Mar 2 2011 11:04am

Message to Hollywood: You Don’t Know Dick

Philip K. DickThere’s plenty for a thinking person to dislike about Hollywood. And if there’s one thing a thinking person should avoid, it’s being petty. One should always rise above the desire to have a knee-jerk snarky reaction to trends. Even when said trends seem to be pandering to a pseudo-intellectual camp of society who think that “dark” and “mind-bending” stories are synonymous with high art. And nowhere is this more annoying than in the pervasive tendency for Hollywood science fiction films to be based on stories or novels by the late great Philip K. Dick.

Now, it would be a capital crime to say as a science fiction reader that I have anything but love and admiration for Philip K. Dick. But for someone who has read other authors in the genre, this trend is getting a little old. Why does Hollywood seem to think he was the only science fiction writer that has ever lived?

The Adjustment Bureau

With the impending release of yet another Dick adaptation,The Adjustment Bureau, the Washington Post recently published an article on exactly this subject. In it, several SF experts were interviewed and asked to give their opinion on why so many Dick stories are made into films. Perhaps the most telling answer came from famed editor Gordan Van Gelder saying, “Paranoia works great on screen generally, and paranoia runs throughout his work.” This couldn’t be more spot on, but from where this writer sits, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Almost every single Dick story or novel deals with a protagonist who is alone with the world completely against him or her. When my non-SF reading friends ask me to describe Philip K. Dick I always sum up his oeuvre with one story; “Faith of Our Fathers”, which initially appeared in the first Dangerous Visions anthology edited by Harlan Ellison in 1967. “Faith of Our Fathers” is about a guy who finds out that there are drugs in the water and the only way to see what’s really going on is to take hallucinogenic drugs, which act as an antidote to the proverbial punch everyone’s been drinking. The message of this story is clear: “open your mind, man. The real world is a total lie.”

A Scanner Darkly

While this type of storytelling is undeniably entertaining, it does get pretty stale fairly fast. Just how many times can one be shocked by the cliché “YOUR WHOLE WORLD IS A LIE!” premise? Even popular SF movies that are not based on Dick stories suffer from this boring, played-out concept. (You don’t have to be a string theorist to know I’m talking about The Matrix and most Christopher Nolan stuff.) In most Dick-penned stories (like “Paycheck”) the whole story revolves around discovering what the hell is going on in the story. Finding what has happened is what happens. And while this can be great, it is not the totality of what the genre of SF can do. To paraphrase from the satirical Plinkett reviews of the Star Trek films: “you don’t need to cram a stupid mystery plot into everything!” But movie audiences love these kinds of plots, because ultimately these tropes are easy to digest.

Rachel DeckardHowever, while a general critique can be made of all Dick’s premises, the real crime is that any of the complexity of his work is totally lost in these film adaptations. Blade Runner is an obvious exception here, and while it takes a lot of liberties with the source material, the haunting quality of Dick’s work still comes through strongly. (Allegedly, Dick was eventually pleased with Blade Runner) But contrast this with a film like A Scanner Darkly, which visually degenerates into a Scooby-Doo mystery with various people pulling off scatter-suits only to “reveal” they weren’t who you thought they were. When you come to expect these kind of cheap twists, the plot becomes one big yawn. This is the sort of thing hurt the contemporary Battlestar Galactica. Initially the notion that ANYONE could be a Cylon was awesome, but as more Scooby-Doo masks were pulled off, those twists became way less interesting. (Not surprisingly, the producers of BSG mention numerous times in interviews how influenced they were by Philip K. Dick.)

I, RobotBut what about other science fiction movies based on the work of well-known SF writers? Well, several years ago an absolutely terrible version of I, Robot made it’s way to the screen. I remember a few months prior to this movie being released, I saw Harlan Ellison speak at a community college in the Phoenix metro area. He pleaded with the audience not to go see the film out of respect for Asimov. It’s easy to see why. In it, the robots end up taking over and it ends up being ONE guy against THE SYSTEM. This was never the idea behind Asimov’s work, and certainly not the point of I, Robot. In fact, I, Robot concludes with the world being run by robots, and that’s actually a good thing thank you very much. But Hollywood knows better than to make a movie like that. They know people like their contemporary science fiction movies dark and paranoid. Is this Philip K. Dick’s fault? Of course not. But the elevated status he has in the minds of these Hollywood producers seems to have created a deranged trend.

Not to mention, despite it’s greatness, Hollywood is probably loathe to make a movie version of something like “Faith of Our Fathers” because ultimately the message is that taking drugs will solve your problems. They’ll do dark and pesimistic, but not risky.

So, if these studios ever run out of Dick material, will we then see a film version of The Stars My Destination? What about The Left Hand of Darkness? Or the constant debate: Stranger in a Strange Land? And while all these books I mentioned are quite different from each other, they do have one common thread. You can’t sum up their premise in one sentence and effectively convey the theme. (i.e. The Stars My Destination isn’t JUST about people jaunting.)

The Man Who Japed by Philip K. DickFor better or for worse, one can usually do that with Philip K. Dick stories. He wasn’t the greatest writer of prose, but he was an idea factory. The drawback here is that his characters were often under-developed and his themes repetitive. This doesn’t always make for the most rounded or thoughtful science fiction movies. (Can anyone count Total Recall among the best and most thoughtful science fiction films? Didn’t think so.)

The irony is that if there were one person who would have objected to a large media organization using the same subliminal messages over and over again to deliver what is essentially a finely-tuned product, that person’s name would be Philip K. Dick.

Ryan Britt’s writing has appeared here, with Clarkesworld Magazine, and elsewhere. His favorite Philip K. Dick book is The Man Who Japed.

Eric A.
1. Eric A.
While I do like PKD, I am pretty tired of all the film adaptations of his works. I agree that there is a vast wealth of untapped SF short stories and novels that would make terrific movies.

Pity Hollywood is completely screwed up right now.

Dr E.
Jesús Couto Fandiño
2. Breogan
I dont know who said it, and in fact I think it was said many times already, but...

We get so many P. K Dick movie adaptations cause... you had the previous ones. Specially Blade Runner, Total Recall too.

Hollywood is run in the most risk-adverse way possible. So between "lets do a movie from some SF author that nobody has ever adapted" or "lets do a movie from the same guy we did this other 3", 3 out of 4 times the execs go for the "less risk, brand recognition, whatever" choice.

I love P.K Dick (my second favorite SF writer ever, first is Lem... which is kind of funny :-P), but yes, please, stop "adapting" his works, Hollywood.

Or do it right. But fat chance of that
3. Hatgirl
I don't like PKD. And I read a fair whack of his work in an attempt to "fit in" with the rest of SF-dom. But while his premises are fascinating, everything of his I read was
misogynistic, defeatist and just plain grumpy.

Whereas I actually like the Hollywood-style saccharine films that have been made from his plots, where the women are characters instead of succubi and there's a chance of the main characters living happily ever after.

(But I agree with you about "I, Robot". It is only beaten by "LXG" in the kick-the-author-in-the-crotch degree of adaptation.)
James Hogan
4. Sonofthunder
Excellent article - thanks.

And also, after reading your comment on Asimov(and briefly mourning again for the movie that was most definitely not I, Robot), I got to wondering how Hollywood would handle the Foundation series. I'm sure they'd probably mess that up too...but I almost think it could be done well if a proper screenwriter got a hold of it.
Chris Hawks
5. SaltManZ
From what I've read, I, Robot wasn't actually based on Asimov's work, but was originally a completely different movie that was rewritten with Asimovian elements for brand recognition. I just saw it for the first time recently, and enjoyed it against my initial prejudices.
james loyd
6. gaijin
"Why does Hollywood seem to think he was the only science fiction writer that has ever lived?"

To be fair, Ray Bradbury has inspired (and written) many a screenplay, just not recently. In fact, I wish Hollywood would remember him again.

For really original characters and mind-bending twists, I'd love to see a film version of Peter Watts' Blindsight.
James Hogan
7. Sonofthunder
SaltMan Z, it may be a good film - I need to watch it again and try to go into it without thinking of it being based off I, Robot. But I still maintain that it's extremely disengeneous to name a movie after a certain book while only retaining faint elements of the same. That's bound to create a bitter taste in the mouths of the fans, for good reason. If I see a movie is called I, Robot, well then yes, I will be disappointed if it's only thinly related to the actual book(and for that matter, if the movie feels nothing like an Asimov story at all).

On the other hand(and yes, this is becoming rapidly more off-topic!), I loved the new Sherlock Holmes movie(being a huge fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories), despite the many liberties they took. Why? I'm not honestly sure...
Christopher Key
8. Artanian
I think you've pretty well nailed it, Hollywood likes to adapt short stories whose essence can be summed up in one or two lines. That lets them fill in the blanks "appropriately" and end up with a standard 75-80 minute movie, as opposed to most novel adaptations which end up north of 2, 2 and a half hours and feel rushed. Most golden-age SF needs probably three hours to be treated correctly - recent stuff like, say, anything Peter F. Hamilton's written in the last ten years just needs to be a miniseries (or full season series).

As for "Faith of our Fathers", I could certainly see an indy version of that hitting the big screen.
Eric A.
9. N. Mamatas
This is funny because Richard Matheson is often adapted—recently too, with The Box—and was even the subject of a number of pieces here on this blog. Has PKD ever had an episode of Family Guy based on his work? Huh, huh? Well Matheson has! Stephen King too!
Eric A.
10. N. Mamatas
The other issue is that Isa Dick spent many many years positioning herself in Hollywood, and is a powerful advocate for her father's work. SF writers should try their best to birth and raise intelligent, ambitious, and attractive children if they want a legacy!
Warren Ockrassa
11. warreno
Argh. Blade Runner was a seminal film, almost totally unrelated to the source material. It had a superb director at the helm and an outstanding conceptual artist designing the sets and props. And it's all been downhill since.

PKD wrote a lot more than just paranoid-delusional stories, but the "aha gotcha" element seems to be what most people like. Shayamalan tried to make an entire career off of that. I'm surprised he hasn't tried a PKD adaptation himself...
Eric A.
12. Kvon
@7, re naming a movie after a book that has nothing to do with it's plot, I offer exhibit B, The Bladerunner by Alan Nourse, about black-market appendectomies. I hope nobody was too disappointed at the lack of surgery in the movie.
Eli Bishop
13. EliBishop
Ryan, what on earth are you talking about here?
"...a film like A Scanner Darkly, which visually degenerates into a Scooby-Doo mystery with various people pulling off scatter-suits only to "reveal" they weren't who you thought they were"

I'm fairly sure that happens exactly one time in the movie (and somewhat differently in the novel), and your description of it as a "cheap twist" makes it sound as if you didn't pay any attention to the story in the first place. The entire thing is about undercover narcs informing on each other (or as the case may be, on themselves), and about a guy trying to maintain friendships with people who are untrustworthy for all kinds of reasons. And it turns out that he was oblivious to the real nature of one of those friendships, in a way that's actually anti-paranoid: someone was trying to help him. So if all you get from that is "one big yawn"... either you've been watching some unusually nuanced Scooby-Doo episodes, or you're just being pointlessly snide.
james loyd
14. gaijin
@11 wareno, I see what you mean about Shayamalan, but I'd argue that he was much more inspired by Hitchcock (and to a lesser degree Serling) than PKD. The key elements are suspense and irony, not necessarily paranoia or willful deception by authority.
Scot Taylor
15. flapdragon
Not buying this. Off the top of my head:
Starship Troopers (ugh)
Dune (ugh)
A bunch of Matheson, as mentioned by a previous commentator, everything from Somewhere in Time to how many versions of I Am Legend? (all of which, incidentally--ugh)
2001, 2010 (both of which I find boring)
Um, anyone remember this little indie trilogy from the beginning of the decade, some movies by some dude named Jackson based on a bunch of novels about walking by some English professor?

I don't disagree that more authors need to be tapped for source material. I do disagree with the premise that PKD is the only SF author known to Hollywood and that every filmed adaptation of his work is a failure. I also think that there are certain works of SF that simply cannot be filmed--Dune being the most blatant real-life example, but can you imagine what a mockery a filmed version of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun would be?

Now, a long series of films paralleling Kage Baker's Company novels could be outstanding in the hands of the right production team.
rob mcCathy
16. roblewmac
I think a lot of the popularity of "your world is a lie" stories is the true nature of the univese DOES get reveled most times. Veiwer And filmmaker both get to feel smart.
A faithful film of I robot? 5 20 min stories of being sort of being ambiveant about tecnogly? I am already on Facebook so I KNEW that!(smirk)
William Fettes
17. Wolfmage
Well, I rate Total Recall pretty highly as entertainment.

As for The Matrix. I always thought it was explicitly based on Robert Nozick's experience machine in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Maybe PKD's popularisation of the big world-is-alie reveal had some background influence but it seems a bit of a lazy attribution in this case.
Eric A.
18. etranger
It seems to me more that in most PKD stories, the protagonists are living in reality in the beginning and then become unmoored from it. For example, in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, the main character is a t.v. star who begins to question if he really is who he thinks. In the end, however, we find out he is right.
john mullen
19. johntheirishmongol
My problem with the movies is not that they are made, but that they so often go too far away from the source material.
Steve Taylor
20. teapot7
> “Faith of Our Fathers” is about a guy who finds out that
> there are drugs in the water and the only way to see
> what’s really going on is to take hallucinogenic drugs,
> which act as an antidote to the proverbial punch everyone’s
> been drinking.

Isn't the point of the story that it's anti-hallucinogenic drugs which cause all of the different visions of the Great Leader, and it's the hallucinogens that everyone else is on which cause them to all see the same propaganda image?

I hope my memory hasn't misled me - that certainly sounds more interesting than what you described.
Eric A.
21. Tocks Nedlog
Beyond the mystery of reality vs. illusion, most sf movies fall into one of two categories: horror (Alien, Predator) or action-adventure (Star Wars, Planet of the Apes . . . the modern space opera). It is the rare film (2001, Silent Running) that explores subject matter beyond the limited scope of those sub-categories.
Michael Burke
22. Ludon
@16 roblewmac

A faithful film of I robot? 5 20 min stories of being sort of being ambiveant about tecnogly? I am already on Facebook so I KNEW that!(smirk)

Harlan Ellison has published his screenplay for a faithful (well, more faithful) I Robot film. I, Robot The Illustrated Screenplay, published by ibooks, New York. I found it a fine - and fun - read and I feel it could have made a fine motion picture. That's not to say that I think it would have made big money at the box office. This version would not have had Will Smith and it would not have had the Hollywood boilerplate storyline which could have been just as successful under a different name.
Eric A.
23. tommythecat

Just a nitpick here but the decade began last year.

Also, I would never in a million years call Lord of the Rings Science Fiction.
Lenny Bailes
24. lennyb
Some people (I) might want to argue that A Scanner Darkly is a great book (and also a good Hollywood movie) structured around the PK Dick premise: "Your whole world is a lie!"
Scott Raun
25. sraun
Another reason for liking PKD stories is that they are single hero. From what I can tell, Hollywood doesn't really like ensemble casts.
Eric A.
26. DarrenJL
I think of Dick more as Tom Robbins without the joie de vivre. Through examinations of the seemingly inconsequential (garbage men from a dog's perspective, for example) they force us to see our world with childlike wonder, if that phrase isn't trite. For Robbins, the revelations from such perspectives are embraced, for Dick, they are seen as a betrayal. Instead of "I've never really understood this before," we get "Everything I've been told is a lie!"
Ryan Britt
27. ryancbritt
Whoa! Looks like I might be off the mark on A Scanner Darkly. (That's for your Eli and Lennyb)

To fair, I might have been a little harsh and hazy on my recollection of that particular film. Overall, I think I have a love/hate relationship with these types of themes and what I was trying to convey is that when this stuff gets translated into film, it usually comes across sort of generic. I felt that way about A Scanner Darkly, but you guys are making me think it might be worth another look.

DarrenJL- I like your Tom Robbins thought here. It reminds me of a forward to a "Best of" Dick collection I have somewhere on my bookshelf in which he says something about believing that the most horrific things around him were his ordinary neighbors. (I'm paraphrasing here) That seems to be in line with what you're getting at.

teapot7- You are not wrong. I think I was attempting to display these stories and concepts in the worst light possible in order to explain why this kind of stuff translates so quickly into bad films. Though, as much as I love "Faith of Our Fathers", I still think for Dick, it borders on self-parody.
james loyd
28. gaijin
@23 "Just a nitpick here but the decade began last year."

To further pick the same nit, a new decade began this year, but let's not get into the whole "there was no year zero" debate again. I burned out on that at the turn of the century.

Everything we know about timekeeping is a lie!

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