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.