clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘Blade Runner’ Is Still the Truest Philip K. Dick Adaptation

And a reminder of why the dystopian author remains alarmingly relevant

Blade Runner is a true Philip K. Dick adaptation
Timba Smits

Ridley Scott’s original 1982 Blade Runner has no shortage of lurid and dour delights: the grimy neon blight and vertical-flamethrower jolts of its landscape, the sad-robot soliloquies of Rutger Hauer, the fraught death scenes that might involve endless giant panes of glass. But what it excludes can be just as vital as what it includes. For one thing, as a consequence of the film’s selective loyalty to its source material, we are denied a scene wherein Harrison Ford mourns the death of a goat.

The goat was a big deal to Philip K. Dick. The science-fiction deity and dystopia virtuoso’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, upon which Blade Runner is famously (and loosely) based, spends a lot of time ruminating on the animal kingdom. Mourning the animal kingdom, really. The movie adheres to the book’s basic plot: A bounty hunter named Rick Deckard (that’s Ford, and the movie calls him a “blade runner,” which is cooler) hunts for sophisticated androids called replicants (the book calls them “andys,” which is cooler) who pose as humans while skulking around a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (in the book it’s San Francisco, which is value-neutral). Deckard grimly hunts down his quarry but feels pretty lousy about it; his empathy for these androids is so pronounced that you might suspect he’s an android himself. (The movie’s ambiguity on this topic is such that to this day, Scott and Ford still occasionally have dinner together and argue about it.)

Scott’s movie, which inspired so much filmmaker vs. studio squabbling that it now exists in eight different versions, is a grouchy and queasy masterpiece, its ghastly violence spiked with even gnarlier bursts of hardcore philosophical moping. But should this week’s release of a cinematic sequel—Blade Runner 2049, in which a grizzled Ford punches the bejesus out of Ryan Gosling—inspire you to revisit both the book and the first movie, you might be surprised anew at what Blade Runner took from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and what it left out.

An electric sheep, for one thing. In the book, in which “World War Terminus” has devastated Earth and made most animal species extinct, there is no greater status symbol than owning a live creature of any sort. Deckard (who owns the lousy, low-class fake sheep) variously covets a horse, an owl, an ostrich, a raccoon, a turtle, and an ill-fated goat. It’s by far the most heartbreaking and humanizing element of a story that’s explicitly about which parts of being human can be faked, and which parts (like heartbreak) cannot. The movie is better. But the novel digs just a little bit deeper.

Philip K. Dick, who died at 53 just a few months before Blade Runner’s premiere, specialized in fantastically inventive and pessimistic visions of a future that nowadays uncomfortably resembles our technology-blighted present. His 40-plus novels and myriad short stories load up on nefarious sci-fi innovations, government- and corporate-fueled paranoia, wanton drug use, alternate universes, and plenty of intense theological despondency, too. Hollywood loves him, though the expressions of Hollywood’s love can vary radically.

You can turn your PKD adaptation into a vicious slapstick action flick, as the trashy and iconic 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Total Recall did to the mind-bending 1966 short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” (Philip K. Dick did not write the line, “See you at the party, Richter!”) You can turn it into an ominous but still crowd-pleasing popcorn flick in the style of Steven Spielberg’s 2002 smash Minority Report, the 2011 Matt Damon–Emily Blunt thriller-romance The Adjustment Bureau, or 2003’s less crowd-pleasing John Woo–Ben Affleck turkey Paycheck, all based on short stories Dick published in the ’50s.

Richard Linklater’s 2006 film A Scanner Darkly, spun off Dick’s 1977 novel, might be the most faithful translation. The half-animated look is jarring and distinct, but the book’s drug-induced ardor and despair is intact. Most recently, there is Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, which attempts to make a prestige-TV darling out of Dick’s breakthrough 1962 novel that posits an alternate history in which the Axis powers won World War II. (Fox tried to turn Minority Report into a police-procedural TV show in 2015; that was not a prestige operation, and it lasted only three months.) High Castle’s second season premiered in December 2016. Critical reaction has been mostly positive but far from rapturous, with moderate-to-faint praise of the “an interesting series rather than an absorbing one” sort.

Blade Runner, with a script by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, will likely go down as the most successful and the most critically and culturally beloved PKD adaption of all time, even if big-shot directors eventually take a shot at Ubik or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. (Dick’s books often sound suspiciously like emo song titles.) In terms of the plot—in terms of the action—Scott’s film is a huge improvement, if only because it luxuriates in Harrison Ford’s invaluable growl. In Dick’s novel, Rick Deckard is married to a woman named Iran who never leaves their apartment and is prone to saying things like, “My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression.” In the film, Deckard is a rugged bachelor who pines for no woman (and no goat), at least until he meets a beautiful replicant-who-doesn’t-know-she’s-a-replicant named Rachael.

This scene, in which Deckard gives Rachael (played by Sean Young) the fictional Voight-Kampff empathy test to determine whether or not she’s human, is by far the most faithful book-to-movie translation, down to the animal-cruelty garishness of the test’s questions and the acid bite of the dialogue. (“Is this testing whether I’m a replicant or a lesbian?” Rachael demands, in a decidedly robotic way.) But almost everything before or after this encounter turns Electric Sheep’s universe to flashier and punchier ends. Which is to say, it turns a thoughtful sci-fi dirge into something vaguely resembling an action-adventure movie.

The book has a bracing tone-poem dourness to it. Basically an entire chapter is devoted to a dead cat; there is a prolonged ideological battle between a blowhard talk-show host and a messianic religious martyr figure that the movie perhaps wisely doesn’t even try to depict or explain. A typical descriptive passage: “The morning air, spilling over with radioactive motes, gray and sun-beclouding, belched about him, haunting his nose; he sniffed involuntarily the taint of death.” At one point Deckard visits an opera house, suspecting that one of the andys is posing as one of the singers, and he finds himself so moved by a performance of The Magic Flute that a Cure album’s worth of pathos suddenly spills out:

Thinking this he wondered if Mozart had had any intuition that the future did not exist, that he had already used up his little time. Maybe I have too, Rick thought as he watched the rehearsal move along. This rehearsal will end, the performance will end, the singers will die, eventually the last score of the music will be destroyed in one way or another; finally the name ‘Mozart’ will vanish, the dust will have won. If not on this planet then another.

Morale doesn’t much improve, and then later the goat dies.

Blade Runner is not exactly a chipper affair either, and it’s definitely a seedier one. In lieu of an opera singer, there’s a snake-handling femme fatale skulking around an R-rated variant on the Star Wars cantina. But Ford’s grumpus charisma brightens the corners, and though Deckard’s investigation doesn’t exactly proceed at a breakneck pace, the replicants themselves give the movie a needed jolt in that they actually fight back. Electric Sheep’s androids get listless and sullen the very instant Deckard tracks them down, and the vast majority put up basically no fight whatsoever. Whereas onscreen you get Daryl Hannah attempting murder by gymnastics, and Brion James shooting a dude immediately after saying, “Let me tell you about my mother,” which is an awesome catch phrase whether you’re human or not.

There is also the matter of Rutger Hauer.

Hauer plays replicant ringleader Roy Batty, who technically exists in the novel, but says or does very little of consequence. In the movie, he’s a winsomely psychotic philosopher with a Johnny Rotten sneer and a propensity for slamming his fists (and/or his head) through various walls. His final scene is an all-timer. We are way off-book at this point, but in the best possible way, with the precise mixture of resigned fatalism and wild-eyed wonder that has made Philip K. Dick’s work an invaluable and eminently renewable resource.

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” Batty says, and you can imagine Dick saying that even though he didn’t write it, and you’d have believed it had Dick said it himself, about himself. Blade Runner is not the most faithful PKD adaption, but it’s somehow still the truest to his vision. It’s all the assurance you need that they’ll keep making his work into movies and TV shows, and making sequels to those movies and TV shows. No sci-fi writer dead or alive is better equipped to fight off the dust, on this planet or any other.

The Ringer-Verse

‘Star Wars: Visions’ Analysis and Awards

Tea Time

September Streaming Recommendations, Adele’s New Boyfriend, and Yet Another Britney Spears Documentary

The Big Picture

The 2021 Movie Star Ranking: 35 Under 35

View all stories in Movies