Philip K Dick is loved by Hollywood. Barely a year goes seems to go by without either a movie adaptation of one his eerily prescient futuristic sci-fi novels or at least some sort of riff on his source material. But what is it about his stories that attracts the dream makers of Tinsel Town? From the looks of things Dick’s work appears far too pessimistic, challenging and just plain odd to make good Hollywood material.
Blockbusters aren’t depressing — and they’re rarely cerebral. Yet Dick is responsible for films ranging from the Harrison Ford cult classic, Blade Runner to the Arnie vehicle Total Recall. This article intends to investigate what Hollywood loves about PhilDick (as fans sometimes lovingly refer to him), and why they keep coming back.
Dick was born six weeks premature in 1928 in Chicago with a twin sister Jane. His twin died six weeks later, something that would haunt his dreams and influence his fiction for the rest of his life. After his parents divorced, when he was six, Dick was brought up by his mother in Washington, DC and then California, where he spent the rest of his life. His interest in sci fi started at the age of 12 when he read his first science fiction story.
Were drugs responsible for Dick’s prolific output?
Arguably the other key influence in Dick’s life was drugs. Specifically amphetamines which he was proscribed in the mid-fifties for anxiety and depression. It seems odd now to be prescribed speed for anxiety, but this was way before our current the notion of a ‘drug culture’. We can only guess what would have happened if Dick had settled for a bottle of Marks and Spencer Chardonnay. But none of this gives us an idea of why Dick is king of the Hollywood castle.
The sheer quantity of material. Speed had a practical benefit – it allowed him to write fast, so there are many novels and short stories to mine for movie ideas. As Dick himself put it, “In five years I wrote sixteen novels, which is incredible.” Some of these, especially the early stories are out of copyright. With reports that some modern writers are turning to Modafinil, are we heading back to the good old days of page-a-minute-page-turners?
Perhaps not. Because there’s another important ingredient to Dick’s writing. Dick was a Christian. While his books may be pessimistic, they have a strong moral heart that appeals to Hollywood moguls (and many non-moguls among us). We may or may not call ourselves religious, but faith in humanity and the power of love are attractive qualities. And ones that remain stubbornly irrational, an atttitude Dick liked.
A moral man who questioned his place in the universe
Dick was a gnostic. Dick’s spiritual faith was not your usual piety of church and good deeds. No, this was the amphetamine-powered, reality questioning variety of belief. He was a man who’s earliest and pre-drug fictions had probed the nature of what is real, and this became a deeply personal matter for him as his mind – and identity – crumbled under industrial quantities of speed. What could be more contemporary than the radical doubt that lies at the heart of gnosticism.
So, Dick combined a somewhat conservative ethic with an exceptionally radical, or at least trippy, epistemology. – bingo. Here we might remember that in his final novel VALIS, he referred to the Dick character as ‘Horselover Fat’ – Philip meaning ‘horselover’ in Greek and Dick being the German word for ‘fat’. It is exactly this ingenious kind of thinking, and sense of humour, that makes him perfect for Hollywood. And luckily, for every conventional movie like The Adjustment Bureau, there is a weird gem like A Scanner Darkly.
Why does Hollywood keep coming back to Philip K Dick? Perhaps it’s because no other sci-fi writer managed to combine quality with quality — and maintain a deep-set moral outlook. Dick was a prolific writer, so we’ll probably see many more films based on his work in years to come.