[18 March 2009]
Orwellian. Kafkaesque. Dickian? Any writer whose surname becomes an adjective must be idiosyncratic, overanalyzed, and zealously revered. So yes, Dickian. In reference to one Philip K: a pulp sci-fi mastermind who died in 1982 and in years since has achieved the growing readership and academic consideration that was unfortunately lacking during his lifetime. Dickian, like Kafkaesque, is a bit of cognitive shorthand for events that share the mood of the author’s oeuvre. In Dick’s case: paranoia, fried existentialism, and way-down-the-rabbit-hole reality shifts.
So why was Dick once dubbed a hack and now considered a heavy? His prose, for one, was an unadorned, noir deadpan that was clearly the product of deadline-fanned efficiency. His characters, particularly female ones, could be tragically one-sided as well. Not as poor as some claim, and indeed sometimes capable of hard-hitting purity, Dick’s prose served his ideas above all else. And it is Dick’s ideas about reality, identity, and the universe that have attracted new readers and led to a serious reassessment of his career.
Countless film adaptations of his work have also been helpful. Some like, Blade Runner, are science fiction classics. The likes of Paycheck and Next are tired misses. Similar to the oft-adapted work of Stephen King, films based on Dick’s writing run the quality spectrum from top to bottom. (At least poor film adaptations of Dick’s work allow film critics the fun of riffing on his name, a la “not knowing Dick”.)
Future Imperfect: Philip K. Dick at the Movies is Jason P. Vest’s assessment of Dick on film, specifically concerned with how effectively the author’s themes transition to the big screen. It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking study. Originally a hardback published by Praeger in 2007, Future Imperfect offers a chronological overview of films adapted from Dick’s fictions. Lee Tamahori’s Next, based on the short story “The Golden Man”, was released in April 2007 and only gets a brief nod in the concluding chapter.
While quick to take to task on merits of acting, direction, and cinematography, Vest’s final determination here is based on accordance with Dick’s vision. This explains how for a dud like Screamers, Vest can allow, “its serious themes and political story line make the movie worthwhile viewing”. Worthwhile for Dick’s themes, but otherwise irredeemable, Vest’s take on films like Screamers risks leading unsuspecting readers into choking Netflix queues with sub-par sci-fi.
If Dick’s literary output only produced sci-fi dregs cinema, understanding what he means on film would be easier. Fortunately, for every Screamers there is a Blade Runner or Minority Report, and these films, plus a few others, make dismissive, broad-brush rulings impossible.
In Vest’s assessment, Blade Runner—the first Dick film to be adapted for screen—remains the most successful. Although he didn’t live to see his ideas hit the big screen, Dick did comment on the Blade Runner script and Vest wisely includes the author’s insights. It’s a bittersweet touch that Dick fans are sure to welcome, but unfortunately he was only able to see, and judge, only one of his works under development.
Interestingly, the majority of these adaptations are sci-fi action films based on short stories instead of novels. Again we return to the perceived limitations of Dick’s prose as merely a vehicle for wild ideas. Spielberg’s Minority Report, for example, uses the concept of Precrime only as a foundation. Tom Cruise’s character’s domestic issues and Precrime’s corruption add thrills and chases, providing a proper Hollywood experience. Total Recall is another example of the short story to sci-fi action metamorphosis. Vest does a fine job extracting meanings from the futuristic bloodbath, which he calls “a curiously successful adaptation”.
One of the more unique adaptations is A Scanner Darkly which is adapted from a novel, isn’t an action film, and employs much of Dick’s dialogue verbatim. From Dick’s expansive written universe, consisting of over 40 novels and more than 100 short stories, none of his “Gnostic” or mainstream (non-sci-fi) works have been developed for screen. A Scanner Darkly may loosen the mold, and allow a deeper study of Dick’s work to appear on screen. His stories may one day be more than grist for the sci-fi action mills.
Vest’s concluding chapter examines films that share the writer’s themes. These are numerous. The Matrix, The Truman Show, Vanilla Sky, Fight Club, Dark City, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are just a smattering of films deeply indebted to the shaky realities found in his fictions. Future Imperfect isn’t for Dick newcomers and will be less useful to readers who have not seen the films. That said, the narrow demographic for which this work is intended will find Vest to be a capable and insightful guide through the strange realities of Philip K. Dick on screen.