Published on February 9th, 2015 | by Swamp Thing0
Philip K. Dick – Hiding In Plain Sight.
Words and Pictures.
In the grand scheme of things, there aren’t actually that many authors whose work has been adapted for the big screen. Fewer still have had more than one story make it to the big, or small, screen. Then there are authors whose bibliographies read like a page from Halliwell’s Film Guide.
If we confine ourselves to the last hundred and twenty years or so, just to annoy Shakespeare and Dickens, and disqualify authors who’ve just had the same story adapted multiple times (apologies to Bram Stoker – yes I know Dracula wasn’t the only book to be filmed, but let’s not talk about Lair of the White Worm) names that would probably spring to mind for most of us would be the likes of Michael Crichton, Stephen King and John Grisham. A few of us elder statesmen might add Alastair Maclean, Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and H.G Wells to that select group. Some of you will undoubtedly be able to add another name or two, and for fans of a particular science fiction sub-genre the name Philip K. Dick would be an unforgivable omission from any list of writers whose work was regularly committed to celluloid. To my mind the most astonishing thing about that list, beginning with Jules Verne who was first published in the 1850s, the only one not to have seen a completed big screen adaptation of his work was Philip K. Dick. Even Verne had more screen time under his belt by the time he died in 1905. He also had more money (probably, currency conversion from Fr to USD and relative values allowing for 70 years worth of inflation might well melt my brain). Unlike the others in our exclusive little film club, Philip K. Dick was unable to achieve any significant amount of critical or financial success until it was too late for him to enjoy it.
Hiding in Plain Sight.
Philip Kindred Dick was born on December 16th 1928 in Chicago, and for the purposes of this article that’s all the biography you’re going to get. This piece isn’t about the life of a man – a quick Google will provide more information about Dick’s life than most people would ever want to know – this article is about the mind of a man and how its darkest places can produce some of its brightest lights. Dick’s writing was a conduit that allowed his troubled psyche free reign, and not since Edgar Allan Poe has a writer’s own fear and paranoia been so visibly echoed in his works. For the most part, those fears have found their way onto the big screen adaptations of Dick’s work, acted out for our entertainment. The great paradox of Philip K. Dick’s legacy is that he lays part of himself bare in his work, but how much is the man and how much the madness (a word he used more than once when describing his state of mind)? By standing out in the open has he then concealed himself behind his illness, which has since come to define both the man and his work?
During his lifetime, Dick saw only one story translated for the screen – the British TV anthology series Out of this World adapted Dick’s short story The Imposter for broadcast in 1962 – but he got a foretaste of the success that was to come when he saw some partially finished scenes from Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Dick’s novel Do androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick was reportedly amazed by what he saw, having initially been highly sceptical of the whole project (two years earlier he’d said that “you would have to kill me and prop me up in the seat of my car with a smile painted on my face to get me to go near Hollywood”). Blade Runner was released in June 1982. Dick had died of heart failure following a stroke in March of that year. The purchase of the film rights to the novel had finally provided Dick with the financial stability that he’d been looking for throughout his chaotic career, and whilst Blade Runner wasn’t a big box-office success when it was released (it lost out badly to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) it has since become one of the most iconic science-fiction films ever made, and it seems to be improving with age. In 2008, Empire magazine placed it 20th in their list of the 500 greatest movies of all time. In 2014, Empire’s list of the 301 greatest movies of all time placed Blade Runner 11th.
Whilst a significant number of genre fans were aware that Blade Runner was based on a Philip K. Dick novel, what wasn’t known at the time was just how much his mental health problems and habitual drug use had influenced that novel.
The answer to that is ‘probably not as much as they’d influenced his other novels’.
“Sometimes to go insane is an appropriate response to the World.” Philip K. Dick
A recurrent theme in Dick’s novels and short stories is reality, or rather the collapse of what the protagonist perceives to be reality. Do androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is build on the same platform that underpins a significant percentage of Dick’s writings: can we trust our own perceptions and memories? Are we really what we think we are?
Alright, I know I said there wasn’t going to be any more Philip K. Dick biography in this piece, but to to get some idea about the darkness that created much of his output, we’re going to have to shine a light into that darkness, albeit briefly.
In his early years, Dick studied philosophy and psychology and came to the conclusion that reality was an inner perception of self that didn’t always correspond with ‘the world outside’. By marrying that belief to the works of Plato and others who postulated on the existence of alternative metaphysical realms, Dick came to the conclusions that not only was the world he inhabited not entirely real, there was also no way of proving it was. It seems likely that a natural propensity towards paranoia and anxiety amplified these conclusions, and it’s equally likely that habitual drug use (Dick made no secret of the fact that all of his work before 1970 was written while he was on amphetamines) did little to settle the mind of a man who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic in his teens. Dick’s own take on his mental health was to describe himself as “a flipped-out freak”.
Philip K. Dick meets God. Discuss.
Through his life, Philip K. Dick was a man known to have ‘visions’. Many of these were of his twin sister Jane, who Dick said he could see in vivid detail and seems to have been a constant companion for him. Jane had died at 8 weeks old, but it seems that she had always remained real and present to Dick. Then in 1974, Dick had an impacted wisdom tooth removed, and it triggered a series of events that were to dominate the rest of his life. Probably still under the influence of the anesthetic used for the tooth extraction (sodium pentathol), Dick was visited by a young woman giving out Christian literature. He says that he was struck by her beauty and drawn to a gold necklace she was wearing, and that the sun glinting off the necklace became a “pink beam” that left him with hallucinations for the next few days, after which he had the gift of precognition. Visions of future and past continued through February and March 1974, leading Dick to assert that he was leading two parallel lives, one as an author in the present called Philip K. Dick, and a second life in ancient Rome as a persecuted Christian call Thomas. He also believed that there was an intelligence within the “pink beam”, a “transcendentally rational mind” that he variously referred to as “God”, “Zebra” and “VALIS” (short for vast active living intelligence system). From 1974 until his death in 1982, Dick kept a journal of his thoughts and experiences relating to VALIS, in which he cites that history stopped in the 1st century and the Roman Empire still existed. The current Emperor incarnate was Richard Nixon, and Dick believed that VALIS engineered Nixon’s impeachment. There were times when Dick cited these events as fact. There were other times when he described them as proof of the extent of his schizophrenic delusions. What we may believe the truth was is irrelevant, what matters is what Philip K. Dick believed because it’s those beliefs that fueled his prolific output, both fiction and non-fiction.
Based on a story by Philip K. Dick.
Mainstream success eluded Dick during his lifetime, though he was regularly published. His problem was that the big mainstream publishers didn’t want to know and he was forced to use lower paying publishers and magazines to get his work out. Numerous stories abound about his struggles against poverty and his fight to keep his family fed and housed. Stories about narrowly avoiding having the electricity cut-off at his home by the arrival of a small royalties check from France. Stories about eating horse meat because he could afford nothing else. Stories about needing financial help from his peers – a loan from Robert Heinlein is oft mentioned. None of these stories were rumour or conjecture, they all came from Dick himself in uncommonly honest and frank articles and interviews.
The stability that the sale of the film rights for Do Androids…? finally gave Dick came too late. Perhaps more ironic still is the recognition that was to follow. Philip K. Dick’s identity as one of the great science-fiction writers is primarily a by-product of the success that his stories have had on the big screen. Blade Runner was to be a snowball that started slowly but has been gaining momentum since the turn of the millennium. Now it would seem that Hollywood studios are falling over themselves to run the byline ‘based on a story by Philip K. Dick”, and you begin to suspect that soon all 44 novels and 120+ short stories will have been adapted for the screen. So for those who haven’t been watching the credits on their science-fiction films that closely, here’s a run-down of the big-screen adaptations that you may have heard of…
Blade Runner, Total Recall, Screamers, Impostor, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, Next, Radio Free Albemuth, The Adjustment Bureau.
There’s a chance you were aware that a few of those films were Philip K. Dick stories (Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly are the ones that most sci-fi film fans are aware of; fans of sci-fi writing would know a few more by name. A Philip K. Dick fan might know all of them, but there’s still a chance of missing the ones where the title has been changed – Screamers and Next are the usual suspects). There are also a few short films that have been released based on short stories that screenwriters wisely decided wouldn’t stand up to the level of padding that would be required to make them into full features. Perhaps when the supply of longer, and accessible, Philip K. Dick works starts dwindling, those stories will be revisited and reconsidered for the full treatment (Beyond The Door, The Crystal Crypt and The Piper have all been filmed since 2011). The list also excludes the non science-fiction film Barjo (1992) and the 2012 remake of Total Recall, which surprisingly veers even further away from Dick’s short story than the original 1990 film. At the time of writing, a TV pilot of The Man in the High Castle is available on Amazon, executive produced by Ridley Scott, with a possible series to follow. Early indications are that this new adaptation is reasonably faithful to Philip K. Dick’s novel of an alternative future where the Nazis and Japan won World War II. There are also still plans to film Ubik, Dick’s acclaimed 1969 novel that deals with the familiar subjects of shifting realities and altered perception. French filmaker Michel Gondry stated he was still working on a Ubik film in 2014 (Gondry helmed the not-half-bad Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the premise of which could easily have come from any number of Dick stories. On a less positive note, Gondry also directed the truly awful 2011 Green Hornet movie).
Only the first three titles on our list of films were released before 2000, which gives you an idea of how salable a commodity Philip K. Dick’s name has become in Hollywood over the last decade. That desirability comes with a price-tag that would have Dick seeing an alternative reality to the one he was struggling in as a writer. One biographer has pointed out that at the time he wrote Paycheck, Dick was earning less than $12,000 a year. Ben Affleck reportedly earned around $15,000,000 for being in the movie. Of course, it’s hardly unique for an artist not be to valued in his lifetime – Van Gogh literally couldn’t give work away – but we’d like to think that we’re smarter than that these days and wouldn’t let genius sneak by us. It would appear that we’re not. Apparently Hollywood doesn’t think we’re that smart either, eschewing some of the elements of his stories in favour of more bankable box-office material: futuristic car chases, elaborately staged fight sequences and effects-heavy denouements get liberally sprinkled through screenplays to make us go “wow!” when Dick’s original story would have us go “hmm”. The other concession to the Hollywood machine that Dick was so wary of is the addition of the happy ending. Philip K. Dick didn’t do happy endings, and even those that came close carried with them some significant caveats. In truth, even fans of his work will admit that the ending was often the weakest part of a Dick story. They tend towards feeling hurried and unsatisfying, as though the need for a resolution was an inconvenience that the author only grudgingly conceded to, and given the choice he’d prefer to leave his characters to struggle on, aware of their changed realities but unable to escape or significantly alter them. Time Out of Joint, Dick’s 1959 novel that was the inspiration for The Truman Show (even if the producers of the 1998 film didn’t feel inclined to admit it), is often cited as having an unsatisfying and hurried ending that detracts from an otherwise excellent tale.
The many phases of Philip K. Dick.
If we look at that list of films again…
Blade Runner, Total Recall, Screamers, Impostor, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, Next, Radio Free Albemuth, The Adjustment Bureau.
and rearrange them into the chronological order that the works they were based were written (though not necessarily published), we get
Paycheck (1952), Screamers (“Second Variety”, 1953), Impostor (1953), Next (“The Golden Man”,1953), The Adjustment Bureau (“Adjustment Team”, 1954), Minority Report (1956), Total Recall (“We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”, 1966), Blade Runner (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”,1968), Radio Free Albemuth (1976), A Scanner Darkly (1977).
The first half of the 1950s saw Dick exploring a number of recurring themes. Paycheck, The Golden Man and The Minority Report all deal with seeing the future as their primary theme. Screamers and Impostor explore the concept of military robots, and Impostor also brings in a key plot device from Do Androids…? – an android who doesn’t know he isn’t human. Adjustment Team is a pseudo-theological story of how mundane existence is the result of manipulation by unseen controllers. His later 1960s works We Can Remember it... and Do Androids…? move away from seeing the future and deal with the nature of the past and if we can trust our memories of it. Radio Free Albemuth is a semi-autobiographical work that includes VALIS in its narrative. A Scanner Darkly is one of Dick’s best known works and on its most basic level deals with multiple personalities and drug abuse. Other unfilmed works in these periods echo the themes of the more familiar pieces, suggesting the when Philip K. Dick got an idea he pursued it in all its variations. And even allowing for some changes in the outer layers, at the core of all of these stories is the idea that on some level, reality is not quite what we perceive it to be. Had he lived to see the rapid advances in computer technology that came so soon after his death, it’s a safe bet that Dick would have beaten the Wachowski’s to the punch and written The Matrix. And Inception. Possibly Oblivion as well. At present, Philip K. Dick’s name gets mentioned as ‘inspiring’ or ‘influencing’ pretty much any plot involving altering reality or untrustworthy memory. Sometimes, as with The Truman Show, there’s an argument to be made, but to say that ‘all’ films of a particular type owe their existence to Dick is no more valid an assertion than it would be to say that all stories involving humanoid robots exist because of Isaac Asimov.
It’s also no coincidence that only two of the films on the list were based on material written after 1974. Dick’s fiction output reduced significantly after his first encounter with VALIS and the “pink beam”, and apart from Radio Free Albemuth there hasn’t been much enthusiasm so far for filming any of the non-fiction works written between 1974 and his death in 1982. It hasn’t helped matters that Dick’s later work became less accessible for readers of more mainstream fiction; he hands us a Rubik’s Cube of intertwined realities, without any explanation of how it works or what it’s supposed to look like when we solve it. But is it here, in his later non-fiction writings and his journal (all 8,000+ pages and over a million words, excerpts of which have now been published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick) that we’ll find the ‘real’ Philip K. Dick? I suspect not. The Philip K. Dick of the journal is no more real than the ‘fictional’ Philip. K Dick that appeared in his largely autobiographical novel Valis in 1981. So should we be looking in his earlier fiction for this ‘real’ Philip K. Dick? Is he to be found in every line he wrote? Much of his work has a courageous intimacy that leaves no place to hide. Perhaps it’s just the human need to rationalize the impossible complexities of mental illness that leads us to think that there must have been two Philip K. Dicks – a ‘real’ one who was sane, and an ‘alternate’ Philip K. Dick, who was not, the two versions phasing in and out, presumably venturing to some other personal reality when they were not present in ours. Or perhaps that’s exactly how it was for him (and it’s not far off the way he described his schizophrenia).
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Philip K. Dick
The reality that won’t go away, of course, is that Philip K. Dick was a man with a mental illness. A man struggling daily to lead as normal a life as possible in a world that was never entirely real for him. That was the ‘real’ Philip K. Dick, and the only way to have any sense of ‘knowing’ him was to have met him. Spoken to him. Spent time with him. Those of us who can only experience the man through his works are seeing multiple versions of the original, each slightly different, each a little distorted, like myriad reflections in a hall of mirrors. And like reflections, they have shape but no substance. Much of Dick’s work deals with rationalizing that feeling that things were ‘other’, often with a sense of desperation – the common theme of ‘things not been as they should be’ was often paired with persecution or pursuit of the protagonist by some shadowy agent who had hidden knowledge of what was really going on. The secret truths were always well defended. Those are the reflections of how a man felt, but they are not the man, His writings may give us some small idea of how he saw the world, but we cannot hope to understand how that perception made him feel. If Philip K. Dick the man was there to be found in his work, we wouldn’t find him anyway. Not because he was hiding, but because we are simply not equipped to see him.
Philip K. Dick’s creativity was intertwined with his schizophrenia so tightly that they were inseparable. But was that relationship parasitic or symbiotic? Was that creativity being throttled, or just pulled in directions it would not have gone otherwise?
Would Philip K. Dick have been a more successful writer in his lifetime if he’d not been schizophrenic?
There’s no way to know.
But I think we can be certain that in that alternative reality he wouldn’t have written about the same things, and we might have been denied some of the most interesting, thought provoking and genuinely unsettling fiction ever written.