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The Adaptability of Philip K. Dick


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Born 16th December 1928 and rising to prominence in the 1950s, Philip K. Dick has become a household name who boasts a literary afterlife most science fiction writers can only dream of.

Yet, intriguingly, it is rarely his original work which lasts in the cultural imagination of society. Rather, it is the adaptations of his work which have achieved greater success and recognition. What is it about his writing, then, that lends itself to successful adaptation, and why are the original texts so overlooked?

Image courtesy of Ron Frazier on Flickr

Originality and Adaptation

P.K.D.’s preeminent work, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is typically overshadowed by its infamous descendent, Blade Runner, often to the detriment of its own merit. The novel is frequently remarketed as ‘the inspiration for films such as Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049’, rather than a self-contained novel with its own intrinsic worth.

Blade Runner is, of course, the most commonly cited instance of P.K.D.’s adaptability, but other noteworthy adaptations include Amazon’s adaptations of The Man in the High Castle and The Commuter in 2015 and 2017 respectively; the 1990 and 2012 iterations of Total Recall (adapted from We Can Remember It for You Wholesale); and Spielberg’s adaptation of The Minority Report in 2002. This is to say nothing of the popular science fiction films and television for which P.K.D.’s works are merely a primary source of inspiration.

To broach the subject of adaptability, I think it’s important to start with the medium of these texts and their adaptations. The end of the twentieth century saw a radical shift from text to film as the dominant medium for science fiction narrative. It’s difficult to think of contemporary science fiction writers who have achieved the same type of fame that directors such as Ridley Scott have achieved through film.

Atwood is perhaps the biggest exception to this rule, whose 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale has certainly achieved notoriety; but even then, a significant portion of that notoriety might be attributed the recent TV adaptation on Hulu. For the most part, in the 21st century, all eyes are glued to the big screen of Hollywood, or the smaller, but equally influential, screens of video streaming services such as Amazon Prime and Netflix.

Simulation and Replication

Tensions between originality and replication, between authenticity and simulation, and crossing the thresholds of these ostensible binaries underpin much of P.K.D.’s writing. In his short story, The Commuter, for example, the protagonist discovers a town that does not officially exist. Commuters looking to travel to this destination blink out of existence as soon as the unreality of the town is mentioned, and upon venturing there, the protagonist finds that the town slowly unravels before him. In Do Androids Dream, P.K.D. meditates on the authenticity of replicants and their status – are they human or not? Can they feel empathy? How do the relationships between human and replicant manifest? Are they merely an empty copy of humanity, or authentic in their own right? Are they better than humans?

Some of these questions might also be applied to adaptations of P.K.D.’s work. In questioning the nature of humanity, and the consequences of replication, we might also question the consequences of adaptations on the nature of the original. What is the relationship between source and adaptation? Do adaptations change our feelings toward the source? Which is better?

Visions and Visuals

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that most of us read backward to P.K.D., beginning with the aforementioned adaptations. Consequently, these adaptations become the yardstick by which we measure the source. This is not a particularly uncommon practice – our visions of Classical literature are often inflected by (and mediated through) the Renaissance, the Romantics, and the Victorians, for example – but it certainly changes something about the way we read them.

How could we read P.K.D.’s visions of the future in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? without first thinking of Scott’s translation of these visions into visuals? The swathes of gritty, gothic shots of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles feel as though they are permanently embedded in the public's subconscious.

This is in large part because images from films solidify in our minds so easily. Think of the times you have read a book before watching the film, and consider how much of your own interpretation of the book has managed to linger after viewing the film. I’d wager very little. Now think of how difficult it must be to watch the film first, and still manage to retain some form of original interpretation when reading the novel.

Films are overbearing like that; they dominate our imaginations with visual theatrics. It makes sense that P.K.D.’s philosophical writing would shrink in comparison to the flashy spectacles of Hollywood.

The Merit of Philip K. Dick

It seems apt that this article also be guilty of beginning with adaptation, and ending with P.K.D. himself. In all this talk of replication and adaptation, the value of reading P.K.D. at all might be lost. What can P.K.D. give us that film and television adaptations of his work cannot - or, perhaps, will not?

For starters, our author deals with a lot of hard-hitting and troubling subject matter. Do Androids Dream is bleak and strange, and offers the reader no easy answers about humanity. The characters are often unlikeable, at least insofar as they differ from the protagonist we have been conditioned into seeing in Hollywood. There is no fixation on free will; no clear cut triumph of good over evil; no brooding, charismatic anti-hero badasses.

Instead, P.K.D. draws attention to hidden depths beneath the surface of mundanity. The Deckard of P.K.D.’s imagination is painfully normal. There is no grand narrative arc in which our bachelor conquers love and ‘gets the girl’ as Deckard is already trapped in an unhappy marriage, and saddled with a job he’s not even that good at. In spite of his ostensibly mundane characterisation, his introspection offers us interesting philosophical musings on morality and humanity.

Meaning in the Mundane

These depths are not just afforded to conscious beings, but also to concepts. Take, for example, this passage ruminating on effect of silence on a room:

“Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-towall carpeting. It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn't worked in all the time Isidore had lived here.

From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling. It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it — the silence meant to supplant all things tangible. Hence it assailed not only his ears but his eyes; as he stood by the inert TV set he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive. Alive!”

Here, P.K.D. taps into the unexplored life of the quotidian, the latent energy which something as empty as silence can be imbibed with. These differences between P.K.D. and his Hollywood adaptors are crucial in pinpointing what we might, in this age of repetition and homogeneity, take from an author writing fifty years ago.

In the words of Le Guin, a contemporary of P.K.D., “There are no heroes in Dick’s books, but there are heroics […] what counts is honesty, constancy, kindness, and the patience of ordinary people”. While Hollywood churns out the same tried and tested (and tired) money-making superhero film once a year, I would argue that the 21st century needs a bit more of P.K.D.’s honesty, constancy, kindness, and patience.

For more on Philip K. Dick's adaptability, check out these articles from Medium  and The Guardian.

If you liked this article, check out this list of recommendations for exploring the sub-genres of science fiction, or this retrospective on the works of Italo Calvino.

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