The Right Way to Adapt a Philip K. Dick Story | NowThis Nerd
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The Right Way to Adapt a Philip K. Dick Story | NowThis Nerd

August 26, 2019


Hey guys, I’m Mike and I’ve always been fascinated by the work of Philip K. Dick. Amazon’s new anthology series ‘Electric Dreams’ is adapting some of the late author’s lesser known short stories, and I’ve been diving back into his work ever since the show debuted. Over the course of his strange career and even weirder life, We are living in a computer programmed reality, and the only clue we have to it is when some variable is changed… Dick wrote 44 novels and 121 short stories, some of which provided seeds for the greatest sci-fi movies ever, Murder… even if they’re barely recognizable from the works they’re adapted from. ‘Minority Report’ director Steven Spielberg once said that Dick was a ‘concept illustrator’ first and foremost. His stories are built around a single ingenious idea, but beyond that, there’s not really a lot of meat to make into a movie. Today, we’ll look at how two of Hollywood’s greatest directors used Dick’s conceptual genius as a framework to build some of the most brilliant films of their time. In other words, we’re gonna talk about How to Adapt a Philip K Dick Story. Only a few of Dick’s novels were adapted for the screen, but the results are excellent across the board. ‘Blade Runner’ is a game-changing masterpiece, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ hypnotizes the audience with its amphetamine-inspired world and trippy rotoscoped animation. Your sins will be read to you ceaselessly in shifts throughout eternity. The list will never end. and ‘The Man in the High Castle’ is still going strong as a serial TV series, Although again, hugely different from the book. Obviously, novels are a lot easier to adapt than short stories, but when it comes to films based off his shorter work, the results are a lot more mixed. They either stretch the premise too thin, or change it ‘til it barely resembles the original idea. It’s not impossible to make a great movie out of a short story, but it requires a director who’s own strengths and vision complement Dick’s genius, and compensate for the areas he’s lacking. Let’s see how ‘Robocop’ director Paul Verhoeven stood out from the pack with 1990’s Total Recall. It’s based on a 1966 short story called ‘We Can Remember it For You Wholesale,’ which envisions a future where people escape their boring lives through memory implants that make you believe you actually traveled to exotic worlds. The beauty of the concept is that it’s a virtual reality that’s indistinguishable from reality. Your brain won’t know the difference! In both versions, a dull worker drone obsessed with travelling to Mars pays a visit to Rekall, and signs up to receive memories of a secret-agent adventure on the red planet. Why go to Mars as a tourist when you can go as a playboy, or a famous jock, or a– Secret agent. Let me tantalize you. You are a top operative, back under deep cover on your most important mission. People are trying to kill you left and right, you meet this beautiful, exotic woman… But when they dig into his dome, they discover that his fantasies actually happened, and he really is a super-spy. It’s not my fault, we hit a memory cap! They’ll be here any minute! They’ll kill you all! So far so good, but after that the story goes in a much different direction. In Dick’s story, there’s no mutant uprising, exploding heads, or multiple-mammaried Martians We never even leave Earth! All the action pretty much takes place inside the Rekall office. Ready for dreamland? I guess you could make the argument that the movie does too, What if this is a dream? Well then kiss me quick before you wake up. But either way, Paul Verhoeven elevated ‘Total Recall’ above its origins by infusing his two trademarks: Satire and Spectacle. In the beginning, Quaid’s life is dull and colorless, with the only excitement coming from commercials and government propaganda. Call Rekall for the memory of a lifetime! But after his trip to Rekall, he’s suddenly thrust into a high-octane spy thriller. The grey, monotonous world is turned upside-down by ludicrously over-the-top gunfights, martial arts brawling, and buckets of Martian-red gore. In the story, our hero Douglas Quail is a scrawny, anonymous worker bee, not a giant Austrian superman. It’s more appropriate for the wish-fulfillment fantasy premise, but casting a jacked bodybuilder in the role of a meek milquetoast? That’s just straight-up funny, and makes the contrast between Quaid’s pre and post-Rekall life even more absurd. He’s got a hologram! With Arnie front and center, Verhoeven cranks the violence up to eleven, with amazing results, See you at the party, Richter! and once we get to Mars, ‘Total Recall’ has completely transformed into a very-much-Verhoeven bombastic action classic. Get ready for a surprise! He takes a small story about the nature of memory and grafts it onto a war epic, and a satire about income inequality and corporate excess in the post-Reagan era, a theme that’s nowhere in Dick’s story, but can be seen in Verhoeven’s previous work like ‘Robocop.’ You are under arrest. What’s the matter, officer? I’ll tell you: A little insurance policy called Directive 4. The movie ends with the famous fade to white that forces the audience to question whether what they saw was actually real, Or just the dream implanted by Rekall. Virtual worlds and the nature of reality are huge themes in Dick’s work, and the movie actually plays with them better than the original story. ‘Wholesale’ is pretty obvious with the fact that their hero really is an interstellar assassin, We just never get to see any of it. ‘Total Recall’ isn’t a very faithful adaptation, but it’s an extremely entertaining one. Verhoeven used Dick’s work as a jumping-off point to make an incredible action movie that plays to his strengths as a director, Just like Steven Spielberg did with his 2002 adaptation, Minority Report Dick’s 1956 short story asks the simple question: ‘What if psychics could predict crimes before they happen?’ ‘The Minority Report’ explores the moral and ethical ramifications of a society that punishes pre-crime, but beyond that, it’s more of a thought experiment than a taut thriller. Our hero is still a cop trying to escape retribution for the crime he has yet to commit, but the story and movie have almost nothing in common. There are no awesome jetpack battles, or back-alley eye surgeons, for one. Don’t scratch! Never scratch! And in the movie, the titular minority report doesn’t even exist, It’s just a red herring. Meanwhile the book uses it to explore how pre-cogs can’t really predict the future, because the outcome can be changed once you know about it. The movie gets to that conclusion too, but in a more roundabout way, I don’t understand. All you’d have to do is hire someone to kill Ann Lively, someone like a drifter or Neuroin addict. Pre-crime stops the murder from taking place. But then, right then, someone else, having reviewed the pre-vision and dressed in the same clothes, commits the same murder in the exact same way. and only after Spielberg added his trademark touches to the story. Namely, Emotion and Character, Neither of which Dick does particularly well. John Anderton in the story couldn’t be more different from Tom Cruise. Literally the first line is our hero moping about how old, fat, and bald he’s gotten, and the biggest internal conflict he has is jealousy about his hunky new replacement. That’s enough characterization for a short story, but not for Spielberg. He transforms Anderton from a schlubby, joke character into a desperate drug-addicted man on the run. Instead of his original backstory, which is literally nothing, the ‘Minority Report’ movie gives our hero a tragic motivation for his career in pre-crime. After his son’s murder, the system is the only thing Anderton still believes in, which makes it all the more devastating when it turns on him. Wait… wait… You say somethin’? No… Spielberg has made a career out of crafting characters that feel real, like they’re people you could know from your own life, which is a gift even great filmmakers don’t always have. Like Dick’s work, Stanley Kubrick’s films are often accused of being cold and clinical, and ‘A.I.’ would have probably been a very different film if he’d lived to make it. But Spielberg was able to take the script and pump it full of warmth and emotion. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! He really made you care about that creepy little robot boy and his gigolo best friend, just like he made you care about a pre-crime cop on the run. Spielberg doesn’t just breathe life into the human characters though. He also brings character to the world. Short stories aren’t very suited for worldbuilding, especially Dick’s. Usually, the best you’ll get is a few vague words about laser guns and World War III. But ‘Minority Report’ has the most fleshed-out, eerily accurate future I’ve ever seen in a movie, Well, at least in sci-fi movies from the early 2000s. Spielberg enlisted some of the top thinkers of the time to add substance to Dick’s dystopia, predicting things like autonomous cars, custom-served ads, John Anderton! You could use a Guiness right about now! and pinch-to-zoom. Pinch… to zoom… Even the non-scientific stuff gets a big shot in the arm. In the story, the pre-cog predictions are fed into a computer that spits out a card. That’s fine, but Spielberg needed a more dynamic solution for such a huge plot point, hence the elaborate system of tubes and wooden balls that fulfill the same purpose in a more exciting way. It’s pretty unnecessary when you think about it, I mean, they could just email the results, You’ve got mail! but film is a visual medium, unlike the printed page. Dick’s work isn’t about gripping action, deep lore or engaging arcs, it’s about mind-blowing sci-fi ideas and clever twists. His short stories are perfect for the self-contained anthology format like ‘Electric Dreams,’ but when it comes to full-length movies, they need an injection of action and drama to keep us engaged. That’s why Spielberg and Verhoeven were the perfect directors to bring Philip K. Dick’s vision to life. Their strengths perfectly fill in the gaps of the original stories, without sacrificing the far-out ideas and complex themes that made them so brilliant in the first place. Dick was an extremely prolific writer, and his legacy goes far beyond the silver screen. His work is dense, difficult, and occasionally unintelligible, but once you get past that, there’s a vast treasure trove of sci-fi concepts just waiting for some talented filmmakers to turn his electric dreams into incredible cinema. Hey guys, thanks for watching! It
goes without saying that I love Spielberg, but I’m a massive, massive
Verhoeven fan. If you are too, you should check the video I did about
his use of satire for the 30th anniversary of Robocop, and if you
ended up watching both, you should definitely subscribe to NowThis Nerd.

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  1. Thanks for watching, nerds! In between your electric dreams, leave a comment and tell us your favorite Philip K. Dick adaptation is. Is it Next? Paycheck? Screamers? Or one of the reallly bad ones? Let us know!

  2. I've got to admit, you lost me at A.I.. It's never got really emotional to me, it stayed in that Uncanny Valley for the entire run.

  3. Philip K Dick doesnt do character well? Things like Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep and A Scanner Darkly are heavily about the characters.

  4. And to the question favorite PKD adaption would have to A Scanner Darkly. I havent seen Man in the High Castle or any of Electic Dreams yet.

  5. Really awesome exposition on the brilliant minds of Phillip K. Dick and Stephen Speilberg. Found this searching for how to adapt a short story to a feature length screenplay. I haven't had the fortune of reading any of Dick's works, I just recently found out he was a prolific writer and I will certainly pick up some of his stories. I can see how these may serve aspiring science fiction writers well. Thank you.

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