Ranked: Philip K. Dick Adaptations from Worst to Best

We commissioned a PKD expert to review Blade Runner, Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, and more.

By Gabriel Mckee

Philip K. Dick's mindbending science-fiction writing has inspired many Hollywood projects, including this month's The Adjustment Bureau. Said adaptations have ranged widely in fidelty to their souce material; they've also ranged widely in quality. To assess them, we brought in critic Gabriel Mckee, author of Pink Beams of Light from the God in the Gutter: The Science-Fictional Religion of Philip K. Dick.

10. Next (2007)
Based (nominally) on "The Golden Man" (1954)

When adapting a story, this is what not to do. Dick's story is about a silent, golden-skinned mutant who can foresee and choose between the infinite possible outcomes of his actions, but has utterly sacrificed his humanity to animal instinct. Next somehow turns this into a story in which Nicolas Cage plays a psychic stage magician on the run from the FBI. The film throws out every single aspect of the story it's ostensibly based on, including the title; it's a mystery why they bothered paying for the story rights at all. This would be forgivable if it were a good movie. It's not.

 

9. Paycheck (2003)
Based on "Paycheck" (1953)

Ben Affleck plays an engineer who has his memory erased every time he finishes a project; it's the ultimate confidentiality agreement. He wakes up from a particularly mysterious assignment to find he's signed away his savings, leaving himself only an envelope full of what appear to be worthless items. This naturally makes him curious about what the project was, so he infiltrates the corporation that hired him, a task for which he needs — aha! — the assorted detritus he left himself in that mystery envelope. In the process, he gets chased a lot, and some things explode. Paycheck isn't so much bad as drab, but maybe it's appropriate that a movie about erased memories should be so forgettable.

 

8. Impostor (2002)
Based on "Impostor" (1953)

Spencer Olham (Gary Sinise) is a government official who designs weapons for use in a war against vicious alien invaders from Alpha Centauri. The aliens have started using an insidious new tactic: sending android bombs that look and act human to the planet's surface, where they can infiltrate sensitive targets and explode. The military thinks Olham has been replaced by one of these bombs, so he goes on the run and tries to prove he's human. If the film feels a bit uneven, it's because it was expanded from a forty-minute short intended as one third of an anthology. Sinise is a believably Dickian everyman, but the movie doesn't dig quite deep enough into its questions about identity.

 

7. Screamers (1995)
Based on "Second Variety" (1953)

Peter Weller plays a military commander on a distant mining colony where robots have teamed up and turned against their human creators, decimating the population and laying waste to the planet's surface. The few human survivors have taken to hiding out in underground bunkers, which means the robots have started getting devious. They've designed new android bodies for themselves that the humans will trust — that ten-year-old boy clutching a teddy bear is actually a robotic killing machine. In other words, this Canadian-produced action flick is a B movie. But it's a pretty good one, and it adequately translates the menace of Dick's original story.

 

6. The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
Based on "Adjustment Team" (1954)

Politician David Norris (Matt Damon) has just lost his first Senate campaign. A chance encounter with an impulsive young woman (Emily Blunt) inspires him to improvise an unforgettable concession speech that sets him on a path to the Presidency. He encounters her again a few days later, but it seems the forces governing our world didn't intend him to see her again. Before he knows it he's being followed by mysterious figures in fedoras who can bend reality to their will. Norris has deviated from "the Plan," and his dogged insistence on following his heart may be putting the future of the world at risk. Adjustment Bureau bears little resemblance to its source material, but it's definitely clever. Still, at points it gets a bit silly — the aforementioned fedoras have magic powers, for one thing — and it can't escape feeling a bit like a rom-com remake of Dark City.

Commentarium (42 Comments)

Mar 16 11 - 8:12am
rm.

between 1 & 2 is a really tough call. I think a scanner darkly is a great movie, but I really think blade runner is better as it is a Classic Film as well as a well done adaptation.

Mar 16 11 - 9:59am
Matt

@rm, I agree, I think Blade Runner is a better/more enjoyable movie on its own merits, but A Scanner Darkly is more faithful to its source material, both are well worth watching a few more times.
Also, "get your ass to Mars." Classic.

Mar 16 11 - 10:08am
ldzw

This was good.

Mar 16 11 - 1:33pm
BrosephofArimathea

Scanner Darkly... riigght. Official power ranking: Blade Runner, Total Recall, everything else

Mar 16 11 - 3:15pm
Eman

There is no reason why Blade Runner shouldn't be first on this list.

Mar 16 11 - 4:21pm
GBH

Damn, I wish PKD was still around and writing today.

Mar 16 11 - 5:15pm
Me

Either my comment was deleted, or I forgot to hit submit. Anyway, Metacritic did this a few weeks ago, although the Metacritic version has fewer movies. I've also never seen any of these movies except Blade Runner, so I don't know which list is better.

Mar 16 11 - 9:52pm
nope

I definitely saw it and then I checked out the Metacritic list. I think I prefer this one just because I fucking loved A Scanner Darkly.

Mar 16 11 - 6:34pm
steve

Blade Runner's gotta be number one. A masterpiece. Still, A Scanner Darkly is an interesting choice--it's got a really unique feel--and this is a really interesting list overall.

Mar 16 11 - 10:06pm
Me

Thou shalt not use quantitative modifiers on words like "unique"!

Mar 16 11 - 11:35pm
steve

Touche!

Mar 16 11 - 7:04pm
angrynurse

what? no mention even of AI?!

i am crestfallen.

Mar 16 11 - 7:21pm
tmp

not based on a PKD story.

Mar 16 11 - 8:30pm
CarlyQ

Yeah, AI was based upon Brian Aldiss' short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long"

Mar 16 11 - 11:29pm
angrynurse

yeah, i read it years ago. why all this time did i think it was pkd? i feel really stupid. sorry.

Mar 16 11 - 9:22pm
TwL

Why haven't they made "The Man in the High Castle" yet? It would probably suck, that's why. Good list.

Mar 16 11 - 10:36pm
PeterSmith

Apparently there's a TV series adapting it on the way.

Apr 06 11 - 3:53pm
Elizabeth Karr

Ridley Scott is producing adaptation of Man In The High Castle for BBC.

Mar 16 11 - 9:49pm
Vinegar Bend

Blade Runner is the clear #1 choice

Mar 17 11 - 12:46am
mark

I'm sorry, "Screamers" absolutely and resolutely sucked. It was an utterly wretched waste of film and money and a shame to PKD. "Total Recall" was a blast. Loved it. I'm with the top 5 I supposed, not having seen #4 as yet, but it sure looks interesting. I'd call "Bladerunner" PKD derived, as even the title was lifted from William Burroughs; while LA looked run down it didn't look like the world was turning to the kibble and the whole religious suffering angle of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" was completely dropped, as were a considerable number of other aspects of the book. It is, however, one of my favorite flicks. "Scanner Darkly" is clearly the most faithful adaptation of PKD so far, so for that I suppose it does belong in the top spot.

Mar 17 11 - 11:56am
Tyrell

I am mortified that Blade Runner was NOT ranked first. It is a cinematic masterpiece with mystery, magic and sad beauty. Anyway, I did not know there were so many PKD adaptations. Great job.

Mar 17 11 - 2:35pm
MRI

1. While recognizing that it was not a good movie, I really, actually enjoyed Next, and there is no doubt that it was a better movie than Paycheck.

2. While I really enjoyed Minority Report, calling psychics "mutants" does nothing to change the fact that Pre-Crime's method comes down to "three magic people" - not science fiction the way I enjoy it. Which raises the question, how did they plan to expand Pre-Crime? Where were they going to find more magic people?

Mar 17 11 - 4:22pm
rm

@Me
I saw your original comment yesterday; I wonder why it was deleted.

Mar 17 11 - 7:01pm
marinho poland

i think the some from 10 to 1 scanner darkly is the best DICKS adaptation but more best as a movie is Blade Runner but we must remmember that scanner darkly is more Dickian!!!

Mar 18 11 - 11:11pm
Rena

Linklarter is a pretentious douchebag. #1 my arse.

Mar 19 11 - 4:17am
k

i think the author specifically did not put bladerunner as #1 solely to generate controversy and thus more comments/press.

Mar 19 11 - 5:42pm
JL

Screamers was a good fun film I thought, though def. a B movie. Blade Runner is one of my all-time favorite movies so naturally I think it should have been #1, even though Scanner was unsettling and thought-provoking, just like a good Dick novel. Did I hear rumors of a film adaptation of Flow My Tears the Policeman Said?

Mar 21 11 - 1:52am
Chris L

Very glad the author chose Scanner Darkley- I hugely prefer it over Bladerunner. Bladerunner is a cinematically beautiful but very flawed film.

Mar 22 11 - 4:00pm
KXB

Just because "A Scanner Darkly" was filmed by hipster darling Richard Linklater, does not make it a good movie. Indeed, in terms of adaptations, I'd grade it worse than "Paycheck". Linklater was so caught up with a new style of film-making, that he neglects to move the story along. "Blade Runner" still holds the top spot.

Apr 11 11 - 11:59pm
cerlon

agreed. i really can't stand a scanner darkly...i don't get why it's the "Best"

Mar 22 11 - 9:16pm
Rick

I actually really liked Next. Sure, it deviates from the original story a great deal and Nicolas Cage is, well, Nicolas Cage, but it is still entertaining and even in some parts thought provoking. I liked the idea of the main character hiding in plain sight, living a rather mundane life, until the mysterious government agency want to use his powers (against his will) to foresee potential threats. There are also a couple of Groundhog Day-esque scenes that are pretty funny.

Mar 24 11 - 12:34pm
Jack

#8?! Impostor's 40 minute short was tight, compact and killer. Even the feature length version wasn't worthy of an "worst" ranking. Jeebus.

Mar 24 11 - 12:41pm
Jack

I liked Next. It's not like PKD's Next but it's still a decent film. I mean, Jessica Biel for frak's sake!

Apr 13 11 - 12:50am
Lovie

AFAIC that's the best ansewr so far!

Apr 13 11 - 12:53am
Ival

AKAIK you've got the asnerw in one!

Apr 13 11 - 8:12am
Jean

That's way the bestest awnser so far!

May 05 11 - 9:26pm
StuntMan Mike

I agree with this list to a point, but would move Blade Runner down a couple of slots. No offense to those who like it, but personally I found it overlong, excessively drab, and quite low key. It also changed quite a bit from the Dick story, giving a new prominence to Rutger Hauer's character, removing other major characters entirely. A Scanner Darkly is the best PKD presentation, in my opinion. Although I wouldn't mind seeing a "Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" film. That book lost me in a way nothing else ever has.

Nov 19 11 - 12:55pm
ubikchip

Blade Runner is the greatest movie ever made full stop

Its too bad she wont live.. but then again who does?

Jan 20 12 - 4:04pm
Ollie

It could be said that the main theme of The Truman Show was inspired by PKD's 'Time out of Joint', where the protagonist Ragle Gumm believes that he lives in the year 1959 in a quiet American suburb, only to discover it is actually artificially reconstructed. In reality he is in fact the center of attention for the people of earth and the key to their survival in the war against renegade moon colonists.

Jun 01 12 - 2:23am
idleprimate

Time Out Of Joint was a great and distressing story!

Jun 01 12 - 2:25am
idleprimate

Imposter ( i only saw the feature length version) was a pretty great little movie and felt very Dickian. I can't believe it is so low on the list, and that it is below the empty action dreck that was Scanners.

definitely agree with the top 3, in any order.

Jul 07 12 - 4:02pm
Addison Doug

What about "12 Monkeys"...wasn't that inspired by "The Skull"...That was a pretty good movie.