Philip K. Dick: The Man And His Movies

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Philip K. Dick was born in 1928 and died this week in 1982. What’s more, the latest film based on one of his stories is out tomorrow: The Adjustment Bureau stars Matt Damon and Emily Blunt as star-cross’d lovers ordered apart by mysterious men in hats of the titular Bureau. All in all, it seemed like the perfect time to take another look at the career of a man who has inspired legions of filmmakers (even if hardly any have bothered adapting his works faithfully) and who lived a very strange life…

Philip Kindred Dick (and how much do you wish that was your middle name?) was born one of twins, only for his sister to die at only a few months old. Her death haunted him, and influenced a lot of his works for life (there are many references to twin sisters throughout his stories and novels). Following his parent’s acrimonious divorce when he was six, Dick and his mother, Dorothy Kindred, moved around the country before settling in soon-to-be-hip Berkeley, California. The young writer-to-be suffered two - frankly weird - problems during his early life that later shaped his writing. First, he had such difficulties swallowing that he couldn’t eat in public. Secondly, he experienced a severe form of vertigo that gave him a sense of dislocation from his own life and a tendency to doubt his own existence, or that of the world around him. Both ideas recur in his work, as you've probably noticed if you've read more than about one of his stories.

(Left) Dorothy Kindred. Photo courtesy of Lynne Aalan.
(Right) Philip K. Dick, age 6. Photo courtesy Philip K. Dick Trust. Thanks to http://www.philipkdick.com/

Dick discovered science fiction just before hitting his teens, in pulp magazines that were its main source at the time. Around the same time, he was publishing short stories and poetry in local journals, but while he did well academically he dropped out of college (at Berkeley), apparently not wishing to undergo the at-that-time mandatory army reserve training. Instead, from his teens onward he worked for a man called Herb Hollis as a salesman and radio repairman, writing stories on the side (often about salesmen, clerks and repairmen) and picking up a lasting love of classical and pop music. He was married for the first of five times before he turned 20, but none of the marriages lasted more than 9 years and the first only lasted six months. If love tends not to have a happy ending in his novels, this might be why.

Photo courtesy Isa Dick-Hackett. Thanks to http://www.philipkdick.com/

Berkeley, then as now, was a mecca for creative and literary types, and from his teens onwards Dick had been surrounded by writers who fostered his desire to become a serious novelist. While he published over 70 sci-fi short stories between 1952 and 1955, Dick longed for mainstream literary success and spent several years working on more respectable novels – only to see them all refused publication. By the end of the 1950s, he returned to sci-fi and found his stride. 1962 saw the publication of perhaps his masterpiece, The Man In The High Castle, an alt-history where the Axis powers won World War II and where a banned book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy tells the story of our reality. This one won him a Hugo Award and marked his emergence as a respected sci-fi writer. For those keeping score, that's less respectable than respected non-sci-fi writers, but more respectable than chick-lit novelists.

During the 1960s Dick published a few further masterworks – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? and Ubik – but by the early 1970s he had become increasingly disturbed by a number of suicides and drug-related deaths among his circle, a difficult divorce from his second wife, who was treated for mental illness and his third wife’s departure. His home became a sort of commune for “runaways and junkies”, according to one account, and Dick was convinced that the FBI were watching him (he had previously been investigated by the Bureau in the 1950s). Increasingly, Dick’s works became preoccupied with themes of reality itself, drug-induced hallucinations and personality fragmentation, as the author experimented with a variety of pills himself. Think A Scanner Darkly, basically, which he wrote a decade later but which clearly reflected this period. His home was broken into, and he got into financial difficulties with the taxman, which fellow author Robert Heinlein helped him to sort out. Finally, following an attempted suicide, Dick went into a drug rehabilitation centre for treatment.

After returning to normal life as a self-described “flipped-out freak”, Philip K. Dick experienced a transformative event in February and March of 1974 – an event he subsequently referred to as 2-3-74. On painkillers following the loss of a wisdom tooth, Dick became transfixed by a symbol he’d seen on the necklace of a woman who delivered his pain pills, and started to experience a series of visions that convinced him he was either linked to – or actually was – someone living in 1st century Rome. He was somewhat obsessed with these visions, handwriting a thousand-odd pages called the Exegesis dissecting these visions over the rest of his life. Novels like VALIS and Radio Free Albemuth came out of this experience. However, in 1982 Dick – after complaining of failing eyesight – suffered the first in a series of strokes and died after almost two weeks in hospital. His ashes were buried next to his twin sister.

By the time that the author died, Hollywood had begun to pay attention to this Philip K. Dick fellow. Based on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was well under way, and in fact Dick had seen clips of the film on a TV show and been enormously impressed. “The impact of BLADE RUNNER is simply going to be overwhelming, both on the public and on creative people -- and, I believe, on science fiction as a field,” he wrote of what he saw, proving that he really was a futurist. Sure enough, despite a troubled production and arguments over the final cut, the film has earned its now-towering reputation, mixing deep questions about what it means to be human with a still-astonishingly realised future and an endlessly intricate plot. The question of whether Dekkard is a replicant is more or less moot: the question is whether humans are ever distinguishable from their creations.

Philip K. Dick with Ridley Scott. Photo: Kim Gottlieb. Courtesy of Isa Dick-Hackett. Thanks to http://www.philipkdick.com/

While Blade Runner didn’t bust any blocks on release, its reputation steadily built, with film producer (and co-writer of Alien's original story) Ron Shusett buying the rights to Dick’s story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale shortly before the author died. So far, so good – but then things stalled for the best part of a decade. Richard Dreyfuss was attached to star; then David Cronenberg was set to direct (let’s take a moment and imagine that version). Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted it, but producer Dino De Laurentiis said no, and set up Patrick Swayze with Bruce Beresford directing. But his company went bankrupt, Ahnult swept up the rights – and the rest is history. Barmy, three-breasted, mutant-babied, Paul Verhoeven-led, Arnie-in-a-lady-suited history. The finished product is notable even among Dick adaptations for its lack of fidelity to the source, beyond the basic idea, but it’s still glorious in a strange sort of way.

For the sake of Gary Sinise and his family (“There’s a bomb in his ribcage!”), we’re going to draw a veil over Impostor and skip ahead to the Steven Spielberg / Tom Cruise effort that had the world watching. With Dick’s estate out of probate, something of a flurry of rights-buying commenced – and foremost among them was a crime story wherein people were locked up before they ever had a chance to commit murder. Only what if one of the pre-cops is fingered? While the story is substantially altered, many of Dick’s preoccupations remain: paranoid distrust of authority, a totalitarian state, the effect of pills, body horror and a man on the run from the world. Even smaller touches, like the classical music Anderton listens to while working (Schubert’s 8th symphony), feel like the author’s. And while Spielberg has been criticised for the film’s ending, the book is, if anything, rather more pat. One can’t help feeling that he would have approved of this one.

Again, for the sake of Ben Affleck and John Woo’s reputations, we’re going to sidestep Paycheck and proceed directly to Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped mind-bender, A Scanner Darkly. While it may boast the sort of cast more usually associated with mega-budgets and superheroes, this trippy effort uses performance and animation to tell the story of a world where no one is quite what they seem – least of all Keanu Reeves’ central undercover cop, who’s so caught up in the search for drug-user (and maybe dealer) Bob Arctor that he forgets that’s his own cover identity. The most faithful of the Dick adaptations to date, this demonstrates that, while his basic ideas are grist for the action movie mill, it’s the indie sector that is most capable of dealing with his actual plots.

And we’re avoiding Next, yes, even though it’s loosely adapted from a Dick story. But The Adjustment Bureau is much more interesting! George Nolfi was a screenwriter on the Ocean’s Eleven sequels and The Bourne Ultimatum, but he chose to make his directorial debut with an adaptation of Dick’s short story Adjustment Team, about reality-altering bureaucrats who control our destinies. With Matt Damon as the victim of their machinations, traumatised by the discovery that his whole world is an illusion, it’s a struggle between the personal and the utterly impersonal, the individual and the whole scheme of creation. In the end, there’s probably nothing more Dick.

It was recently announced that Blade Runner sequels and spin-offs are headed our way, and a Total Recall remake is already underway with Colin Farrell set to star. But they’re not the only adaptations of Dick stories in motion. The Man In The High Castle is being set up for a BBC TV adaptation, with Ridley Scott producing and Howard Brenton (a man responsible for some of the best-ever Spooks episodes) writing. The Halcyon Company, of Terminator fame, announced in 2009 that they were planning to adapt Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, but it’s all gone quiet since. Still, as long as there are screenwriters in need of a great sci-fi hook, you can be sure that someone, somewhere, will look to Philip K. Dick. No wonder he was paranoid that people were watching him.