'Total Recall,' 'Blade Runner' and a History of Philip K. Dick's Hollywood Legacy

'Total Recall,' 'Blade Runner' and a History of Philip K. Dick's Hollywood Legacy

Jul 30, 2012

Total Recall 2012

Total Recall arrives in theaters this week, offering audiences another big-screen adaptation of Philip K. Dick's short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale about a factory worker who gets caught up in a planet-hopping adventure after he visits a company specializing in manufactured memories.

And though the story has now spawned not one but two big-budget films – beginning with Paul Verhoeven's 1990 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger – it's hardly the only tale authored by the popular science-fiction writer to make the leap from page to screen. Over a dozen films have been based on Dick's stories, with the adaptations grossing more than $1 billion at the box office so far.

Here's a quick primer on some of the existing films based on his work, as well as some of the projects you might see down the road:


Blade Runner (1982)

The first feature-length film based on Dick's work was director Ridley Scott's famous adaptation of the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? that cast Harrison Ford as Replicant-hunting detective Rick Deckard. Set in the gritty, grimy Los Angeles of the year 2019, both the film and its source material tackled weighty issues related to the nature of humanity and the value of empathy in a futuristic world.

Initially apprehensive about Scott's interpretation of the novel, Dick eventually warmed to the project during production. Sadly, Dick died just a few months before the release of the film, which went on to earn multiple Oscar nominations and is widely regarded as one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time.


Total Recall (1990)

A loose adaptation of Dick's 1966 story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, this film languished in development hell for years and circulated through a long list of potential directors and stars – including David Cronenberg, who wanted William Hurt for the lead role (Richard Dreyfuss almost starred too) – before Arnold Schwarzenegger was finally attached to the project. Along with securing a starring role in the film, he brought on Robocop director Paul Verhoeven to craft the ultraviolent sci-fi adventure about an ordinary guy who just might be the savior of Mars... or the planet's greatest threat.

While the 1990 film differs greatly from the original story written by Dick – especially with regard to the main character, Douglas Quaid – it's been well-received by critics as a standalone film. It also generated quite a bit of controversy around the time of its release, as it was initially given an “X” rating and had to be edited down to a more palatable “R” for mainstream audiences.

Screamers (1995)

This film was based on the 1953 short story Second Variety, and relocated the setting of the tale from a post-apocalyptic Earth savaged by nuclear war to the mining planet Sirius 6B. The plot follows the inhabitants of the planet as they discover that the self-replicating military robots that turned the tide of war have evolved beyond their initial limitations, and may now be infiltrating humanity, with their sights set on escaping the planet. Peter Weller starred in the film.


Minority Report (2002)

Steven Spielberg directed this blockbuster, effects-fueled adaptation of a short story written by Dick that was first published in a 1956 issue of Fantastic Universe. Like with Total Recall, the film differed from its source material significantly in several key areas, especially the main character, who was altered to be more closely resemble the movie's star, Tom Cruise. Spielberg has indicated that more than two thirds of the film is material that didn't exist in the original story, including a drastically different final act for the film that's almost the exact opposite of how the original story ended.

According to Spielberg, "The Philip K. Dick story only gives you a springboard that really doesn't have a second or third act. Most of the movie is not in the Philip K. Dick story."


Impostor (2002)

A relatively forgettable film based on one of Dick's short stories, this project is actually the second adaptation of the 1953 short story of the same name. After the story was adapted for a 1962 British television series, it was later made into a movie starring Gary Sinise in 2002.

Both the film and its source material chronicle the experiences of a scientist who's accused of being an alien replicant with a nuclear bomb hidden in his heart, and the lengths he must go to prove his innocence.


Paycheck (2003)

Filmmaker John Woo's last American movie to date was an adaptation of Dick's 1952 story of the same name, which follows an engineer who agrees to have his memory wiped after completing a project in order to protect his client's secrets. He soon finds himself embroiled in a much larger mystery after he finishes the project and discovers that he made some questionable decisions while working on it.

The 2003 film starred Ben Affleck in the lead role, and the result was bad enough to earn the actor a Golden Raspberry Award for his performance. The film might not be very good, but Dick's original story is excellent, so don't let the big-screen flop turn you away from the source material.


 A Scanner Darkly (2006)

This eye-catching film directed by Richard Linklater uses animation over live-action video, and is based on Dick's semi-autobiographical 1977 novel of the same name. Both the film and original story chronicle the experiences of an undercover agent infiltrating a community of drug users in Orange County, California. As the agent's use of certain drugs begins to blur reality and confuse his mission, the story becomes more surreal, drawing from Dick's own experiences as an amphetamine addict in the 1970s.

Keanu Reeves stars in the film, which also features Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr., Uma Thurman and Woody Harrelson in supporting roles. The original book won several awards and is notable for being one of Dick's least "sci-fi"-like works.


Next (2007)

Nicolas Cage starred in this extremely loose adaptation of the 1954 novel The Golden Man. Rather than setting the story in a post-apocalyptic future filled with powerful mutants, the film features Cage as a man who can see a few minutes into the future – an ability that earns him unwanted attention from the government. Just about the only thing the movie shares with the original story is the name of the main character, Cris, who was actually a golden-skinned mutant in Dick's story.


The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Another loosely adapted version of one of Dick's early stories, this film starred Matt Damon as a Congressman who runs afoul of a mysterious agency charged with regulating people's lives according to a master plan. The movie used the short story Adjustment Team as inspiration, but veered far astray – though not quite as far as Next – from the original story written by Dick.

Still, the movie was received well by critics and offers a nice spin on one of Dick's earlier stories that's well worth checking out.


Everything Else...

Along with the aforementioned films, there have also been lesser-known adaptations of various other stories written by Dick, including 2010's Radio Free Albemuth and 1992's Barjo, which is based on one of his only projects that wasn't science fiction. There are also plans for upcoming films based on his short story King of the Elves and his novel Ubik, which he wrote a screenplay for himself back in 1974.

And with the exception of a few minor projects, that's the history of Philip K. Dick's stories on the big screen. Adaptations of his work have fallen all over the cinematic spectrum, so here's hoping the new Total Recall falls more in line with Blade Runner and the previous Total Recall than some of the more forgettable entries in the list.

Tell us your favorite movie inspired by a Philip K. Dick story in the comments below ...

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