Monday, April 9, 2007

Cinematic Dick

There is no consensus among Dick-Heads about adaptations. There are those of us who love A Scanner Darkly and those who don't. There are those who love Blade Runner and others that feel it is a pale imitation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. There are some who feel the right people never had the chance to film a Dick novel (Stanly Kubrick is Dead, Alas), and others who believe that no film can truly capture a story by Philip K. Dick.

For many of us, a movie will simply never substitute for a book, especially a book by an author we love. A director's view of a particular story is tyrannical, driving out our own personal, imagined worlds that we inhabit within the book. There is a professor at SFSU who, having studied the Lord of the Rings novels since the 1970s, refuses to see the films because he doesn't want to be stuck in Peter Jackson's Middle Earth. He wants to be free to envision his own personal world each time he reads those books.

In fact, I have a hard time not picturing Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, and now a roto-scoped Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor. I fear the day I picture Paul Giamatti drinking wine from the spitting bucket in Sideways every time I think of PKD. But I also know that the films of Dick's stories have brought him a lot of fans, his family some money, and his legacy a bit more prestige. Dick is the mostly widely adapted science fiction writer ever (perhaps with the exception of the guy who wrote the Bible) and for better or worse, these films are part of Dick's literary legacy. You can debate this if you want but there would be no Library of America release due out this May if Hollywood had steered clear of Dick's stories. It may be equally true that had the first Dick adaptation been Screamers rather than Blade Runner there might not have been as many callbacks.

A Scanner Darkly is the most faithful adaptation of a Dick novel to date, faithful not just to the plot but to the spirit and pathos of those characters and that book. This attention to detail and respect for Dick's own pathos shines through even if you despise Keanu or find the animation distracting. But I think Blade Runner is a better film, and the greatest Dick adaptation yet precisely because it uses the book as a jumping off point for a more cinematically focused study of what it means to be human. A totally different version of that novel could be made and they might be equally faithful to the novel.

Very few novels can be transcribed directly from the page to the screen (The Maltese Falcon comes to mind, ommitting a scene only because it was too graphic to pass Hayes Code censors). Dick's fiction is especially challenging to film (but of course wonderful to imagine) because his stories rely on the simmering internal monologues of the characters for much of their punch. His whimsical complexity often does not translate. And we are naive as fans if we believe a movie can do justice to many of his novels without significantly changing their narratives. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is my favorite novel. I hope and dread the day that film opens (and friends I have no doubt -- someday it will open) in theaters. Though I feel that Stigmata is Dick's best novel, I know it will take significant reworking to accomplish anything onscreen.

Which road should filmmakers take when producing a PKD adaptation? Should they attempt to recreate the book completely? What is a faithful adaptation? Whose vision ultimately makes it up onto the screen? What if the filmmakers feel it necessary to alter the story? Can we blame them?

Dick made the deals for many of the earlier adaptations: Total Recall, Blade Runner, Impostor, and Screamers before he died. At a special screening of A Scanner Darkly I attended, Dick's two daughters Isa and Laura discussed the overwhelming responsibility facing their family and Dick's estate. At the screening they told the audience that they are beginning to play an active role in arranging adaptations, an encouraging move considering the great results this yielded in A Scanner Darkly.

Even with Dick's daughters at the helm there's sure to be some bad adaptations coming out. I have absolutely no hope that Next will be anything other than another Paycheck but it's based on a little-known short story of which there are something like 295 still to ruin and as long as it pays for some more serious adaptations (Cronenberg filming Three Stigmata....please) in the future let's not complain too much. After all PKD himself didn't always give filmakers the best advice. His suggestions to the producers of Blade Runner:

"There could be room for more sex. E.g. Rick Deckard making love to Rachel and then dissolve to Isidore, trying the same on his Rachel android and fouling it all up, a la Peter Sellers. The possibilities here are enourmous."


Anonymous said...

I agree with you about Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly being the best - although I'm still yet to see Total Recall, Screamers or the one based on ...Crap Artist.

I can only watch film adaptations if I think of them as something completely different to the novel they were based on - otherwise I end up disappointed and ranting! It's the reason I've stayed away from the film based on V for Vendetta and will have to be the worse for some cognac when I see Next !

Scott Radtke said...

There is a tendency - a sad one at that - when discussing adaptations, to praise "faithfulness" to the letter of the book over true cinematic value. The medium of the novel and the medium of film have almost nothing in common. The only truly faithful adaptation of any book would be another book that contained the same words. When considering adaptations of Dick, or anything, one must evaluate the film on it's own merits. That's why Blade Runner is superior to, say Total Recall, not because it's more or less "faithful," but because it's simply a better film.

Anonymous said...

Adaptations are tricky, not so much because it's hard to adapt things and make decisions on when and where to be faithful, but because people seem to forget that at the end of a movie, the book is still up on the shelf.

Dick adaptations are particularly tricky, and I think part of the reason for that is a lot of people get different things from dick and this is readily evident in the disparity between movies.

Bladerunner hones in on Dick's ontological questionings. Total Recall misses everything but the sense of humor. Neither of them really work on the very human level of dick's characters either. I honestly can't tell you what the hell was going on with Paycheck and Screamers, which is probably why they're such resounding failures. But A Scanner Darkly really is the first Dick movie to really tie in the humorous elements, with Dick's attention to humanity, and also his questioning of everything around him. I think this is why we can say more than anything "ASD is the most faithful adaptation" beyond just the core script.

Adaptations are tricky business, people often think they want a movie that is word for word from the book, but look at the liberties that Bladerunner takes and still succeeds as a legitimate adaptation.

Movies and Film are so different and they don't have a lot of overlap in what works and what doesn't. Adapting a work isn't so much about translating it from one medium to another as it is about continuing the dialogue set up in the original work. Sometimes you can continue that with the original source material pretty closely, but other times you can get away with deviating from it and still continuing the discussion.

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Anonymous said...

Dick is the nost widely adapted s-f writer????? I think Mr Verne might claim that honour......