novels and stories of flawed brilliance, to the extent that the blend of sublime concepts and workmanlike prose might have been written by an author with a split personality.
It’s a perception Dick was keen to cultivate. During a speech given in France during the 1970s, Dick alluded to his parallel existences when he said, “Often people claim to remember past lives; I claim to remember a different, very different, present life.” Such statements lend themselves to the popular perception of Dick as acid-addled guru to the Californian counter-culture of the 1960s. In point of fact, Dick was not a habitual user of psychotropic drugs (amphetamine was his drug of choice), and his own sense of multiple personalities was rooted in a much more poignant event. Philip Kindred Dick was born six weeks premature, as was his twin sister, Jane; Jane died five weeks later. Dick’s life and work were profoundly marked by her absence; until his death, he and his writing were often haunted by a ‘phantom other’.
These days the politically correct term for sci-fi is speculative fiction, and Dick - along with authors such as Stanislaw Lem, Kurt Vonnegut and Olaf Stapleton - was as much exercised by the metaphysical potential in the sci-fi novel as he was with space travel, shiny gadgets or galaxy-spanning soap operas. In Total Recall (1990), based on Dick’s short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, there is no good reason why the hero, Douglas Quaid, travels to Mars, other than space travel to exotic destinations was expected from writers working in the genre. What truly fascinates Dick in this story is the futuristic concept of implanted memories and virtual existences, which allows the author to explore the very essence of what it means to be an individual human being, the memories - real or otherwise - that constitute our sense of identity.
That Dick struggled his entire life to establish his own sense of identity, a battle he eventually lost to delusion and paranoia, gives Total Recall a certain poignancy, even if the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the ‘everyman’ Douglas Quaid mitigated against the finer nuances. That the film was taken out of David Cronenberg’s hands and given to Paul Verhoeven didn’t help. Here’s hoping the forthcoming remake, due in 2012 and starring Colin Farrell, will offer a more intuitive reading of the unwitting hero’s psychological frailties.
The issue of identity was raised again in another adaptation, A Scanner Darkly (2006), directed by Richard Linklater and starring Keanu Reeves as an undercover vice cop who loses his sense of who he is so completely that he winds up investigating himself. A blackly comic tale of sensory distortion and hallucogenic paranoia, the film further benefited from Linklater’s decision to use Rotoscoping animation, a subtly distancing effect which presents the immediately recognisable actors (Reeves, Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jnr) as avatars of their characters.
Identity is also central to the theme of Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott and based on Dick’s novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’. Its main protagonist, Deckard (Harrison Ford), is a bounty hunter pursuing rogue androids who are virtually indistinguishable from human beings. As in The Adjustment Bureau, Dick here investigates the concept of free will, as the artificially intelligent androids - led by killer Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) - attempt to live their short lives to their full capacity. What differentiates humanity from androids who can not only think like humans but also experience the full gamut of emotion, and are all too aware of their own mortality? Deckard, who may or may not be an android himself, has no answer.
Philip K. Dick only ever saw a twenty-minute reel of Blade Runner; he died some weeks before the film was released. The phildickian view of the universe would prove influential, however. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) owed as much to Phil Dick as it did to George Orwell, while a variety of films, not all of them strictly sci-fi, owe Dick a huge debt: Andrew Nicol’s Gattaca (1997), Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998), Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998), the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy (1999 onwards), David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001), Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009), and Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010).
Philip Kindred Dick died a lonely death, convinced despite his multiplicity of parallel lives that his true nature was unknown and unknowable. With the release of The Adjustment Bureau, however, a remake of Total Recall due next year, a prequel to Blade Runner mooted and a TV series of ‘The Man in the High Castle’ currently in production, Dick’s twisted, complex and layered take on reality appears set to garner him a whole new generation of kindred spirits. - Declan Burke
This feature was first published in the Irish Times.
Praise for Declan Burke: “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – The Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “A hardboiled delight.” – The Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review). “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre, was ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL.” – Sunday Times. “The writing is a joy.” – Ken Bruen. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.