For a writer who wrote extensively about artificial intelligence and technology, Philip K. Dick himself was, in fact, a veritable writing machine, publishing over 44 novels, 120-odd short stories, plus a whole array of manuscripts, essays and other literary paraphernalia. His death at the relatively young age of 53 took an incredible genius away from us; however, you’re never too far away from his work either on TV, computer or at the cinema.
The latest cinema release inspired by Philip K. Dick’s vision is the beautifully directed space epic Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Here Denis Villeneuve picked up the baton from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), an adaptation of K. Dick’s seminal novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). But of course, his stories have also given us film adaptations including Minority Report (2002), Total Recall (1990 & 2012), The Adjustment Bureau (2011), Next (2007), Paycheck (2003), A Scanner Darkly (2006), to name just a few. Moreover, Amazon has recently adapted his classic 1962 alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle (2015) to positive acclaim.
With Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror jumping ship to Netflix, Channel Four UK (Sony / Amazon in the U.S.A and various other production companies) must have felt there was a “futuristic anthology show” hole in their schedule. Thus, they obtained the rights to Philip K. Dick’s back catalogue and produced a show called Electric Dreams – shown in two halves in 2017 and 2018. The production values were very high and some extremely talented actors, producers, writers and directors were brought in to bring ten Philip K. Dick short stories to the TV screen. Such creative luminaries included: Janelle Monae, Dee Rees, Ronald Moore, Juno Temple, Bryan Cranston, David Farr, Matthew Graham, Timothy Spall, Jack Thorne, Steve Buscemi, Anna Paquin, Terrence Howard, Travis Beacham, Richard Madden, Vera Farmiga and many more.
How do the themes and narratives represented on screen compare to Dick’s original vision?
Nightmare Themes in Electric Dreams
Dick’s narratives are often hallucinatory and dream-like with simple yet devastating prose. They deal in reality, alternative reality and what lies beyond reality. You are often in a place where you are unsure as to whether what is occurring is in the real world or some imagined or manufactured nightmare. Technology, disease and war are common threats. The biggest threat though is humanity and its seemingly endless proclivity for inventing weapons, machines and viruses with which to kill. Paranoia and doubt infect Dick’s work making you feel as trapped as his characters. Further, mutated strands of humanity are a staple trope and telepaths and empaths inhabit his oeuvre, along with classic science fiction aliens and monsters from outer space too.
The narratives, while possessing an otherworldly and futuristic feel, seem paradoxically realistic because his characters are everyday people. They are rarely action heroes or soldiers or scientists but rather administrators or office staff, factory or transport workers. They are family people trying to make their way through life and the horrors the world throws at them. Given Philip K. Dick was writing during the 1950s onwards it’s not surprising that the threat of nuclear war hung heavy within his words. Furthermore, the rapid technological breakthroughs that offered humanity hope brought us closer to the loss of free will and the possibility of a future governed by machines. Big corporations, banks, governments and computers all erode and destroy the very fabric of being in Dick’s world, rendering human identity and existence obsolete. His universe brims with people under threat, humans who desire escape and questions about what it means to be human.
Contextualising the Nightmares
**CONTAINS FILM AND LITERARY SPOILERS**
Adapting Philip K. Dick’s writings can be complex because the concepts that work on the page can be difficult to transfer to a visual medium. Conversely, his work is often altered beyond recognition with only fragments of the initial idea remaining, while other adaptations stay true to the original. The original and subsequent sequel of Bladerunner (1982) is very faithful to the structure and futuristic vision of Dick’s source novel, retaining the ‘hunting of replicants’ plot and the existential question of whether an android can be considered human. In Electric Dreams the adaptation of the short story Human Is. . . . poses a similar question. In this story, a wife must confront the question of whether her husband, whose body has been invaded by an alien has, in fact, become more human because he has been improved by idealised human traits such as kindness and love. The flipside of this comes in the film adaptation of Imposter (2002), and the short story adaptation The Father Thing, where nefarious aliens hell-bent on invasion take the humans over in order to divide and conquer. Both the short story and the television adaptation of Human Is. . . are particularly convincing as many people have found themselves trapped in a dying relationship where we wish we could change our partner. Dick’s story takes this idea and makes it real and emotionally very powerful.
Certain filmmakers, when adapting Philip K. Dick work, will mould their style to his vision. For example, in the Steven Spielberg-directed thriller Minority Report (2002), Dick’s pre-crime conspiracy model was presented as an action pursuit film with Tom Cruise going on the run for a crime he may or may not have committed. Spielberg retains the initial idea and concepts relating to pre-cognitive telepathy and empathic mutation but renders them in a more fast-paced and spectacular cinematic experience. Similarly, telepathy and mutants feature heavily in Matthew Graham’s pretty faithful adaptation of The Hood Maker. Like Minority Report telepaths are exploited by the government and the law to do their bidding, only for the system to be corrupted and used for death by those in power.
Philip K. Dick story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale has been adapted on two occasions as Total Recall (1990 and 2012). Paul Verhoeven’s earlier version about warring government agents and colonies on Mars is an absolute blast. Dick’s concepts relating to alternative realities and implanted memories are fused with an explosive Arnold Schwarzenegger action film. Yet, what is retained amidst the shoot-outs and spectacular set-pieces is the main protagonists’ dissatisfaction with their own lives and desire to escape their everyday existence for something more exciting. This is a common theme in Philip K. Dick work and can also be found in the Electric Dreams’ stories Impossible Planet and The Commuter. In the latter, a station clerk finds a hitherto lost “town” which offers a means of escape from his seemingly humdrum life, but it comes at a cost. While Total Recall raises the pace and stakes within an interplanetary setting, The Commuter is more ordinary and emotional in its cerebral representation.
Political, social and technological corruption is present in many of Dick’s other works too. In Richard Linklater’s adaptation of A Scanner Darkly (2006), an undercover cop battles to conceal his identity while struggling with drug addiction. Meanwhile, Electric Dreams, Dee Rees’ rendition of Dick’s short story The Hanging Man, takes an allegory about social unrest and fascistic hangings and turns it into a thought-provoking, paranoiac nightmare scenario. Rees calls her story Kill All Others, where we find Mel Rodriguez’s factory worker driven by fake news and political manipulation during an election, eerily reflecting much of the social and media saturation seen during Donald Trump’s U.S. election win. Likewise the adaptation of Foster, You’re Dead became the very impactful Safe and Sound, which examined the deadly possibilities of technology firms manipulating youth within the context of the war on terror.
Arguably not as successful, however, was Tony Grisoni’s adaptation, Crazy Diamond. This episode completely altered Philip K. Dick’s story Sales Pitch, which told of a relentless Sales-Bot who won’t take no for an answer. In fact, it is unclear what Crazy Diamond was trying to say and perhaps the writer should have stuck to Dick’s intriguing techno-nightmare premise. Indeed, the threat of technology and the inevitable doom progress represents are also presented in the excellent episode Autofac. Philip K. Dick wrote this story in 1955 and set it after an apocalyptic world war has devastated Earth’s civilisations. All that remains is a network of hardened robot “Autofacs” supplying goods to the human survivors. However, these drones and bots are in fact hindering survival and the idea is incredibly prescient. Indeed with the rise of Amazon and Google and Apple industries our society is becoming more dependent on such technology, to the extent, we could be considered helpless without it.
Lastly, what Electric Dreams demonstrates, along with the many film adaptations of his work, is that Dick’s concepts are just as relevant, if not more so than at the time of their writing. Moreover, what this thematic and generic contextualisation of Dick’s work illustrates is that universal themes such as the desire to escape; what it means to be human; media manipulation; fear of technology and war; oppressive government regimes; and all-around insidious paranoia about a very dark future are inescapable and will always be part of society, and the human condition.