The Philip K. Dick Movie Adaptation Primer: The Good, The Bad And The Meh

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." – Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick remains one of the most influential science fiction writers to ever work in the medium. Writing works both philosophical and strange, the prolific author often wrote about just what it means to be human. With Dick's work so iconic, it only makes sense that Hollywood (and others) have tried again and again to turn his stories into feature films. Some of the films succeed, but often they do so by altering the original nature of the stories. And they almost always jettison Dick's prose, which can often leave readers scratching their heads. Dick's work has also influenced countless other movies, which may not be straight adaptations of his work but are clearly borrowing elements – think The Matrix, Gattaca, Source Code, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; the list is actually pretty endless.

With Blade Runner 2049 now in theaters, and a new anthology series, Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams, scheduled to hit Amazon sometime next year, it's time for a primer on the wild world of Philip K. Dick adaptations – the good, the bad, and the films that just don't make much of an impact at all. .

The Good: The Movies You Need to See

Blade Runner

Based on: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Perhaps the best-known Philip K. Dick adaptation is Ridley Scott's trend-setting future noir Blade Runner, which gave way to the brand-new Blade Runner 2049. Based on Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Scott's film takes most of its concept from Dick's story – a character named Rick Deckard hunting down and killing escaped androids. But beyond this set-up, the stories are rather different. While Scott's film portrays the future as an overcrowded, neon-lit hell-hole, Dick's book, in contrast, portrays the world as rather sparse, with the population being mostly destroyed by wars. The Deckard in the novel is also much more soulful and sad than Harrison Ford's gruff-and-tumble portrayal. Still, as far as Dick adaptations go, this is one of the very best of the bunch, capable of taking Dick's concepts and painting them onto a much larger canvas.

Minority Report

Based on: The Minority Report

Steven Spielberg turned Dick's short story The Minority Report into Minority Report, an exciting, complex sci-fi blockbuster with Tom Cruise. Here again we find someone taking the outline of Dick's story and bending it to their will. All the same elements from Dick's story show up here – John Anderton, the head of Precrime – a law enforcement division that uses psychics to predict when murders are about to happen – unexpectedly finds himself flagged to commit a murder. He then goes on the run. Spielberg's film adapts this all into one of the best science fiction films of the 21st century, and one of the best films of Spielberg's already acclaimed career. It's a rich, challenging film that explores the concept of government surveillance more. The film obviously wouldn't exist without Dick's influence, but the movie outshines the original short story in every single way. There was also a Minority Report TV series, based more on the film than the story. It was forgettable! 

Total Recall

Based on: We Can Remember It for You Wholesale

In 1990, Paul Verhoeven adapted Dick's short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale into a deliriously wonky action extravaganza, Total Recall. The film was also remade in 2012 by Underworld's Len Wiseman, but let's not talk about that at all, okay? Once again, the film adaptation takes the germ of Dick's story, that of a normal guy who wants more exciting adventure from life by going to Mars, and gets involved with a shady company that can implant the memory of an adventure somewhere in his noggin. But beyond that, there's very little to connect the two. In Dick's story, the main character is a bit of a scrawny wimp; a truly average, unassuming man. In the film, he's played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, his muscles rippling every which way. Dick's story is also set in a more near-future style setting, whereas Verhoeven's film is clearly set much further ahead, with more sci-fi trappings. Even though Verhoeven's film may not adhere closely to the source work, it's so much fun to watch and features the greatest character in film history, Johnny Cab, a robot cab driver (this is only a slight exaggeration).

A Scanner Darkly

Based on: A Scanner Darkly

Dick's 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly was considered to be unfilmable, but Waking Life and Boyhood director Richard Linklater found a way. Linklater's 2006 film adapts Dick's book from the '70s to reflect the modern (and failing) war on drugs, and turns Dick's work into a truly surreal experience by using interpolated rotoscope. This method of animation has animators tracing over the film frame by frame to turn it into a colorful, strange film. The plot involves a narc (Keanu Reeves) who gets hooked on drugs when he goes undercover to spy on his friends (Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson). It's weird, wild stuff, and reading the book makes you appreciate Linklater's adaptation all the more for the way he was able to take Dick's prose and streamline it into this end result.

The Bad: The Movies You Need to Skip

Next

Based on: "The Golden Man"

I hope our lord and savior Nicolas Cage forgives me for saying this, but Next, the 2007 film adapted from the Dick story The Golden Man, just isn't very good. It's also one of the most egregious examples of an adaptation claiming to be based on something Dick wrote but having very little relation to it. Cage plays a man who can see two-minutes into the future. Cage gets recruited by FBI agent Julianne Moore to help stop a nuclear bomb. And then a lot of other stupid stuff happens. The story, in sharp contrast, is set in a post-apocalyptic future where mutants roam the earth, and a government agency is charged with tracking the mutants down. It's sort of like Blade Runner meets X-Men, and nothing like Dick's story.

Paycheck

Based on: Paycheck

There was a strange period of time in cinema when Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were competing to see who could become the most unlikely action star. Damon eventually settled into his Bourne Identity series. Affleck, however, didn't have much luck. He kept appearing in things like Daredevil and this film, John Woo's Paycheck, adapted from the Philip K. Dick story of the same name. Woo is a great director, but other than Face/Off, he was never able to fully transfer his talents to Hollywood. Paycheck is just downright confusing, with Affleck playing a man who has his memory wiped and then finds himself chased by government agencies. All he has to go on is a suitcase full of random objects which all eventually become handy in MacGyver-like ways. It goes without saying that Dick's short story is not written to be an action movie, but Woo does his best. Yet the film fizzles, and not even the presence of Uma Thurman can salvage this.

Impostor

Based on: Impostor

Impostor is the story of a robot with a BOMB IN ITS RIBCAGE!! Even if you had never seen the film you're likely aware of this, because every single trailer for this 2002 Gary Fleder-directed film featured a scene where Vincent D'Onofrio yells that. Gary Sinise plays a man who is suspected and accused of being an android. The problem is Sinise is fully convinced he's human, but he has a very hard time convincing everyone else of that. The film adaptation sticks pretty close to the Philip K. Dick short story that inspired it, even keeping the book's bleak ending. But the film itself is an abysmal failure. Originally intended to just be a short segment in a sci-fi anthology film, the film was expanded into feature length, with disastrous results.

Screamers

Based on: Second Variety

Machines that revolt against their creators, a favorite theme of Dick's work, is once again on display in Screamers, adapted from the short story Second Variety. Peter Weller (Robocop) plays a soldier of the future dealing with little robotic blade-monsters that are like metal versions of the face-hugger aliens from Alien. By any conventional sense, Screamers is a pretty bad movie. But it's one of those really entertaining bad movies, that you can't help but enjoy. While playing around with the themes of Dick's story, it's mostly doing its own thing, and that own thing is imitating a dozen other sci-fi movies that came before it. I won't tell you to go out of your way to watch Screamers, but if you come across it late one night after you've had a few drinks, you might get a kick out of it. And if you're really feeling daring, you can check out the sequel, Screamers: The Hunting.

The Rest: The Movies (and Shows) That Also Exist

The Man in the High Castle

Based on: The Man in the High Castle

Amazon turned Dick's alternate history novel, where Germany and Japan won the Second World War, into this ongoing series. The series is well-produced but also growing more and more complicated, which may be a symptom of Dick's prose. As the show enters season 3, the concept of alternate dimensions are starting to present themselves, which gives you the sense that the producers of Man in the High Castle are starting to lose the narrative thread. Dick's story probably worked better self-contained rather than something spanning multiple seasons. 

The Adjustment Bureau

Based on: Adjustment Team

Dick's short story Adjustment Team, about top secret, all-powerful individuals who control the course of our daily lives, was turned into this stylish but mostly forgettable 2011 film starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. While Dick's story is told from the point of view of the adjusters, the film is more of a love story, about Damon and Blunt trying to be together while the universe doesn't want them to. It's not really a bad film, but it takes a rather intriguing idea from Dick and totally punts it. Oh well.

Radio Free Albemuth

Based on: Radio Free Albemuth

You've probably never heard of this film, and that's because it's not very good. Radio Free Albemuth was a newly discovered work of Dick's that was published after his death. Like The Man in the High Castle, Dick's novel is an alternate history, where a corrupt president takes office and completely throws out things like civil rights and civil liberties all with the help of a right-wing populist movement (hmm, sounds familiar). The low-budget film adaptation tells mostly the same story, but tries to spice it up a bit by referencing other Dick works and also including Philip K. Dick as a character himself, played by Boardwalk Empire's Shea Whigham. Alanis Morissette is in the film, too! That doesn't make it any better, sadly. It's worth a curiosity watch, I suppose. But beyond that, don't bother.

Confessions

Confessions d'un Barjo

Based on: Confessions of a Crap Artist

While Philip K. Dick primarily wrote sci-fi, he did occasionally dabble in non-science fiction novels as well. Only one was published during his lifetime, Confessions of a Crap Artist. The story follows an artist with crazy, paranoid ideas who is forced to go live with his sister and brother-in-law. Once there, though, he finds "normal" life is just as confusing, if not more so, than his previous secluded paranoid existence. The novel was turned into the 1992 French film Confessions d'un Barjo (or just Barjo in some versions), which transports Dick's story to contemporary France. As for whether or not the film is any good, I sadly must confess I have no idea! It's out of print, and not available anywhere. I've included it here for the sake of completion. If you've somehow seen this film, let me know if it's any good!