Counterfeit Worlds: Philip K. Dick on Film
by Brian J. Robb
Reviewed by Jon Bastian
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Philip K. Dick is the Vincent Van Gogh of modern science fiction authors—unappreciated at the time of his far too early death, his works have since gone on to create a cottage industry and a substantial income for his estate. In the twenty-four years since Blade Runner first appeared on film, Dick has gone from being a cult hit pulp mag scribe to the most adapted science fiction author of all time.
In Counterfeit Worlds: Philip K. Dick on Film, Brian J. Robb tracks that trajectory in a breezy style that packs quite a lot of history into a very readable three hundred odd pages, and strikes the right balance. Long-time fans of Dick won’t be bored (unless they know his life history and production quirks of films adapted from his works by heart). People who don’t know Dick but are interested in writing, filmmaking and the bizarre collision between high and pop art, are well advised to read Robb’s book as a cautionary tale. After all, it took nine years from the time Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was first optioned for the movie Blade Runner to emerge, and then just as long for home video to turn what had been a box-office flop into a modern classic.
Robb’s coverage is straightforward and chronological, beginning with an intro on Dick’s effect on modern film and science fiction ideas, then continuing with a quick bio of the author—whose too-short life was far from easy, and whose travails are often reflected in his work. This is a chapter that subtly makes the argument, “You cannot be a true artist without suffering.”
Some of the more interesting sections cover the Dick adaptations nearly nobody knows—very early TV and radio versions in the second chapter, and options that have yet to turn into adaptations in the last chapter. The real meat of the book, though, deals with the major adaptations of Dick’s works—more than you might at first think.
Blade Runner led the way, but it wasn’t an easy road from book to film, and this Robb provides the Reader’s Digest version of the saga (covered at length in other books), as we watch the development and adaptation, and get hints at the versions that might have been. For example, an early choice for lead in the film was not Harrison Ford, but Dustin Hoffman. In retrospect, it reads like the setup for an SNL sketch, but in the world of ’70s film deals, it makes sense in a strange way.
The brief rundown of Philip K. Dick film adaptations is surprising if you’re not a fan. Besides Androids? turning into Blade Runner (1982), his We Can Remember It for You Wholesale became Total Recall (1990) (while the TV series Total Recall 2070 was an amalgam of both those works); his story The Second Variety became the misfire that was Screamers (1995). Adaptations that kept their original titles are Impostor (2002), Minority Report (2002), Paycheck (2003) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), and we even get a bonus hint at the possible 2007 release of Next, a Nicolas Cage project adapted from The Golden Man. To me, the most surprising adaptation is the French film Confessions d’un Barjo (1992), adapted from one of Dick’s neo-realistic, non-science fiction works, Confessions of a Crap Artist. I had never heard of it before Robb’s book, but I am now going to have to hunt it down or start a “release it on DVD” campaign.
Overall, Robb’s book is a must-read for Dick fans and writers with hopes of breaking into the Hollywood system. As a bonus, it’s profusely illustrated with images both well-known and obscure, but the pictures never feel like mere filler. My only quibble is that the binding on the trade paperback copy I received burst at about page 38, so I had to deal with keeping a couple handful of sigs from dropping out as I read the rest of the book—but that may just be a prerelease run fluke. But hey, if my biggest complaint is a few loose pages, that’s probably more of a recommendation. And seeing as how this book is a page-turner, it was probably friction that caused the damage.
Kidding aside, though, Philip K. Dick was an obscure-in-his time guy who conceived of ideas and possibilities that have come to be so common in our modern mindset that it’s almost as if he’s the one who drew up the blueprint for 21st century life. As Robb points out, this is an author who has become a recognized adjective: “phildickian”; and as he rightfully argues, by virtue of being the acknowledged godfather of the cyberpunk movement, there are a lot more films and TV shows around that owe their existence to his oeuvre than you’d think. Just a few examples: the Matrix trilogy, 12 Monkeys, Vanilla Sky, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Truman Show, many of David Lynch’s works, and on and on.
What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of reality? Can we ever trust what we perceive completely? Can we ever trust those in power? Those are just a few of the issues Dick dealt with—issues that, in the 1950s were shoved under the carpet and ignored. In the troubled ’00s, they’re the fodder of our dreams and nightmares. Philip K. Dick dreamt them first, and Robb leads us through that landscape as an able tour guide.
Again, if you don’t know his works, this is a worthwhile intro, as well as a guide to the development hell of Hollywood. Likewise, if you’re a fan, this is an invaluable addition to the library of anybody who just can’t get enough Dick.
Jon Bastian is a playwright and writer living in Los Angeles.
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