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January 07, 2004

How to Adapt a Dick?

Dear Friedrich --

I know you're a fan of the sci-fi writer Phillip K. Dick, so you may enjoy this Frank Rose piece (here) for Wired. It's mainly about how little money Dick made from his writing while alive, and how in recent years Hollywood has been buying up rights to nearly all his work.

Brief Dick aside: a few weeks ago, The Wife and I caught "Paycheck," the John Woo version of a Dick story that's now out starring Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman. I didn't see many new movies last year, but I nonetheless confidently nominate "Paycheck" as Biggest Turkey of 2003. It sounded like a reasonably yummy evening at the theater: a hook-y Dick idea, and Woo doing some pretty action choreography. (I'm not a big Woo fan, but the man does know chases and explosions.) But the film is so bad -- like a lousy episode of "The Man from UNCLE" -- that you wonder how it could have gone so wrong. It even manages to make Uma look haggard, though I did enjoy her new haircut. As for Ben Affleck: perhaps the worst excuse for a real-guy action hero Hollywood has ever proposed.

"Paycheck" made me wonder a bit about Hollywood's appetite for Dick's material. All due respect to "Blade Runner" and to "Total Recall," of course, both of which managed to turn Dick into something watchable. But "Paycheck," like "Minority Report," is a terribly awkward and halting viewing experience. There's ten minutes of action, then there's ten minutes of explanation; then ten more minutes of action, then another screeching-to-a-halt break for exposition ... I found watching both of these Dick adaptations to be like listening to stories told by someone with a terrible stutter. I found myself struggling so consciously with the basic sense of the narratives that the largely unconscious process of enjoying the movies never had a chance to get started.

But I've only read one Dick book while you're a Dick expert. Dick's premises have brilliant-lunatic qualities that must make them irresistable to some filmmakers. Yet maybe they're a little too brilliant and a little too tricky to be ideal movie material. How do you think filmmakers might best think about handling his work?



posted by Michael at January 7, 2004


I'm trying not to read multiple entendres or innuendos into that "How to Adapt a Dick?" heading. I'm trying very hard, really I am.

Posted by: James Russell on January 7, 2004 3:53 AM

His short story "Colony" would make a fantastic movie, I think.

Posted by: Peter Briffa on January 7, 2004 6:11 AM

Getting past the titillating nature of Mr. Dick's last name, I would suggest that only big-budget Hollywood and its paid screenwriting minions would think to adapt his novels or short stories by making action movies out of them. In fact, action is about the least element in any of them. The substance of Dick's book is mostly, er, allegory; what makes them interesting is his unself-censored emotional yearnings (which are also evident in their occasionally very interesting gnostic structures) and his humor. Certainly over the years movies have been made from literary works like these (and which preserve the book's original virtues) but no block-busters, to my knowledge. The only movie to come out during Dick's lifetime was "Blade Runner" and when Dick saw the screenplay, he was horrified; in all fairness to him, "Blade Runner" manages to get maybe 10% of either the emotional or philosophical content of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" onto the screen.

I guess my point is that Hollywood seems to like eviscerating Dick, not translating his works faithfully to the screen. It is as if Borges was suddenly a hot Hollywood writer and we were deluged with a rain of $100 million plus action movies built on the ruins of his stories. It's quite an odd phenomenon, actually.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 7, 2004 8:28 AM

I'm a huge PKD fan, and I agree with FvB that action is one of the smallest elements of his stories. In fact, what I love is the understated nature of his science fiction: he takes everyday folks out of the ordinary world and puts them into...into some aberrant world, I guess, whose strangeness is just as much internal-psychological as external. This can be due to drug use, alien mind-control, gnostic visions, or a combination of all three and more. In any case, his vision always seemed to resonate with me as a valid representation of a significant portion of the human condition. (What percentage of our lives do we spend asleep? drunk? high? just "out-of-it?" How are the realities of those moments different from our sane and sober moments?)

Come to think of it, this is kind of what "Lost in Translation" did so well: convey this feeling of alien, out-of-step-ness with the world, with a couple of ordinary folks doing their best to handle it. And they did it without one special effect or action scene. Perhaps Sophia Coppola should snatch up a couple Dick options.

I was most excited from the Wired article to see that "A Scanner Darkly" was being optioned. It's a sympathetic, heart-breaking and mind-tripping look at drug use. If they turn it into a sci-fi cop drama or a Naked Lunch gross-out festival, though, it will break my heart.


Posted by: Nate on January 7, 2004 11:16 AM

James -- I think the only sensible response is to give in to the temptation to pun and double-entendre, don't you? It's next to impossible to say anything about him otherwise.

Peter -- Dick certainly did have a great way with a premise and a hook ...

FvB -- I wonder if it makes any sense even to think of doing faithful adaptations of Dick's work. Such a movie (judged on my experience with only one Dick book, admittedly) would be a really, quirky, art-house thing, which I doubt Hollywood has any interest in making (and which they're poorly equipped to make anyway). The Wired article mentions that David Cronenberg was involved with some Dick project or other for a while and got kicked off it when it became clear that what he wanted to do was be faithful to the book ...

But for the moment I'm enjoying thinking more like a crass Hollywood producer than a Dick fan. In this spirit: God knows the action-movie form needs freshening up with new and groovy ideas. So why not buy them from the Dick estate? (And then build your movie on them.) He certainly had a way with a hook.

But what I wonder about is, even from this point of view, whether the mind-game-iness of Dick's premises -- brilliant though it often is -- doesn't inevitably undermine the action-movie basics of identification and caring. If you've got to screech to a halt to explain where the hell you are in the narrative at the moment, that ain't a good thing in basic movie-enjoyment terms. So I wonder for how long the vogue for Dick's work will go on. On the other hand, maybe people will get better at putting over that kind of super-conceptual, mind-gamey premise, what do I know?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 7, 2004 11:27 AM

Seriously, if anyone wants to spend a couple of hours investigating this topic, Charlie Kaufman's unproduced screenplay of A SCANNER DARKLY is the absolute masterclass.

Posted by: Stu West on January 7, 2004 11:52 AM

Dick fans might enjoy the fairly-recently-launched official Dick website, here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 7, 2004 1:01 PM

I think they should let Harlan Ellison have a whack at making one of Dick's stories into a script. (He did a great job with the unfilmed "I Robot.") It'll never happen tho. He didn't just burn his bridges with Hollywood; he nuked them.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on January 7, 2004 2:32 PM

I must shamefully confess that I've never read a book by PKD. Speaking stictly of the movies, I didn't get "Blade Runner" and I thought "Total Recall" was silly but I liked "Minority Report." I enjoy mind games and psycological drama so I'm thinking I really should give Dick a try soon.

Posted by: Lynn S on January 7, 2004 2:34 PM

I must say, the following comparison is about the last one I would ever have made, but I think the writer is on to something:

Certainly if Hitch had tackled science fiction, his trademark combination of paranoia and suspense would have fit Dick perfectly.

Now that I think back on it, several of Hitchcock's movies have a lot of Dick's combination of aggressive weirdness tucked underneath a very quotidian normalcy. This Frank Rose guy is a pretty smart cookie.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 7, 2004 2:51 PM about bait-and-switch! With the title of this posting, I was expecting some really pragmatic advice!!!

"I agree with FvB that action is one of the smallest elements of his stories." How disappointing for someone named Dick!

Posted by: annette on January 7, 2004 3:31 PM

I left the theatre furious after I saw "Blade Runner" -- it completely betrayed Dick's vision, and it's not at all surprising that Dick was horrified by the screenplay. I read somewhere that Dick himself had written a screenplay for "Ubik." That I'd like to see.

For Lynn and anyone else who is new to PKD, The Man in the High Castle is a good place to start, as is the collection The Best of Philip K. Dick. Martian Timeslip and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch are also among his best.

Posted by: Don on January 7, 2004 6:40 PM

I think the main problem with Paycheck is that B.Aff can't play a scientist. He's a good actor, but he has a limited range. Basically, he embodies the worker bee; he doesn't look especially creative or intelligent, but he seems a decent, reliable, square-jawed fellow. Affleck's better films (esp. Changing Lanes) have used the star's obvious limitations to amazing effect. But casting him as a quantum physicist just doesn't work.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 10, 2004 7:19 PM

Don: Ubik: the screenplay should be findable second-hand. I agree; it would make an excellent film, and with little adaptation.

Posted by: Ray Girvan on January 11, 2004 4:21 PM

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