Tomorrow's Worlds: how sci-fi of Philip K Dick continues to inspire filmmakers
PUBLISHED: 10:12 12 October 2017
With Blade Runner 2049 in cinemas and Electric Dreams, a series based on his short stories, on TV, cult sci-fi writer Philip K Dick is everywhere at the moment, but why his does his unique vision endure 30 years after his death.
Philip K Dick is enjoying a moment.
The now-legendary science fiction author, who wrote hundreds of stories during the 1950s and 60s, but was never commercially successful, has been a favoured source of ideas for filmmakers ever since his untimely death in 1982. But his unique visions of futures good and bad are on our screens more than ever at the moment.
Blade Runner 2049, the belated sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic, based on Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is earning rave reviews.
Meanwhile perhaps Dick’s most famous book, The Man in the High Castle, has been adptated for TV, while Channel 4 has turned to the writer’s short stories for its 10-part sci-fi anthology series Electric Dreams.
There is no shortage of material. Dick was a prolific, publishing 44 novels and 121 short stories over his three-decade long career.
Concerned with how we define reality and what it means to be human, Dick’s writing spanned and blurred both realist and science fiction genres in powerful and innovative ways.
Over 12 of his novels and short stories have been adapted to film and TV, though Blade Runner is perhaps the most famous. Though it got a mixed reception on its original release, film became has become a cult classic in the intervening 30 years.
Set in a dystopian Los Angeles of 2019, it centered on cops, known as Blade Runners, that specialize in tracking down replicants or genetically engineered organic robots made by powerful mega corporations.
The new film sees Harrison Ford reprise his role of Rick Deckard, while Ryan Gosling joins him as new character Agent K, alongside a slew of other stars including Robin Wright, Jared Leto and Dave Bautista, while Arrival film-maker Denis Villeneuve takes over the directing reins from Ridley Scott.
Though the original was inspired by Dick’s novel, Scott claims he never actually finished reading it — and there is no ‘blade runner’ in Dick’s story, the director got the name from the 1974 sci-fi novel The Blade Runner by Alan E Nourse.
Despite this the writer seemed delighted to see his vision on the screen though he never actually got to see the finished film, he died after suffering a stroke just months before the movie was released.
He did though see a special effect test reel, and liked it. “It was my own interior world. They caught it perfectly,” he said.
Ridley Scott adds: “I met with him at the time, and he hadn’t seen much of Blade Runner, because I just wanted to get the thing done and shot and to put in my special effects. At that point, I personally thought it was turning out so well I invited him to see the operation, particularly the opening shot, and he said he was kind of stunned. I don’t think he expected that.”
It was the first of many films based on his stories. Steven Spielberg turned his short story The Minority Report, about three mutants foresee all crime before it occurs, into a complex sci-fi blockbuster with Tom Cruise in 2002. Unlike some adptations it retains most of the elments of Dick’s 1956 story, but updates it to explore concepts like electronic government surveillance.
Total Recall, based on Dick’s 1966 short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, about a man who seeks adventure by going to Mars, only to get involved with a shady company that can implant the memories, has been made into a film twice.
Paul Verhoeven turned it into a deliriously madcap action blockbuster starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1990, before the recent totally unnecessary remake. Rather than sticking to the source material, both really only used the basic concept of Dick’s story. It’s an idea that clearly inspires filmmakers though as it also bears an uncanny resemblance to the premise of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Boyhood and Before Sunrise director Richard Linklater also turned to Dick with a version of his 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly, which had been considered unfilmable. A weird tale of the member of a gang of drug users, who is also living a parallel life as an undercover police agent, Linklater somehow managed to do justice to the story by updating a steamlined plot and using film frame animation to give it a weirded out feel.
Not every screen adaptation has been successful. The Adjustment Bureau, based on Dick’s 1954 short story about top secret, all-powerful individuals who control the course of our daily lives, was turned into a stylish but forgettable 2011 film starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt.
And Nicolas Cage gives another of his forgettable performances in Next, a 2007 film supposedly based on the Dick’s story The Golden Man. But the plot of a man recuited to help stop a nuclear bomb was light years from Dick’s post-apocalyptic setting.
There have been others duds too including the 2002 space-set film Imposter, based on Dick’s 1953 short story and John Woo’s 2003 adptation of Paycheck.
His influence can be felt in countless other movies too: The Matrix, Inception, Source Code, The Truman Show and many more.
Charlie Brooker’s Netflix series Black Mirror, with its satirical tales of the dangers of future technologies, also owes a debt.
Channel 4’s Electric Dreams is in a similar vein, each episode based on one of the writer’s short stories. It came about when his daughter Isa Dick Hackett, approached a producer, Michael Dinner, with the idea.
“They explained that he had written 120-plus short stories, and asked me to start reading them so that we could pick one and make a series out of it,” recalls Dinner. “So I started reading them and I called them up and I said “Okay, how about if I told you I want them all?”.
The result is essentially 10 short films, each with its own director, including one directed by Norfolk’s Julian Jarrold, and a star-studded cast that includes the likes of Bryan Cranston, Steve Buscemi, Timothy Spall and Holliday Grainger.
What is it about Dick’s work that has endured, that has seen so many adaptations for screens large and small in the decades since his death?
According to Dinner, his work is timeless, encompassing as it does “the great genre themes: what does it mean to be a human being, what does it mean to be an individual faced with authoritarianism or technology, and what’s the nature of reality.”
Although billed as science fiction, the series, and indeed Dick’s work, is too broad and varied to be so easily pigeonholed.
And many of his themes do not date, allowing the programme makers to give them a contemporary slant. “We worked hard to present some really compelling storytelling that resonates with today’s life, so it’s not just about cautionary tales or dystopian societies in the future.”
Blade Runner is not Ridley Scott’s only return to the worlds of Philip K Dick. His company was behind the Amazon Prime series based on The Man in the High Castle, Dick’s alternative history novel in which the Nazis and Japan won the Second World War.
It was a project that back many familiar issues, not least how to do justice to a story from a man who overflowed with ideas.
“It’s a hell of a book to break down,” Scott admitted when speaking about the series. “There are about 19 stories in the first 20 pages. How do you make that work? How do you get it down to the bottom line? But that was the way that Philip [K. Dick] worked.
“He was a very complex man with a multi-faceted brain that hopped and skipped everywhere. One of the biggest problems I had in trying to adapt Blade Runner down to its fundamentals was to squeeze it into three hours.”
• Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas now
• Electric Dreams continues on Channel 4 on Sunday at 9pm