PKD Goes To The Movies
February 17, 2011

This is how not to adapt a Philip K. Dick story into a feature film:

I haven’t seen the move advertised above — it doesn’t come out until March — but it sure feels like I have. Wait, wait, don’t tell me: Matt Damon resists his fate, big third act chase scene, true love conquers all, he and Emily Blunt make out on a rooftop, fade to credits.

If the premise behind this assembly line blockbuster hadn’t been ripped from a PKD short story, then its crushing banality would be merely crushingly banal. But the fact that it has so warped the spirit and philosophy of its source material — not just the source material, but its author’s whole body of work — makes the banality sort of offensive. After all, true love doesn’t conquer all. Grown ups accept this. Sometimes people, even people who love exceptionally deeply, are just ground down by an absurd and indifferent universe. Dick spent the better part of his career writing about those people. Not the heroes with perfect Matt Damon hair — just the average folks fumbling their way through a world they can’t ever fully comprehend.

On the face of it, the bulk of Dick’s work seems ripe for the silver screen. It has the right sort of pulp intensity, the hooky appeal, the striking visuals.* Too bad basic economics works against a good adaptation. Dick usually writes about the future, and bringing the future to life in a satisfactory way tends to require money. That sort of money comes from major studios, who then demand that Sam Worthington portray the protagonist and Megan Fox his romantic interest. By the time the movie hits theaters, it’s just another beige thriller everyone will have forgotten by the time they exit the theater.

Some PKD adaptations have escaped that fate. Minority Report was pretty good, A Scanner Darkly was very good, and Blade Runner was iconic. But of those three, only A Scanner Darkly captured Dick’s characteristic mixture of bleak humor, melancholy, and hallucinatory weirdness. Whereas Minority Report distinguished itself only by being slightly smarter than most big dumb Hollywood blockbusters, Blade Runner was too dour and self-serious to convey its source material’s impish side.

But past regrets and The Adjustment Bureau aside, I think there’s hope for PKD fans. Visual effects are getting cheaper, and weird, scrappy little films are more likely to find cult followings. Plus, some of recent mainstream pop culture has become sophisticated in a way that would have been unimaginable a decade ago: to cite one example, I think Lost has proven that balls-out mindfuckery can appeal to an unexpectedly large audience.

That’s why I’m cautiously optimistic about the other Dick adaptations in the works. A BBC miniseries sounds like the ideal format for doing The Man in the High Castle. The assurances I’ve received over Twitter by the good people behind the indie Radio Free Albemuth adaptation make me think they’ll adhere closely to the spirit of the original. And while I think there’s good reason to worry that Michel Gondry is a little too light and whimsical to convey the bad-acid-trip vibe of UBIK (perhaps my favorite PKD novel besides The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), I’m excited to see what he does with it.

At the very least, I’m confident none of those will be as bad as Paycheck. And if they genuinely do justice to their inspiration, well. I think there’s tremendous value in introducing Dick’s warped vision to as wide an audience as possible. Especially now. We may not yet be controlling our own emotions with Penfield Mood Organs or (as in one of my favorite scenes in UBIK) getting into arguments with the doors to our apartments, but — details aside — we live in the world Philip K. Dick predicted.

*Hell, it’s not like all the beauty and subtlety of Dick’s writing would get lost in translation, either; as much as I love the man’s ideas, his prose had all the elegance of a drunken buffalo.

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The Man in the High Castle
October 14, 2010

The Man in the High Castle, 2001 Penguin Class...
Image via Wikipedia

Hendrik Hertzberg and Matthew Yglesias are both optimistic about BBC’s upcoming adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. As for me, I’m feeling a little more cautious, although so far the signs are good. Doing a miniseries instead of a feature film means sidestepping the awkward compression and warping into a traditional three-act structure that’s garbled many a promising adaptation, and the BBC hasn’t been known to shy away from the bleak absurdism that characterizes much of Dick’s work.

I am skeptical of Ridley Scott’s involvement, though. Blade Runner was certainly a success on its own merits, but as an adaptation of the much funnier and more inventive Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it was a failure. And the critical consensus on his recent work seems to be that it’s been pretty uniformly dour and rote.

Then again, it’s been a very long time since I read The Man in the High Castle, and maybe I’m idealizing it a bit. This was, after all, the book that introduced me to Philip K. Dick at the tender age of 13; I brought a small stack of his books with me on a long plane ride and ended up devouring each of them in rapid succession over the course of a couple of days. High Castle turned out to be an excellent introduction: the premise of this book turned out to be simpler and hookier than those of his other works, and the reality-bending weirdness that characterizes his bibliography was present but relatively subdued. Those qualities, at least, are virtually guaranteed to be present in the miniseries—that’s why it’s getting made in the first place, instead of an adaptation of, say, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Maybe if we’re lucky, it will end up being a gateway drug for a few more neurotic thirteen year-olds.

A Scanner Darkly
June 28, 2010

Drawn portrait of Philip K Dick
Image via Wikipedia

The AV Club just posted the first entry in an ongoing discussion of Philip K. Dick’s classic sci-fi novel, so take that as further incentive to read the thing if you haven’t yet.

Or actually, just read any Philip K. Dick novel if you haven’t yet. His books have their flaws—most notably clunky prose and, far worse, a pretty ugly attitude towards women—but the author has an eye for the absurd to rival Kafka’s, and a surprising tenderness directed at those trapped in absurd situations. A Scanner Darkly captures that about as well as any of his books, shifting from his trademark grim sense of humor to a conclusion that’s genuinely heartbreaking.

Incidentally, Richard Linklater’s film adaptation is also very, very good. There have been many film versions of Dick’s work in the past, and they’ve ranged from good-but-completely-detached-from-the-tone-of-the-original (Blade Runner, Minority Report) to let’s-just-pretend-that-never-happened (Paycheck, Impostor, and most likely the upcoming The Adjustment Bureau). Linklater’s adaptation is the only one I’ve seen to capture the druggy digressiveness of his novels, the surreal sense of humor, and the all-pervasive atmosphere of paranoia and existential dread that hooked me when I first picked up his work in high school.

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