Philip K. Dick's Messy, Mindbending Cinematic Legacy

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The prolific science-fiction writer inspired three decades' worth of sci-fi films, but most, like Total Recall, depart wildly from his stories.

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Columbia Pictures, Citadel

"We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," the Philip K. Dick short story that inspired both Arnold Schwarzenegger's and Colin Farrell's Total Recall films, opens with a short, clean sentiment: "He awoke—and wanted Mars." Moviegoers who want Mars, which served as the setting for 1990's blockbuster adaptation of the same story, should stick with Schwarzenegger. As with Philip K. Dick's original short story, there are no trips to Mars to be found in the Total Recall that opens Friday.

That doesn't mean the 2012 Total Recall is particularly faithful to Dick's vision, though. It's difficult to know what to call the film, which is neither a remake of Total Recall nor a re-adaptation of "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"—though it has ample shades of both. More than anything it's a filmic Frankenstein's monster, cobbled together from pieces of the original short story, the original Total Recall, and films like Blade Runner, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly.

Only one thread holds all its disparate elements together: the writings of Philip K. Dick. The new Total Recall is just the latest attempt by the the movie industry to channel the author's work, which has been the basis for many of Hollywood's all-time best science fiction films. As is fitting for a writer who loved mind-bending plot conceits, there's a paradox to his legacy: Many of the films he's inspired, like Total Recall, barely resemble his actual stories.

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Hollywood was slow to recognize the potential of Philip K. Dick's work. Though he wrote the vast majority of his most popular stories in the 1950s and '60s (and won a Hugo Award for 1963's The Man in the High Castle) the only adaptation of Dick's work released during his lifetime was an episode of the Twilight Zone-esque British series Out of This World, which used his 1953 short story "Impostor" as a template. It wasn't until 1982 that Dick's oeuvre received its first—and best—cinematic adaptation: the sci-fi noir Blade Runner, which was inspired by Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Though Dick died just months before the release of Blade Runner, he got the chance to see early footage, and was so impressed by the film's visual style that he wrote a letter saying that his "life and creative work were justified and completed." In the last lines of the letter, he predicted that Blade Runner would be "one hell of a commercial success." He was wrong. Blade Runner barely grossed enough in theaters to cover the cost of its production, and was trounced at the box-office by the summer's other science-fiction films, which included E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

But Philip K. Dick, like some of his best-known characters, had a knack for predicting the future. Though Blade Runner was underappreciated upon its release, it's now widely regarded as one of the best science-fiction films of all time by both film critics and scientists. And most importantly for Dick's long-term legacy, it introduced Hollywood to his robust, untapped, science-fiction legacy. Blade Runner may have failed to connect with mainstream audiences, but there were still 44 novels and 120 short stories ripe for big-screen adaptation.

It wasn't long before Hollywood latched onto another of them: the brief, strange "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," which was originally published in a 1966 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. After a long, troubled development process, the adaptation became the pet project of Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose presence helped earn the (very) loose adaptation of the story, Total Recall, the highest opening-weekend gross of 1990.

Fans of the Schwarzenegger-starring version of Total Recall will likely be surprised to discover some of the things that aren't in Dick's 18-page source material: a trip to Mars, a sleeper-agent wife, a mutant that grows out of a man's stomach, a three-breasted prostitute, and the immortal line, "If I'm not me, than who the hell am I?" The kernel of Total Recall is present in "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale": A man who attempts to have memories of a secret agent implanted in his brain discovers that he's already, unknowingly, a secret agent. But the story hinges on a bizarre twist, revealing—spoiler alert—that the protagonist also saved Earth from being destroyed by a group of mouse-sized aliens when he was nine years old.

The success of Total Recall, despite its infidelity to its source material, shows a funny thing about Phillip K. Dick's work: The best Dick adaptations are generally the ones that most divert from his original stories. Blade Runner strayed so far from Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? that it took three sequel novels to connect the original novel's plot to the film. 2002's Minority Report, which starred Tom Cruise (and was originally intended as a Total Recall sequel), is based on a short story that begins with its protagonist reflecting on being "bald and fat and old." And The Adjustment Bureau, the 2011 Matt Damon-starring takeoff on Dick's story "Adjustment Team," hinges on a love story between its lead protagonist and a female character that was wholly invented for the big screen. Of the many Philip K. Dick adaptations to hit theaters over the past 20 years, only 2006's underperforming (but underrated) adaptation of A Scanner Darkly has remained almost wholly faithful to Dick's original story.

The minutiae of Philip K. Dick's stories may be difficult—or even unwise—to translate to the big screen. But there's a reason that contemporary Hollywood has repeatedly returned to his work: his brilliant (and sometimes eerily prescient) thematic concerns, which raise questions that have only grown more relevant with every passing year. Blade Runner is about what it means to be human. Total Recall is about the slipperiness of personal identity. Minority Report is a meditation on the nature of free will. In the end, the great virtue of Philip K. Dick's work is its use as an arena to discuss the most important issues of our time. And Dick's great genius—as Hollywood has, to all our benefit, discovered—was adding a little sci-fi sugar to help the medicine go down.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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