Entertainment

Ranked: Philip K. Dick Adaptations from Worst to Best

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

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 The military thinks Olham has been replaced by one of these bombs, so he goes on the run and tries to prove he's human.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.

5. Total Recall (1990)
Based on "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" (1966)

Construction worker Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) longs to visit Mars, but can't afford it. So he heads to Rekall, a company that implants false memories, to give him the imagined experience of a trip to Mars. The wrinkle is that he actually has been to Mars before: he was a secret agent who had his memories erased when he ran afoul of the sinister corporation that administers the planet's settlement. Cue chase scenes, bloody shootouts, exploding eyeballs, and a memorably grotesque mutant named Kuato. It's hard to call the movie miscast, since the finished product is so quintessentially Schwarzeneggerian, but it would have made more sense were its lead a henpecked salaryman instead of a burly action star. (An unfilmed version under a different director is rumored to have had Richard Dreyfus attached.) Still, Paul Verhoeven's first film after Robocop is inventive and unpretentious, and probably the most fun PKD adaptation ever made. "Get your ass to Mars!"

 

4. Radio Free Albemuth (2010)
Based on Radio Free Albemuth (1977)

A writer named Phil narrates the bizarre story of his friend, music producer Nicholas Brady, whose mind has been zapped by an alien satellite. Brady becomes aware of an underground conspiracy called Aramcheck that  has existed for millennia and is dedicated to overthrowing the government of a near-future police state run by Richard Nixon. Oh, and the satellite might also be God. The bizarre-sounding story gets only more intriguing when you consider that it's based on Dick's real-life religious experiences in the mid-'70s. This independently produced film has not been officially released yet, but has had some festival screenings. When it finds a distributor, audiences will be treated to what is easily the most faithful Dick adaptation to date.

 

3. Minority Report (2002)
Based on "The Minority Report" (1956)

Tom Cruise plays John Anderton, a cop in a future where crimes are predicted by precognitive mutants, and the perpetrators arrested before they can commit their crimes. The system seems to work — there hasn't been a murder since Precrime was implemented — but when the precogs predict that Anderton will commit a murder, he goes on the run and tries to prove his (future) innocence. Minority Report's unconventional five-act structure makes it feel either epic or sprawling, depending on your opinion of the finished product. But it's a well-crafted chase movie with a strong sense of atmosphere, and does a reasonably good job of transferring Dick's speculations about free will into the action-movie format.

 

2. Blade Runner (1982)
Based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)

Bounty hunter Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is tasked with tracking down and "retiring" a group of android replicants from an offworld colony that have killed their masters and snuck back to Earth. Cinema's first PKD adaptation is certainly the most influential, and its prescient, bleak cityscape has been an influence on three decades of dystopian science-fiction futures. The story is almost willfully opaque, but it's so gorgeously designed and shot that it doesn't really matter. Blade Runner's total aesthetic is unparalleled, and it's no surprise that it's still the most recognizable reference point for Philip K. Dick's writing.

 

1. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Based on A Scanner Darkly (1977)

Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), smalltime drug dealer/addict, is secretly an undercover narcotics officer named Fred. But the drug he's using — Substance D — has split his mind in two, and neither personality is aware that they're the same person. Fred is informing on himself, and doesn't know it. Richard Linklater's adaptation of what Dick called his "anti-drug novel" is especially notable for its visual technique — it was shot with live actors, then painstakingly computer animated to produce a distinctive sense of altered reality. The end result captures the novel's mood perfectly, and if Reeves' performance is a bit flat, it only makes sense — after all, his character's emotions have been deadened by drugs. No other adaptation so thoroughly translates the unsettling atmosphere of Dick's writing to the screen.