The literary career of Philip K. Dick is one of the most unusual artistic biographies in modern times and his life and work have created one of the most unusual success stories in all of Hollywood. Dick was considered a “cult” writer during the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s when he did the bulk of his major writing. The label “cult,” however, did not denote popularity or even success for Dick. He lived much of his life in poverty with few of his novels selling more than a modest number of copies. Yet, today, no less than eight of his novels and short stories have been adapted for the big screen. To date, films based on Dick’s work have grossed over $1 billion. Dick’s writing and imaginary futures have become so integrally a part of modern technology and society that those who use such imagery often do not realize its basis.
The first of Dick’s novels to be made into a film was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The movie was released in 1982 as Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford as the noir detective Rick Deckard. The film was directed by Ridley Scott who most famously directed the science fiction hit Alien. Though Scott initially passed on filming the novel, the ideas of the book stayed with him and only a few years after shooting Alien he returned to the script. Sadly, Dick did not survive to see his novel on the big screen. Just a few months before the film was scheduled to be released, Dick died of a massive stroke.
The film differs from Dick’s novel in many important ways. It dispenses with the oblique themes of Mercerism, Buster Friendly, and radioactive dust, but through the character of Rachael Rosen it does engage the Dickian themes of the real/unreal and reality vs. fiction. Blade Runner, like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, was only a modest success in the theaters. However, the film was released at the very beginning of the home video age, which allowed people to rent and own video tape copies of films. This allowed the home movie version of Blade Runner to itself take on a kind of cult status among film buffs. It remains to this day one of the most respected science fiction films of all time.
The real breakthrough for Philip K. Dick films came in 1990 with the blockbuster hit Total Recall. The film is based on Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” The story narrates the life of a man named Douglas Quail who wishes to visit Mars but cannot afford it. Instead, he visits the Rekal corporation to have false memories of a visit to Mars implanted in his head. The corporation, and Quail, discover that he is actually a secret government agent.
Total Recall is loosely based on Dick’s story and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a man named Quaid who does visit Mars and has false memories implanted into his mind. The film, while differing quite substantially from Dick’s original story, does stay quite true to the themes that Dick explored in many of his works. The main theme of the movie is that of reality vs. unreality, or delusion. Like other Dick stories and novels, false memories and ambiguous emotions greet the characters throughout the film. Total Recall was an international success grossing more than $100 million at the box office.
Two of the most critically acclaimed films based on Dick works were produced in more recent years. In 2002, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise brought Dick’s story “Minority Report” to the big screen. The movie is the story of a police officer who is a part of the “pre-crime” unit which uses three oracles to foresee future crimes and stop them before they happen. The movie’s twist happens when the main character is pre-accused of a murder that he knows he does not commit.
Themes of future and reality and interwoven throughout the film. One of the original producers of the film thought that it could be turned into a production that challenged the very tenets of Calvinistic religion, though Spielberg’s adaptation does not delve into spiritual matters and sticks more strictly to issues of governmental and state control. In the end, the film justifies the blind criminal system over the technologically advanced one, though this might not have been Dick’s own opinion. Like Dick, however, the movie does face the ambiguities of technology and the real predicaments that flawed humans are put in because of an overenthusiastic faith in what may or may not be real.
The most recent Dick movie to stretch the boundaries of filmmaking opened in 2006. A Scanner Darkly, starring Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey, Jr., was filmed digitally and then superimposed with animation to give the film a distinct and original look. The animation of the film allows for surrealistic experience of a Dick story. The film follows the story of Bob Arctor, a narcotic agent fighting a drug called Substance D. Arctor himself becomes addicted to the drug and becomes the very thing he is fighting.
A Scanner Darkly deals with themes of state power and abuse that many of Dick’s other works also deal with. Dick remained deeply skeptical of all state sponsored authority throughout most of his life and his characters often find themselves caught between their duties which lead them down paths of immorality, and the calls of their conscience.
Dick’s novels and short stories have not just become critical and popular hits at theaters because of the money they make, however. Dick’s stories resonate amongst a wide swath of the film-going public precisely because of the ambiguities and tensions that his stories create. A movie goer is both entertained and challenged by the themes that Dick dealt with during his entire writing life. The success of these film adaptations have assured the place of his popularity in popular culture and the release of future adaptations.