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Philip K Dick : An Adapted Man

As far as adaptations of Philip K Dick’s work go there are not as many as you might think


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s far as adaptations of Phil’s work go there are not as many as you might think considering the massive profits generated from three of the films based on his material.

Blade Runner is the pearl with a script that delivered a platform for Ridley Scott’s lush and exotic visual style without sacrificing character development or any of Phil’s main themes. I can take the producer’s cut or any of the director’s cuts; with the trite unicorn symbolism or without. Don’t mind the voiceover version, and love to hear even more of the Vangelis score in the longer cuts. Sean Young is forever the quintessential dreamboat android and Rutger Hauer gives the performance of a lifetime. He is both Godlike and childlike in equal measure.

Blade Runner is simply the greatest, and most influential, science fiction movie of all time.

Total Recall is directed by Paul Verhoeven, who went on to direct Starship Troopers which, in my humble opinion, is the second greatest sci-fi movie of all time. In both films the Dutch director rides roughshod over the source material, intent only on subverting the genre by inserting bleak Lowlands humour into violent operatic settings and giving his Hollywood employers exactly what they want while simultaneously thumbing his nose at them.

[quote]The charisma-free

Colin Farrell stars

alongside Kate Beckinsale

in this dull chase

thriller. Two lumps

of damp wood might

have been a better


The result is a total hoot and not too far from the dark humour of Phil’s amphetamine fuelled sixties work.

The fact that not only the automated cab driver Johnny Cab, but also Sharon Stone and Arnie appear to be reading their lines from an off-screen autocue simply adds to the fun. Likewise the special effects and prosthetics range from the sublime to the patently ridiculous, but Verhoeven carries the whole thing off with style and brio. I believe Phil would have liked it.

2001’s Minority Report, like Recall is derived from one of Phil’s short stories. Spielberg went to town on creating a ‘realistic’ 2054 and spent much time consulting with scientists and futurists. Many of the film’s innovations, including multi-touch interfaces, retina scanners and chronograph wristwatches are already in use and we can confidently expect insect robots, facial recognition billboards, crime prediction software and electronic paper in the near future.

By 2054 both the hard and software featured in the film will look like crude toys from a distant past. The brilliant cinematography, crisp digital editing, solemn music and Tom Cruise’s earnest performance only serve to underline the movie’s fatal flaw: like its director the film takes itself too seriously and struggles, in vain, for resonance.

Other cinematic adaptations fared less well: Imposter, Screamers, Paycheck, Next and The Adjustment Bureau all play like expensively mounted and overlong episodes of Rod Serling’s TV series the Twilight Zone. Attempts to realise Phil’s more literary minded novels have also avoided success Confessions d’un Barjo (Confessions of a Crap Artist), Radio Free Albemuth and Richard Linklater’s misguided attempt to animate live footage for A Scanner Darkly all failed to ignite the box office.

The only other Philip K Dick film to make a significant profit was the otherwise pointless 2012 re-make of Total Recall. The charisma-free Colin Farrell stars alongside Kate Beckinsale in this dull chase thriller. Two lumps of damp wood might have been a better choice.

The film adds nothing to the original except torpor.

Why Hollywood has not yet attempted to film Phil’s more cinematic novels such as Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch or Flow My Tears is a real mystery. Hollywood insiders never seem to understand exactly why so few of its science fiction offerings succeed and, when the odd one hits, they simply close their eyes and give a silent cheer before moving on to the next big budget turkey such as Evolution or After Earth.

Some of Phil’s movies had hastily constructed ‘tie in’ computer games released but we still wait for an intelligent and playable electronic game experience based on the multiple worlds of Philip K Dick.

Way back in 1962 Terry Nation, the man responsible for Brit TV hits such as The Avengersand Dr. Who, adapted Phil’s Imposter for an episode of a series called Out of this World. Never seen it but I would certainly like to.

In 1999 a television series based on Total Recall aired for one season in the US. Presumably the producers wanted to use the Blade Runner franchise but couldn’t afford to. The show’s look and feel veered extremely close to the Ridley Scott ‘school of future cool’. It was a flop.

Phil’s time spent as a record store manager in Berkely sparked a lifelong passion for all types of music but particularly the classical variety. Situations in his novels are often illuminated by the particular piece a given character is listening to. The spiritual backbone of Flow My Tears the Policeman Said is supplied by the songs of John Dowland, and Wagner’s Parsifal roams the pages of Valis like a lost ghost.

I doubt that Phil would have been impressed, or inspired by Tod Machover’s musical work based on Valis, which was commissioned for the 10th Anniversary of the Pompidou Centre in 1987 (the French always loved Phil). The entire opera was recorded for posterity in 1988 and issued as a CD on the Bridge Records label. Unfortunately, like the novel, it is a missed opportunity and could certainly have used a few of those rousing Wagner melodies to liven up the proceedings.

I suspect that the score to Blade Runner might have tickled his music bone and no music lover could fail to appreciate Jerry Goldsmith’s ‘wake up and pay attention’ score for the original Total Recall. At the time the old maestro was under pressure from, and losing prestige gigs to, the practitioners of new-fangled electronic music. He responded by hiring a few synth wizards and blasting the younger fellows right out of the water.

If you decide to check out the soundtrack, for god’s sake play it loud. It’s the way he meant it to be heard.

Marvel produced a workmanlike comic book adaptation of the Blade Runner film which deviates slightly from the source material as, in order to meet its production deadline, the writer and artist only saw a work-in-progress cut of the movie.

Legend of underground comics Robert Crumb briefly abandoned his amusing self-centred obsessions in the 1980’s and focused instead on biographical work. His miniature portraits of outsider types in Arcade Comics included a strip about Phil’s ‘religious experience’. Like its subject; it is both tragic and humorous. Well worth a look.A picture of A Philip K Dick Book

In 2011 a four-issue continuation of the original Recall film was published by Dynamite Entertainment. It sank without trace. Simultaneously Boom Studios began a 24 part comic book adaptation containing the complete text of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It’s a revelation and won a number of awards for its firm and measured brilliance. Rarely has a comic book displayed such confident gravitas. Each carefully constructed panel and every line of text pull us deeper into Rick Deckard’s kill-zone as he struggles with the realisation that artificial life, like every other kind, is divine.

The limited series has since been collected into four graphic novels. Those among you who have more than a passing interest in Phil’s work would be well advised to purchase them without delay.

If I have omitted to include any adaptations or overlooked a vital strand of the PDK story in this six-part series I confidently expect the readership of Trebuchet to step up and sort the matter out. A fear of failing and falling should never hold back the creative impulse and we may all be comforted by Phil’s posthumous words whispered to me in a darkened room:

‘There is no zero’.


Read on: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4| Part 5


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