Transcript for David Gill on Film Versions of Philip K. Dick's Work

Jim Fleming: You may not have read any of Philip K. Dick's fiction, but chances are pretty good you've seen at least one film based on his work; maybe Blade Runner, Total Recall or The Adjustment Bureau.  David Gill has seen them all.  David is a Philip K. Dick scholar who also runs a website called Total Dick-Head.  Here's David Gill with his thoughts on Hollywood's adaptations of Dick's work.

David Gill: Let me start by saying that I'm not sure that Philip K. Dick's writing is particularly well suited to cinematic adaptation.  While everybody loves the science fiction settings and the amazing, incredible ideas, Dick tends to, especially in his short stories, privilege the idea or the character development; and really, those short stories in some cases are five, six, seven pages long and there's not a full length movie script there.

So often times what's happened in terms of the short stories is that they take a really nice idea from a short story and then run it through the sausage factory of Hollywood.  It ends up kind of this crazy contraption with Tom Cruise as the leading man, or Arnold Schwarzenegger totally miscast.  Then they try and graft on a love story, a car chase and it ends up just overwhelming the gem of the idea that was there to begin with.  That's what I would say in regards to the short stories.

I think in every case, the four times that they've tried to take a Philip K. Dick novel and make a movie out of it they've been incredibly successful.  These would be A Scanner Darkly, Blade Runner, The French film Barjo, and the American independent release, Radio Free Albemuth, which is still searching for a distributor.

Male: A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies, the chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure.

Gill: Blade Runner is absolutely state-of-the-art in terms of a Dick adaptation, it's probably the best one we have hands down.  Of course, it's not particularly faithful to the original novel, which Ridley Scott never finished.  He said on page 30, "I can't make a movie out of this."  Many of the important concepts in the novel are cut away, the vake[? 2:28] religion of Mercerism, Deckard's wife is eliminated in the movie, and the moral of the story is really inverted.

In Blade Runner you're really talking about human-like Androids can become or may become, and in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the moral is very different.  It is in fact how Android-like humans can be.  And that's a very different vibe.

However, I will say that Blade Runner captures the spirit of the novel better than any other adaptation, the noir landscape, the dark depressing Dystopian future settings are really the best we have and they're probably the best depictions of Dick's Dystopian future visions.

Male: She's a replicant, isn't she?

Male 2: I'm impressed.  How many questions does it usually take to spot one?

Male: I don't get it, Tyrell.

Male 2: How many questions?

Male: 20, 30 cross-referenced.

Male 2: It took more than a hundred with Rachel, didn't it?

Male: She doesn't know.  She's beginning to suspect, I think.

Male 2: Suspect?  How can it not know what it is?

Male: Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell, "More human that human" is our motto.  Rachel is an experiment, nothing more.  We began to recognize in them a strange obsession.  After all, they are emotionally inexperienced with only a few years to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted.  If we gift them with the past we create a cushion or pillow for their emotions, and consequently we can control them better.

Male 2: Memories.  You're talking about memories.

Gill: It's kind of one of the most tragic ironies of Dick's life that the movie that was going to make him a household name in some circles he would never get to see the finished product.  He did see some early daily shorts, which showed how Scott was going to depict the future, and Dick was amazed.  He asked Ridley Scott, you know, "How did you know what I saw in my head?"  He was incredibly convinced by the settings.  And it's unclear how much Dick knew the story had changed.

We also know that they did have an altercation at some level about the direction that Scott was taking the movie, but all in all I think Dick would be happy, especially since the Blade Runner really cemented his reputation as a brilliant novelist and a compelling science fiction author.

A Scanner Darkly was a very early adaptation and perhaps it's the most faithful adaptation we have widely distributed.  A Scanner Darkly is the story of a narcotics officer who is doing surveillance on a group of burnouts.  And what he is loathed to discover is that he is in fact surveilling himself, that he is somehow mixed up in the plot that he is trying to police.

And so there's a very interesting and somewhat schizophrenic view of a split personality that's really captured quite brilliantly by Keanu Reeves.  He does a good job of playing both a sort of clueless cop and an even more clueless burnout.

Keanu Reeves: What does the scanner say into the head, down into the heart?  Does it see into me, into us?  Clearly or darkly?  I hope it sees clearly because I can't any longer see into myself.  I see only Mark.  I hope for everyone's sake the scanners do better because if the scanner sees only darkness the way I do and I'm cursed, and to curse again and only wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.

Gill: The most significant change that Linklater made was to rotoscope the film, which involved shooting it and then hand illustrating or animating each cell to create a kind of hybrid animation live action film.  And from what I understand, most people who disliked the film found what they don't like about it is the rotoscoping.

Let me just talk briefly about a couple of films I think are great adaptions of Dickian ideas that don't owe themselves directly to Dick's scripts; in other words, films like The Matrix, The Truman Show, 13th Floor, Dark City, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, these are all great Dick adaptations that owe very little to a specific Dick script, but rather take their inspiration from Dick's big ideas about identity and reality and the illusive nature of perception itself.

So there are a lot of really great movies out there where the borrowing from Dick is done sort of second hand and a little more generally, and those have been incredibly successful.  So again, films like The Matrix and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind show that Dick's influence will be around, even if they're not making movies based on his work.

But we live in a society in which people inhabit various realities and these realities are in some ways separate from each other; in other words, is possible to watch Fox News and have a completely separation perception of reality than watching MSNBC.  And Dick's work envisioned that 50 years before it was a reality.  And so there's always gonna be a place in our society as long as we're fractured and fractionalized, and competing for narrative space in our society, we're going to be talking about his books and ideas and his films.

Fleming: David Gill with his thoughts on movies based on Philip K. Dick's fiction.  You'll find a link to Gill's Dick related website, Total Dick-Head on our website at  Gill is also the organizer of the 2012 Philip K. Dick Festival in San Francisco.  You'll find  a link to the festival's website on our website


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