Film discussion

Blade Runner’s Philip K. Dick: From Book to Screen

Kelechi Ehenulo explores the cinematic legacy of Philip K. Dick on screen, as Blade Runner 2049 hits cinemas...

One word comes to mind when describing Philip K. Dick – visionary.

Before Black Mirror became a buzzword, Philip K. Dick’s exploratory novels covered the wide spectrum of science fiction. They examined social, political and philosophical themes through the conventions of corporations, alternate universes, authoritarian governments or the vast network of the human consciousness.

Because of this foundational groundwork, his work has inspired and transcended to other mediums. The Man in the High Castle, Total Recall 2070 and the currently airing anthology series Electric Dreams represent the efforts of the small screen. However, it is on the big screen which Philip K. Dick has made the most impact.

There has not been a perfect adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novels or short stories. His works are often a mixture of personal interests in metaphysics, theology and the surreal which adds a visual complication when achieving a straightforward narrative. Therefore, screenwriters, producers and directors have often taken a relaxed approach to his stories.

Imagine possessing the gift to see into the future? Could you live a normal life or would it attract attention from the government? That is a question which director Lee Tamahori asks in Next, a typical Hollywood blockbuster film and a loose adaption of The Golden ManWe Can Remember It for You Wholesale (most commonly known as Total Recall) provides a definite conclusion to its story arc.

This is in comparison to Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film where he creatively leaves it up to the audience to decide whether Quaid’s experience was real or part of Recall’s implant memory scheme. Memory also plays a significant role in Paycheck. Directed by John Woo, memory wipes were purposefully designed to keep top secret projects a mystery.

The essence of free will is a notable subject within his novels. In the film adaptations of Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau, the protagonists questioned the ideology of controlling your destiny or whether outside forces have a distinct influence. In Minority Report, it was the presence of pre-cogs that determined your criminal state by predicting a crime before it has happened. The Adjustment Bureau examined unseen manipulators changing your life path.

The most successful and satisfying big screen adaptations have always explored ethical morality. Richard Linklater’s underrated adaptation of A Scanner Darkly looked at the psychological effects of drugs (known as Substance D), the undercover informants and officers who infiltrated the supply lines and the cultural and paranoid impact of a surveillance society.  The surrealism and ambiguity is realised through a post production technique called rotoscoping.

Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) is arguably the most famous. Despite the problematic and well-documented production shoots, Philip K. Dick was enthusiastically impressed by the vision and creative direction by Ridley Scott. He was quoted saying “It was my own interior world. They caught it perfectly.” Philip K. Dick only viewed the opening twenty minutes of Blade Runner. He sadly passed away before the release date in 1982. However, Blade Runner serves as a seal of approval, setting a standard and expectation in navigating the challenges of his work.

Philip K. Dick was a philosophical dreamer, exploring every reality and curiously asking questions about the world in a journey of self-discovery.  To pull off the best adaptation for the big screen, the willingness to explore the same passage is essential. We will certainly find out if that essence is maintained in the next big screen adaptation with Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049.

Blade Runner 2049 is now on general release. What is your favourite Dick story? *stop laughing at the back* Let us know!

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