Philip K. Dick is the most adapted science fiction writer, with eight novels having been transformed into movies and TV series. Some of Dick’s key elements, the questioning of what is real, what is humanity, and what is God, make it difficult to keep the original story intact. The results have been mixed; Minority Report borrowed from Dick’s short story “The Minority Report” but created its own ending. Total Recall was based loosely on “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”.
The 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is typical of Dick’s works. Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who specializes in hunting rogue androids who blend in with humanity, takes up the search to find and “retire” (read: kill) six Nexus-6 androids while dealing with a home life that is falling apart. Because androids blend in so well with the human populace, several different tests have been created to help determine who is real, including the Voight-Kampff empathy test. Deckard starts his investigation at the Rosen Industries, manufacturers of the Nexus-6 line, where he meets Eldon Rosen, head of the Rosen Association, and his neice, Rachel. Rosen insists that Deckard should give the Voight-Kampff test to Rachel. When she fails, Rosen says it’s because she grew up on a colony ship heading to Proxima that had to turn back.
Meanwhile, one of the escaped Nexus-6 androids, Pris Stratton, has moved into an apartment building with just one other occupant, J.R. Isidore. Isidore is a genetically damaged driver for an animal repair shop; his disability, brought on by radioactive fall-out, prevents him from leaving Earth. Pris befriends Isidore, and uses him to try to stop Deckard from retiring herself and her fellow escaped androids. Interwoven are elements of the setting, a post-nuclear war Earth where radiation is tracked by weather satellites, animals are artificially created because there are so few left, Mercerism where adherents can feel the suffering of Wilbur Mercer as he climbs a mountain while rocks are thrown at him, and off-world colonization.
Ridley Scott’s adaptation, Blade Runner, has had several versions. The theatrical release had Harrison Ford narrating in a voice over and a happy ending using scenes cut from The Shining. The narration was asked for by the studio and added after test audiences had trouble following the movie. An international theatrical release had more violence, including on-screen eye gouging. In 1992, a “director’s cut” – in realty, a workprint prototype – was discovered and screened at an LA film festival. The print did not have the full soundtrack with Vangelis’ music, using a temp track from Planet of the Apes instead, but was successful enough to convince Warner Bros. to create a proper director’s cut with input from Ridley Scott. This cut removed the voice over and the happy ending and added a dream sequence involving a unicorn. Scott, however, was busy at the time, so could not put his full attention on it. Finally, in 2007, he did get the time and put together the Final Cut that included some newly reshot footage and some redubbing. It is the Final Cut that will be reviewed; it is the version that is closest to what Ridley Scott wanted to make.
Blade Runner is definitely an adaption of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but the movie doesn’t adapt everything from the book. Some changes, such as the year the story is set, were made to reflect that time has passed since the book’s first release. In 1968, 1992 was a distant future, especially with the Cold War threatening to turn hot and nuclear. In 1982, while the Cold War was still happening, it was starting to build back up through tensions; nuclear war was still a possibility but not as immediate. Deckard was no longer a bounty hunter but a former police operative known as a “blade runner” who tracked Replicants who escaped to Earth. Deckard’s bounty hunter comrade, Dave Holden, became another blade runner, one still working with the police. J.R. Isidore became J.F. Sebastian, a genetic designer with Methuselah Syndrome, a genetic disease causing his body to age faster than normal. Rosen Industries became the Tyrell Corporation, with the founder’s name changing to match. Little details, mostly. Other elements were removed completely; Mercerism isn’t shown or mentioned. Deckard’s wife appears only in a photo, though no explanation was given on his marital status.
Despite the changes, the movie holds to the core of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The hunt for the androids, the Voight-Kampff empathy test, the budding humanity in the Nexus-6 escapees, Tyrell Corporation trying to create an android that can pass the Voight-Kampff test. The visual look of the movie matches the feel of the novel. Blade Runner isn’t a shot for shot adaptation; the movie is as much Ridley Scott’s vision as it is Philip K. Dick’s, but the issues examined – what is real, what is human – come through clearly in both. The end is where the two works diverge the most. In the novel, Deckard returns home to his wife after meditating in Oregon and finding a toad, Wilbur Mercer’s favorite animal. In the movie, Deckard and Rachel leave his apartment to go, well, Scott left that up to the audience.
Is Blade Runner a good adaptation? For the most part, yes, even with the changes. It helps that the movie is a visual feast. Blade Runner has inspired numerous creators, from TV and movies to video games to tabletop RPGs to music. The movie melded film noire with science fiction, predicted several trends and technologies. Blade Runner is a masterpiece on its own. As an adaptation, it picks and chooses from the original novel, taking what it can do and leaving the bits that won’t work.
Next week, the September link round up of adaptation news.