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Thursday, Nov. 30, 2006

Hollywood relishes rehashing Philip K. Dick's pulp fiction

Special to The Japan Times

Science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick imagined all sorts of fantastic futures, with alien satellites beaming information into people's heads, a drug that dissolved time, and even a Ganymedan slime mold named Lord Running Clam.

But one thing that his fevered imagination could not conceive would be the present: Phil Dick, hot in Hollywood.

Dick died in March of 1982, his health giving out after a history of methamphetamine abuse, shortly before the first Hollywood adaptation of one of his novels, "Blade Runner" (based on his book "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?"), hit theaters. Even if he had lived to see it, he would undoubtedly have remained sanguine about his prospects. Dick, accustomed to a life of checks bouncing at the 7-11 and cranking out novels for cash flow, had been paid only $2,500 for the option, and the film -- though now revered as a classic -- did poorly both critically and at the box office.

And yet December sees the release of the seventh Dick-based adaptation for the big screen, "A Scanner Darkly," and Dick remains hotter than ever, with several more of his stories in development, not to mention a biopic, which will star Paul Giamatti ("Sideways").

"Scanner" is by far the most faithful adaptation of a Dick novel. In fact, you could say it's the first. The normal impulse with Hollywood has been to take Dick's stories and turn them into action-packed, effects-heavy romps. And yet Dick's best work -- books like "Ubik," "Scanner," "Valis" and "The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch" -- remained focused on ontological suspense. As Dick himself put it, "What is trying to be expressed is this: The world is not real. Reality is not stranger than you suppose, it's stranger than you can suppose."

"Blade Runner," directed by a then up-and-coming Ridley Scott in 1982, remains the best compromise between Hollywood's values and Dick's.

The stunning look of the film can be traced to visual designer Syd Mead (who based the look on Tokyo), while the future-noir feel was something Scott added, along with many of the acrobatic action sequences. But this didn't put off Dick, who saw the rushes before he died and thought favorably of them.

Dick had long understood the technique of slipping serious elements into pulp-fiction content, and "Blade Runner" -- despite jettisoning much of Dick's "Do Androids Dream . . ." -- retained many of the themes dear to Dick. The false memories implanted in the Replicants, the religious undertones in the androids' search for their creator both came from the book. And the idea that the android-hunting cop, Deckard, may be an android himself -- something not far removed from "Scanner" -- was typical of Dick's suspicious view of authority.

Many Dick films were to follow: "Total Recall" (with Arnold Schwarzenegger, about as far from the everyman protagonists of Dick as you can get), "Minority Report," "Paycheck," and B-movie fare like "Screamers" and "Impostor."

One thing all these movies share is that they were based on Dick's short stories, not his novels, and almost entirely on works from before his career hit its most fertile period in the late '60s. One suspects this is because early Dick made more concessions to "normal" rockets-and-rayguns sci-fi, or maybe that short stories prove more malleable for a committee of screenwriters to reshape.

Yet even here, the Dickian elements seep through: The paranoia of being hunted down for a crime you had only thought of committing in "Minority Report," or the top government scientist in "Impostor" who's trying desperately to convince people he isn't an android suicide bomber but a real, normal human -- until he blows up in their faces.

Arguably, the most Dickian films out there don't even have him in the credits. A few are so close as to be called direct lifts: "The Truman Show," with its idea of one man living in a seemingly normal but secretly constructed world that centers around him, is straight from "Time Out Of Joint." Readers of "Ubik," meanwhile, will have no problem guessing the identical plot twist in "Vanilla Sky."

"The Matrix' "s debt to Dick may be more general, but there's no denying that Dick was the person who brought Gnosticism and metaphysics to sci-fi. After a series of mystical experiences in 1974 (fictionalized in "Valis") in which he was zapped by a mysterious beam of pink light, received knowledge of future events, and had visions of first-century Rome, Dick became ever more convinced that the "space-time world matrix" -- as he referred to it -- was illusory, a hologram.

Dick could almost have been describing "The Matrix" when he wrote in his diaries about his own world view: "We fell asleep because we were induced into falling asleep; the spurious world had to be there for us to take it as real; we ourselves don't generate it . . . unless it's a maze that we built and then fell into."

Perhaps closest in spirit to Dick, however, is Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine Of The Mind," scripted by Charlie Kaufman, which sees a man trying desperately to hold onto memories of a lost lover during a procedure to erase them. The cheap sci-fi trappings on everyday reality, the idea of technologically altering the mind, the bizarre humor mixed with tragedy . . . Dick would have loved it.

And the search for a missing female half is a common thread in Dick's universe, stemming from the death, six weeks after birth, of his twin sister. It's a strand rarely seen in the sci-fi movies bearing his name, but it is central to understanding his world-view.

See related story:
Delusions that open the doorway to truth

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