Hollywood’s Excavation of Philip K. Dick

May 14, 2014
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I love Philip K. Dick. His works, I mean. I even love his crappier efforts… and there were several (have you ever read Dr Futurity?). PKD’s real forte was his constant stream of wild ideas and luckily he could type fast enough to keep up with the flow. But sometimes the speed with which he wrote (and occasionally, the speed on which he wrote) might have been better tempered by stronger editing before publication. Still, it was the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” and they didn’t call them pulp magazines for nothing.

Philip K. Dick

The point is, PKD is responsible for some of the 20th century’s most interesting fiction in any genre. The Axis wins World War II and the Nazis and the Japanese split the U.S. down the middle? The Man in the High Castle. Consumer products are both cause and cure for the inevitable entropy of our inner worlds? Ubik. A postmodern classic in which two characters are the same person and both of them are the author? Valis. It’s just bad luck for him that he was trapped in the SF ghetto and his books didn’t get out and about more.

Philip K. Dick

I digress. I love PKD. Especially his obsession with what it means to be human. He used his novels and stories to explore this concept and the answer he came up with was empathy. The capacity to recognize emotions being experienced by another being. Arguably, the quality without which it is impossible to understand, care for, or even love another.

This obsession and philosophy might on the surface make PKD and Hollywood strange bedfellows, given that the big studios tend not to give a shit about anything or anybody other than profit. But apart from being a visionary, a philosopher and seriously addicted to marriage (five wives and rumor has it he was in talks to make it six just before he died in 1982) PKD was a pragmatist; he knew he had to pay the bills. During his lifetime he was popular but never well paid. In 1980, he wrote, “…as late as the mid-seventies I still could not pay my rent, nor afford to take Christopher [his son] to the doctor, nor own a car… In the month that Christopher and his mother left me I earned $9, and that was just three years ago.”

Philip K. Dick

So, a realist then. And this realist had been talking to various film-makers about various projects for years before his death. It was just a bitter irony that the first adaptation to hit the big screen didn’t open until after he died. That was, of course, Blade Runner.

A lot of people forget that Blade Runner was not a popular film at the cinema. (To be fair, a lot of people these days weren’t even born in 1982). It did okay but the cult and classic status came from its success on the home video market during the 80s. Remember VHS? Didn’t think so.

Anyway, once Hollywood cottoned on to the potential market in strip-mining PKD’s ideas and turning them into films that didn’t resemble his books, there was no stopping the bandwagon.

The second film was the Arnie blockbuster Total Recall in 1990 (remade with Colin Farrell in 2012, of course) and since then there have been eleven more PKD films and apparently there are four more in the pipeline right now.

Given that the man has 44 published novels to his name and more than a hundred short stories, the Dream Factory’s recycling department will likely be busy for some years to come. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, that probably depends on what you thought of Ben Affleck in Paycheck.

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