Philip K. Dick adaptations: what gives?
May 27, 2012 10:01 AM   Subscribe

Why do Philip K. Dick stories seem to get turned into movies at a high rate?

A list on wikipedia.

Is it ease of adaptation? Themes/stories that translate to the screen well? Ideas that resonate with modern audiences? Screenwriters having found a source and tapping it at a high rate? Am I just seeing a pattern that isn't there?

I'm not complaining - I love his work, and I generally like the movies. Just curious.
posted by the man of twists and turns to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think that after Bladerunner, he became a bankable name. Or at least he was viewed as such by movie producers, who thought that his name on the movie advertisement would bring in customers.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:03 AM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Brilliant & thought-provoking ideas in gritty, tangible settings.
posted by Aquaman at 10:26 AM on May 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Am I just seeing a pattern that isn't there?

Here's a couple points of comparison. This Slate article lists the most-adapted authors. And this page looks at sci-fi adaptations.
posted by audi alteram partem at 10:47 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

The above reasons, plus he's dead & therefore can't complain about how those numbskulls in Hollywood are mangling his books.
posted by easily confused at 10:52 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

One of the reasons may be that he wrote a very, very large number of short stories so there's a lot of material to choose from. Another is that his sci-fi tends to be more about people than about hardware and spectacular landscapes, or are at least less dependent on hardware and spectacular landscapes to work properly on screen than other authors, which means smaller movie budgets (as far as sci-fi budgets go). In the list of adaptations, half are set in contemporary or near-contemporary future (one is set in French suburbia and one one has hats as the main fantasy element).
posted by elgilito at 10:54 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

one has hats as the main fantasy element

which one's that?
posted by jepler at 11:19 AM on May 27, 2012

He's also what Hollywood people like to call High Concept.
posted by steinsaltz at 11:20 AM on May 27, 2012

Best answer: Echoing the above, Hollywood loves a known quantity (witness the sequels and adaptations clotting up the big screen), and after Blade Runner, Dick became a known quantity. And Blade Runner is basically a noir detective story, except some of the people are replaced with replicants... who look exactly like people (and that's not just a cost-cutting measure, that's the point). So it's easy to film, rather than something fantastic.

He tended to write shorter works, more the size of a film. And they were generally unconnected; a lot of SF authors write trilogies, or cycles, or set everything in one world. So they won't be considered as three possible books to adapt; if the first book doesn't work, the others won't either.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:32 AM on May 27, 2012

As said, there's Blade Runner to trade off of, plus he's got a big back catelogue of work, much of it short fiction wth a solid hook that it's easy to hang a standard action movie around.
posted by Artw at 11:39 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

plus he's dead & therefore can't complain about how those numbskulls in Hollywood are mangling his books.

Dick's literary executors have expectations and lawyers.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:49 AM on May 27, 2012

which one's that?
The Adjustment bureau. This was not in the short story obviously (wearing hats in 1954 was not exactly unusual), but the setting is typically, "normally" Dickian and much easier and cheaper to translate on screen than Foundation or, well, A Princess of Mars (70 years of development hell ending in a flop).
posted by elgilito at 11:57 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Dick is one of the few SF writers who wrote so much short fiction, which lends itself better to adaptation, in addition to gaining fame for his novels and such. And indeed, steinsaltz, he's a writer of High Concept fiction, and successfully sustains the concept for the duration (which is the challenge of high concept fiction). The other thing is that most High Concept ideas create a new universe where people live with the HC in a way radically altered from how people lived without it. That can inspire a lot more than even a very good plotline in a familiar universe.

To give another example besides Dick, the other great source of High Concept SF for television and movies tends to be The Twilight Zone, which cherrypicked the world of SF shorts for great material and was then dramatized by a master in the form of Rod Serling.

This is True Science Fiction, where Humanity is Challenged by Itself in either a literal or allegorical sense. The conflict is created by one's conflicting inner drives that're usually realized as outside elements.

Dick was also reputedly a paranoiac, and paranoia must be one of his most common themes. It also resonates with audiences, either as people who fear being watched, or people out there who Know Too Much About You, or even people who Pull All the Strings.
posted by Sunburnt at 1:19 PM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ideefixe --- sure, his literary executors have lots of lawyers, but ain't nobody can get their ire up like the actual artist who feels they have been Done Wrong: I'm sure the executors and the lawyers are all more interested in increasing sales figures far more than they worry about Artistic Truth and Vision and all that.
posted by easily confused at 2:30 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Dick wrote stories which were mostly concept. The writing itself is not full of standout lines that anyone will miss; rather the stories consist of a framework of characters around a concept that is interesting.

If you read the whole of his works, he seems to have recognized this himself -- he recycles characters shamelessly, teleporting them from serious fiction to s/f in a few cases. The stories are often situational (Eye in the Sky, Ubik, ...).

He has a number of works which simply will not work as movies -- I'm not sure how you could make a movie of Clans of the Alphane Moon - but an awful lot of them (our friends from frolix 8, the world jones made, ...) are short, simple, and easy to convert by dropping side plots.
posted by rr at 3:10 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

> he's dead & therefore can't complain about how those numbskulls in Hollywood are mangling his books

I find Dick's stories tend to work better as movies. The ideas were excellent, but his writing is often very dated and obviously "50s sci-fi". And he rivals Stephen King when it comes to disappointing endings.
posted by cardioid at 4:09 PM on May 27, 2012

All of the above ... And the Dick estate (can't believe I just wrote that), dba Electric Shepherd Productions, has aggressively marketed his works to Hollywood. It's not terribly expensive to license his stuff, compared to other authors. It's good stuff that doesn't cost an arm and a leg, in Hollywood's view of these sorts of things.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:58 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think another reason that his work seems to be so ripe for modern movie-making is that he wrote about themes that really fit well with the present fears and worries of a modern audience. As was mentioned above, his adapted stories are often about a watcher or a controller, someone who knows more than you do about not only your environment but yourself. In this day, when we blithely hand out our personal information to any social media site that comes along, we have to wonder who knows what. If we're lucky, they're benevolent. But probably not.

Also, he tended to deal a lot with the nature of identity and reality, where characters weren't sure where they were or even who they were. Again, I think there's been such an explosion in identity choices over the last few decades that it's entirely possible to ask "Who am I?" and not be able to come up with an answer that you're entirely satisfied with. And even so it's child's play to change your identity or hide your identity (except, of course, from the aforementioned Watchers. You may not know who you are - but they do.)
posted by MShades at 8:02 PM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

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