September 18, 2017
Yes, please, more screen adaptations of Philip K Dick!
by Peter Clark
As we approach the release of Blade Runner 2049, we see ever more evidence of sci-fi legend—and Last Interview series participant—Philip K. Dick’s unending mutability. Writer, speculator, and drug-fueled vision-quester, Dick spent an entire career obsessed with who humans are and what they’ll become in the future. As Jonathan Lethem explains in his introduction to Dick’s Selected Stories (collected in More Alive and Less Lonely), “Dick famously posed two questions—‘What is human?’ and ‘What is real?’—and then sought to answer them in any framework he thought might suffice. By the time of his death he’d tried and discarded many dozen such frameworks. The questions remained. It is the absurd beauty of their asking that lasts.”
And if you’re alive and not a Substance-D junkie, you know that “absurd beauty” has not stayed confined to the page. With thirteen film adaptations and counting, along with scores more on radio and television, Dick is, thirty-five years after his death, a staples of science fiction media.
But for all of the praise heaped on his books, the adaptations are not always exactly faithful recreations. Take the beloved Blade Runner franchise (well, franchise?). In the book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, protagonist Rick Deckhard’s raison d’être is to hunt androids for bounties until he can save enough money to buy himself a real, non-android pet — an ostrich. In the film, Deckhard’s motivation seems to be hunting androids while stoically lunging toward death — or, failing that, falling for android lady Rachael, perhaps because Deckard himself knows he too is an android (this is open for debate). And while these deviations are frustrating to Dickheads (their term) everywhere, they underscore a profound point about Dick’s work. His ideas are foundational in ways that his narratives may not be.
As David Barnett explained last week in the Guardian:
There’s a sparseness to [Dick’s] prose, for sure, and some of his dialogue is clunky and awkward. He certainly doesn’t have the narrative flair of contemporaries such as Ray Bradbury. But what PKD had, and what Hollywood has known for decades and TV is switching on to now, was ideas.
And those ideas are due to be fleshed out in a number of forthcoming and still-running adaptations: a Channel 4 series of dramas based on some of his short stories; Blade Runner 2049; a yet-unnamed animated Blade Runner film by anime legend Shinichirō Watanabe; a long-awaited telling of Ubik; and more seasons of The Man in the High Castle.
Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.