Philip K. Dick's Messy, Mindbending Cinematic Legacy

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.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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