Philip K Dick

“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.

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