Ranked: Movies Based on Philip K. Dick Stories

  • Publish Date: March 2, 2011
  • Comments: ↓ 9 user comments

Hollywood's go-to source for sci-fi

ImageCatching up on a Philip K. Dick story, perhaps

With roughly 121 short stories and 44 published novels to his credit, Philip K. Dick has been inspiring filmmakers and other storytellers for years. The ninth (ignoring the currently unreleased Radio Free Albemuth, and the French release of the non-sci-fi Confessions of a Crap Artist) feature adaptation of Dick’s work comes out this Friday. An adaptation of Dick's 1954 short story "Adjustment Team," The Adjustment Bureau tells the story of a politician (Matt Damon) and the forces that try to keep him from being with the woman he loves, a ballet dancer played by Emily Blunt.

Like the films below, differences exist between the original work and the film (a love story being the major addition in The Adjustment Bureau), but the questions Dick explored in his work remain in each of the film adaptations. What does it mean to be human (Blade Runner, Screamers, Impostor)? What impact does seeing or predicting the future have (Minority Report, Paycheck, Next)? What influence do drugs have on identity, and who are you if your memory has been wiped (A Scanner Darkly, Total Recall, Paycheck)?

These questions -- along with alternate realities, pervasive paranoia, and existential panic -- continually appear, and even though the resulting films have been wildly inconsistent, they’re never boring. And fans can expect filmmakers to continue to be inspired by Dick’s work. In fact, Ridley Scott is producing an adaptation of Dick's alternate-history novel The Man in the High Castle for the BBC, and director Michel Gondry announced just two weeks ago that he’s planning an adaptation of the author's acclaimed 1969 novel Ubik for 2013.

Philip K. Dick Adaptations, from Worst to Best

8. Impostor 33 (2002) Add to Netflix Queue
based on "Impostor" (1953)

"It essentially uses the setup of an early Dick short story as a bookend to one long, dull chase scene."

--Keith Phipps, The Onion A.V. Club

Impostor is set in the year 2079, when the Earth is in the midst of a 45-year-old war with aliens from Alpha Centauri. Spencer Olham (Gary Sinise) is a military scientist who has created a weapon that could win the war, until Major Hathaway (Vincent D’Onofrio), of the Earth Security Agency, arrests him on suspicion of being a cyborg in service of the aliens. After a daring (and surprisingly easy) escape, Olham tries to prove his innocence with the help of his wife Maya (Madeleine Stowe). The film was originally intended to be one third of a trilogy of short films, and it shows. The solid cast cannot overcome a padded story, low budget, and generic directing. The film failed at the box office as well as with critics.

How it compares to the story: Since the film is based on a story that is quite short, changes and additions go way beyond the typical character name changes. The main themes of the story are intact, but Olham’s escape from Hathaway (Peters in the story) is completely different, and the role of Olham’s wife (Mary in the story) has been increased in the film. In addition, the middle section of the film in which Olham buddies up with a “zoner” named Cale (Mekhi Phifer) does not occur in Dick’s original story.

7. Next 42 (2007) Add to Netflix Queue
based on "The Golden Man" (1954)

"Next is clearly an attempt at a puzzle movie, one of those brainteaser pictures that lures viewers into another dimension, but it doesn't have the momentum, the quick-wittedness, to keep us wondering what's going to happen next."

--Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com

In Next, Nicolas Cage stars as Cris Johnson, a clairvoyant who can see two minutes into his own future. His powers are wanted by FBI Agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore) to help find a nuclear bomb before it blows up Los Angeles, but the key to his success might be Liz (Jessica Biel), who allows Cris to see further into the future. The film failed to impress critics or moviegoers with the ludicrous story and Cage’s hair taking the most blame (though foreign receipts did more than triple the domestic box office gross).

How it compares to the story: Loosely based might be putting it kindly, so Philip K. Dick shouldn’t take any heat for the Next screenplay. His original story shares only the lead character’s name and his ability. That is all. Instead of a sci-fi thriller about a nuclear bomb, Dick's tale is a grim look at the future where Cris Johnson is a mutant, a golden (literally) god, irresistible to women and a danger to the human race.

6. Paycheck 43 (2003) Add to Netflix Queue
based on "Paycheck" (1953)

"The amazing thing about John Woo's steely, impersonal adaptation of Philip K. Dick sci-fi story about a tech genius whose memory is erased ... is how it vanishes in front of our eyes even as we watch it."

--Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly

On the surface, one might expect a film with a cast that includes Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart, and Paul Giamatti to have a successful release. Affleck’s The Sum of All Fears had grossed over $110 million in 2002, Thurman was coming off the success of Kill Bill Vol. 1, Eckhart was only a few years past his turn in Erin Brockovich, and Giamatti was praised just months before for his work as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor. But this story of a reverse engineer who rents himself out to companies for a huge paycheck only to have his memory wiped once he’s completed the work could only muster $53 million in the U.S. Should director John Woo and his doves take the blame? Possibly. Paycheck is the film that ended Woo’s 10-year Hollywood run, but many reviewers focused on Affleck’s performance, and when teamed with his other 2003 roles in Gigli and Daredevil, only one result was possible - a Razzie for worst actor of the year.

How it compares to the story: Paycheck sticks to the basics of Dick’s short story. Instead of being an electrical engineer as he is in the original story, Jennings (Affleck) is a reverse engineer, taking a finished product and reconfiguring it for another company. The clues Jennings leaves himself have also been updated. In the story he gets seven items, including a bus token, a ticket stub, a half broken poker chip, but in the film he sends himself twenty items such as a pack of cigarettes, hairspray, sunglasses, a lighter, and other things that aid in his survival. And again the ending is changed; let's just say that Affleck and Eckhart don’t come to the same understanding as the characters in the short story.

5. Screamers n/a (1996) Add to Netflix Queue
based on "Second Variety" (1953)

"The look and the basic plot elements are not original, but what makes the film somewhat intriguing is its 'Blade Runner'-like ambiguity: who is, and who isn't, a human being."

--Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Screamers takes place in 2078 on planet Sirius 6B, a mining colony, where war between the New Economic Block (N.E.B.) and the Alliance has been raging for years. To win the war, the Alliance created "screamers," or “Autonomous Mobile Swords,” that burrow just underground and then attack anything with a heartbeat, but what Colonel Hendricksson (Peter Weller) discovers is that these machines have adapted, and self-replicated into multiple forms including that of a human. So who can he trust as he attempts to escape the planet? Weller, Buckaroo Banzai himself (and let's not forget Robocop), can’t save this low budget action film from a clunky ending and average special effects, but the movie did receive three Genie (Canadian Film Award) nominations for art direction/production design, original score, and supporting actor (Ron White). It even produced a straight-to-video (in the U.S. at least) sequel, Screamers: The Hunting.

How it compares to the story: In the original short story, the Cold War has degenerated into an all out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Earth is a wasteland, there is no mining colony on Sirius 6B, and it is not so far into the future. The United Nations are the creators of “claws,” not “screamers,” and they threaten to eradicate humanity. To avoid spoilers, we’ll just say that the ending of the short story is a bit darker than the movie’s convoluted happy/foreboding ending.

4. Total Recall 57 (1990) Add to Netflix Queue
based on "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" (1966)

"Too bad director Paul Verhoeven lets brainless violence and tricky special effects swamp the cleverness of the tale itself."

--David Sterritt, Christian Science Monitor

Even though Arnold Schwarzenegger had previous success (The Terminator, Predator, Twins), it was Total Recall that was his first action blockbuster - making almost $120 million domestically and another $140 million worldwide. The film was so successful that a remake will hit theaters August 3, 2012, in which Colin Farrell will star and Len Wiseman (Live Free or Die Hard) will direct. Original director Paul Verhoeven, coming off the success of Robocop, was able to combine social commentary, cutting-edge special effects, hard core action, and a twisting plot to keep the audience guessing about what is real and what is just an implanted memory.

How it compares to the story: In the short story, Douglas Quail (Quaid in the film) never leaves Earth. So everything that happens on Mars is an invention of the screenwriters. While this is a majority of the movie, the setup of the short story -- Quail going to Rekall to get a memory of Mars implanted in his brain -- is used as a jumping off point for the film.

3. A Scanner Darkly 73 (2006) Add to Netflix Queue
based on A Scanner Darkly (1977)

"It's one of the most faithful movie adaptations of any Dick story to date, and it comes from the scariest of all his books, as well as the truest."

--Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune

The most faithful adaptation of any Philip K. Dick story was a critical success if not a commercial one. For his adaptation, director Richard Linklater used an animation technique known as interpolated rotoscoping, as he did on Waking Life, to give the film a drug addict’s haze and an elastic sense of reality and hallucination. The film centers on Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover cop and Substance D addict, and the addicts he lives with as he attempts to discover their supplier. Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson play his drug addict friends, and Winona Ryder plays Arctor’s girlfriend/drug dealer/informer (it’s a confusing relationship).

How it compares to the story: The fact that Linklater decided to do a close adaptation of the novel tells us he wasn’t concerned with appealing to a mass audience. Some ancillary scenes from the book -- Barris (Downey Jr. in the film) researching mushrooms as hallucinogens, a visit to a friend of Arctor’s while on a road trip -- were most likely cut for time, but many scenes come straight from the book to the screen.

2. Minority Report 80 (2002) Add to Netflix Queue
based on "The Minority Report" (1956)

"Ferociously intense, furiously kinetic, it's expressionist film noir science fiction that, like all good sci-fi, peers into the future to shed light on the present. "

--David Ansen, Newsweek

Looking at their body of work, one might not expect a pairing of Steven Spielberg and Philip K. Dick to work, but a balance seems to have been struck between their differing styles, allowing Minority Report to be embraced by both critics and audiences. Many praised Spielberg’s fully realized vision of the future, strong visual effects, and a plot that keeps the action moving and the audience guessing. Minority Report is also the first time Spielberg worked with Tom Cruise, and most agree that he coaxed a solid performance out of a star coming off one of his least liked films (Vanilla Sky).

How it compares to the story: While the basics of Philip K. Dick’s story remain -- John Anderton, an officer in Precrime, goes on the run when the precogs predict that he will murder someone -- the film softens much of Dick’s story. The story’s John Anderton (50 and balding) does not join Precrime because his son was kidnapped, but instead is actually its creator. The precogs of the story are mutants with big heads and shriveled bodies and elicit no sympathy from Anderton, and the ending of the story is quite different, leaning on murder instead of suicide to find resolution.

1. Blade Runner 88 (1982) Add to Netflix Queue
based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)

"The grafting of 40s hard-boiled detective story with SF thriller creates some dysfunctional overlaps, and the movie loses some force whenever violence takes over, yet this remains a truly extraordinary, densely imagined version of both the future and the present, with a look and taste all its own. "

--Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

Released multiple times into theaters in multiple versions over the past 28 years, Blade Runner has become the quintessential Philip K. Dick adaptation. However, the film was not widely loved by critics or the public upon its initial release, and now that Ridley Scott's film has reached cult classic status, opinions vary on which version is best. Some love Harrison Ford’s voiceover; some loathe it. Some embrace the “happy ending” of the Theatrical Cut; some prefer the ambiguous ending of the Director’s Cut and the Final Cut. Whichever version one prefers, most agree that Blade Runner is the best film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s work.

How it compares to the story: This is a time when reading the novel and watching the film are equally rewarding due to the different directions each take. There are too many differences to name here, but a few interesting ones include the nature of the replicants and Deckard’s home life. In the film, the replicants are incredibly strong, intelligent, and grappling with emotions, but in the novel, they lack that complexity, and while Deckard is a single, retired cop in the film, the novel presents him as a regular cop who wants to make his wife happy. The film also ignores themes involving animals (real and unreal) and religion (Mercerism) which are important in the novel.

What do you think?

What are your favorite Philip K. Dick adaptations? Are you a fan of any of the original stories? Are you looking forward to The Adjustment Bureau? Let us know in the discussion section below.

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (9)

  • Maxim  

    Minority Report is VASTLY superior to Blade Runner.

  • Jim  

    I've seen Minority Report three times and I'm not sure 80 covers it. Sure the resolution is a tad hackneyed but there is loads of brilliant storytelling stuffed into those 2 1/2 hours (which whizz past). It is a great Spielberg flick, no doubt at all. I'll have to watch Blade Runner again to be convinced that it is superior, and I look forward to that, too.

  • Chip  

    I always cry near the end of Blade Runner when Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) releases the pigeon. Absolutely one of my top 5 movies of all time in any genre.

  • Phil  

    Thanks for the great article! Great presentation and execution.

  • rer  

    These movies were not very true adaptations of the books to say the least. However, they generally focused on the most interesting ides repeatedly used by Dick in his novels - the identity of ourselves and people (?) around us and what makes us human. That is what makes these adaptations great.

  • Robert  

    Blade Runner has nothing in common with the novel. In fact, both the screenwriter and the director didn't like PKD's book. The movie took very few and small elements from the books. Ironically, besides A Scanner Darkly and maybe Screamers, most of the PKD movies are really departing from the source material and yet there are some movies, like Tery Gilliams science fiction movies and movies like Truman Show that remind me of PKD's work. More than the actual movie adaptations.

  • Mike McCracken  

    #1 Minority Report
    #2 Blade Runner
    #3 Total Recall
    Great article, Keith. You're one of the few I know who has read all of these. Hopefully The Adjustment Bureau won't suck!

  • Sean  

    I think saying that Blade Runner ignores animals is a bit of an overstatement. They are both there symbolically (the owl) and as plot devices (the snake.) While it's not as heavy of an involvement as "Electric Sheep", it's certainly present.

    Lovely article, though. Shame about the track record. Dick deserves better.

  • the choff  

    Absolutely love Screamers. Yeah its got some weak writing and the ending does leave something to be desired, but i loved the setting and the odyssey like journey weller and the other kid make into enemy territory. Plus i was pretty young when i saw it, and those screaming kids creeped me the hell out.

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