Hollywood has a crush on Philip K. Dick. There have been 11 adaptations based on Dick's fiction so far with no signs of a slowdown. Just this year saw the release of The Adjustment Bureau (based on "The Adjustment Team"), and, if reports are true, adaptations for "The King of the Elves" and Ubik are in the works, as is a remake of Total Recall.
Hollywood's infatuation with Dick is surprising for a number of reasons. As a sci-fi surrealist, Dick wrote stories that aren't filmable in a literal sense. It requires filmic imagination — and a keen sense of both the written word and cinema — to capture the feeling of Dick's ever-shifting worlds and his characters' paranoid thoughts.
That may be why adaptations so frequently stray from the original plots. Sometimes studios alter the story for the better, most often not.
The first and still best adaptation to date, Blade Runner, came very close to being a failure, and may be partially responsible for the uneven films that followed. In 1980, the Star Wars franchise was soaring. Harrison Ford, cast as protagonist Rick Deckard for Runner, was the hottest actor around. The first screenplay was action-packed, and reportedly terrible. Dick made a stink, even threatening to beat up screenwriter Robert Jaffe.
Director Ridley Scott salvaged the project, but instead of delivering the next Star Wars, he gave the studio a hi-tech noir with a trace of Burroughs (William S., not Edgar Rice). The studio forced changes, and the U.S. theatrical cut has a much more buoyant and facile ending than Scott wanted. A decade later, Scott felt compelled to release a director's cut, which removed the studio-imposed alterations.
While Runner, specifically the director's cut version, is now acknowledged as a sci-fi classic, it did poorly at the box office. Apparently that taught Hollywood to emphasize the action, which you'll note is not prominent in Dick's fiction. A string of mediocre, action blockbusters followed Runner — Screamers, Next, Paycheck, Imposter and, finally, Total Recall, the only strong film in the bunch.
Paycheck, based on a story of the same name, is a notorious example of a well-financed failure. The original short story begins with a bang: Jennings wakes up in a cruiser. He has just finished a secret two-year engineering assignment and his employers, Rethrick Construction, have erased his memory. When Jennings goes to pick up his 50,000 credits as payment, he finds his former self has instead left seven seemingly worthless items — including a bus ticket and half a poker chip — instead of the money. The film's star-studded cast includes Aaron Eckhart, Uma Thurman, Paul Giamatti and Ben Affleck. The studio handed director John Woo a strong original story and some notable actors. Yet it is a film that should be avoided at all costs.
Paycheck is the quintessential botched Dick adaptation, but its problems recur in others. Studios like to take Dick's troubled main characters and transform them into heroic leads, and many adaptations suffer from Horrible Leading Man Syndrome. The list reads like past Razzie "winners" for Worst Actor: Ben Affleck, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nicolas Cage, Keanu Reeves.
The successful movies use Dick's ideas as a foundation. Dick was as committed to his fictional worlds as any author, and good adaptations try for the same. Only A Scanner Darkly is entirely faithful to the original story. The best are at least faithful to the original concept.
Total Recall, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau are good to excellent films. They all add plot turns and action, but they're imbued with that sense of unease, that fear of peering around the corner, that's true Dick.
Not surprisingly, Blade Runner is the best at balancing the original story — in this case, the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — with the adaptive liberties. A future war has left Earth scorched by radiation. Those who can escape to off-world colonies do. On the Earth vividly realized by Scott, smoke stacks emit terrifying plumes of fire, and weird pedestrians, dangerous androids among them, walk along the city's dingy streets.
While Total Recall goes off on its own tangent early in the film, the essential fact that this man's mind was altered is, at least, maintained throughout. In Paycheck, a similar idea is deployed, but only as an excuse to have chase scenes and blow shit up.
Thankfully, Dick adaptations have been trending upward in quality. And Michel Gondry's filmography suggests that he might be a surrealist up to the task of making a worthy adaptation to one of Dick's best, Ubik.