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cultural vandal | by maryann johanson

the (mostly lamentable) films inspired by the work of Philip K. Dick

Hollywood Doesn’t Know Dick

“Edge-of-your-seat thriller!” Imagine the sonorous, godlike pronouncement of the trailer voiceover guy declaring the latest Hollywood blockbuster — “based on the work of acclaimed science fiction author Philip K. Dick” — to be more excitement than your puny, frail human body will be able to stand.

Philip K. Dick would not be amused. Or maybe he would. Or maybe he’d be pissed. For “edge-of-your-seat thriller!” is just about the last phrase anyone could use to describe Dick’s trippy, hallucinatory, often paranoid stories. “Edge of your brain,” maybe; “edge of your sanity,” definitely. If you loved the latest — and only genuinely faithful — filmic adaptation of Dick’s work, the loopily philosophical A Scanner Darkly, and are looking for more of the same, you’re out of luck. For though half a dozen other movies claim Dick’s prose as their progenitor, even the best of them just barely hint at the slo-mo Kafkaesque nightmares that are Dick’s tales. An at-home DVD fest of based-on-Dick movies is, for true Dick fans, mostly an exercise in frustration.
Blade Runner (buy at Amazon), the first film to be based, however loosely, on Dick’s fiction, comes closest to approximating the psychological torment that Dick endured throughout his life, as manifested dramatically in his uncertain, unstable protagonists and their existential crises. (The author was diagnosed, though perhaps wrongly, as schizophrenic; he suffered frequent episodes of what he called “nervous breakdowns.”) The dreamlike quality of Ridley Scott’s creation of 2019 Los Angeles as a city drowned in rain and full of bitter, disconnected people — as well as Harrison Ford’s performance as a man increasingly unsure of his own humanity — lends a pensiveness that grounds the Hollywood-style action in something unsettling and disturbing. And yet Dick was reportedly less than pleased with the result: when Scott invited him to view some sequences of the film as work in progress, Dick was said to have sparred with the director over the depiction of his characters (though he apparently was delighted with the visuals).

If the best adaptation couldn’t satisfy Dick, we can only imagine what he’d have said about the other films inspired by his writing: he died mere months before Blade Runner was released in 1982. But we can guess that he’d say that the nonstop macho action of 1990’s Total Recall (buy at Amazon) — starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, hardly an actor known for introspection, as a sort of supersecret agent on Mars — powerfully overshadows the twisty, Dickian psychological tricks played on its hero, who is never sure whether he’s actually awake and actually doing what he thinks he’s doing or whether he’s languishing in a virtual-reality dream. Ditto for 2003’s Paycheck (buy at Amazon), which drowns the potentially intriguing mental scam it plays on its protagonist (Ben Affleck), who has had two years worth of memories erased by his security-conscious employer, in pointless and dull running around, punctuating by the odd explosion or two. And the story is the same for 1995’s Screamers (buy at Amazon), which also touches on themes of uncertain identity and hard-to-define humanity but mostly keeps star Peter Weller chasing around after robots in an attempt to blow them up.

The little seen Imposter (buy at Amazon), from 2002, suffers from being expanded from a short film — it was intended as part of a trilogy of short stories in one film — into a feature-length movie, but probably Dick would have scoffed at how it reduces the truly freaky who-am-I question its hero (Gary Sinise) confronts to a trick Twilight Zone ending. Better, from that same year is Minority Report (buy at Amazon), an unquestionably fantastic movie by all measures except that of adhering to its source material — but it is at least more faithful to Dick’s eerie ponderings on fate and free will than most other “Dick” films, even as it alters Dick’s original plot almost beyond recognition.

(A 1992 French film, Confessions d’un Barjo [Confessions of a Crap Artist], based on a non-SF novel by Dick, has its fans, but it is hard to come by on any home-video format.)

Two years before he died, Dick attributed the mind-bending weirdness of his fiction to the fact that he was “out of step. I should yield to reality. I have never yielded to reality.” Why don’t the Dickian films work for Dick fans? Hollywood bends them to reality: to the reality that mainstream audiences prefer explosions over philosophizing. And Hollywood’s not done with Dick yet: up next is Next, scheduled for release in 2007. It’s being directed by Lee Tamahori of XXX: State of the Union notoriety. Dick wanted to blow our minds — here, surely, will be another film that will only blow our eardrums.

For more on ‘A Scanner Darkly’ and PKD’s work on film, see my essay at this month’s Internet Review of Science Fiction. (Free registration is required to read the content at IROSF.)

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  1. At least it’s not advertised as an “edge of your dick” thriller.

  2. It’s difficult of any science fiction authors who have been well-served by Hollywood. H.G. Wells is perhaps the luckiest; for every godawful adaption of his work like the last remake of “The Time Machine” and, of course, “The Hollow Man,” there have been relatively decent efforts like James Whale’s version of “The Invisible Man” and George Pal’s versions of “The Time Machine” and “War of the Worlds.”

    More recent authors like Robert “Starship Troopers” Heinlein, Ray “A Sound of Thunder” Bradbury and even Poul “The High Crusade” Anderson have not been so lucky.

    It’s getting to the point that one honestly hopes that one’s favorite contemporary science fiction writers (Neal Stephenson, for example) never get any of their work optioned by Hollywood.

  3. On a side note, it’s amusing to see “(buy at Amazon)” tags next to movies you slam. *chuckle*

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