The Second Coming of Philip K. Dick

Saturday, December 13th, 2003

The Second Coming of Philip K. Dick examines how Philip K. Dick’s science fiction stories have practically taken over Hollywood:

Like the babbling psychics who predict future crimes in Minority Report, Dick was a precog. Lurking within his amphetamine-fueled fictions are truths that have only to be found and decoded. In a 1978 essay he wrote: “We live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudorealities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives. I distrust their power. It is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.”

It didn’t start off quite so auspiciously:

Dick’s career in movies did not begin with a bang. It was 1977, and a small-time actor named Brian Kelly wanted to option the 9-year-old novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? For a mere $2,500, he got it. “The works of Philip K. Dick were not exactly in demand,” recalls the writer’s New York literary agent, Russell Galen, “and for Phil” — then 49 and living in suburban Orange County — “that was enough to make the difference between a good year and a bad year.” Kelly’s partner wrote a screenplay and shopped it around. Eventually it landed on the desk of Ridley Scott, who’d just directed Alien. Scott brought in a new writer and sent it to Alan Ladd Jr., one of the top players in Hollywood.

Just a few months before [Blade Runner]‘s release, Dick suffered a massive stroke. [...] Before Dick died, Shusett bought the film rights to “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” a story about a nebbishy clerk with dreams of going to Mars. He retitled it Total Recall and took it to Dino De Laurentiis, who put it into development.

This part is pure Hollywood:

Total Recall languished for years before all the elements — producer, director, star — came together. At one point, Richard Dreyfuss was attached. At another, David Cronenberg was going to direct and wanted William Hurt for the lead. “I worked on it for a year and did about 12 drafts,” Cronenberg recalls. “Eventually we got to a point where Ron Shusett said, ‘You know what you’ve done? You’ve done the Philip K. Dick version.’ I said, ‘Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?’ He said, ‘No, no, we want to do Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.’” Cronenberg moved on. Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to star, but De Laurentiis refused: Even in an overamped Hollywood bastardization, he couldn’t see Schwarzenegger in the part. Instead, it went to Patrick Swayze, with Bruce Beresford directing. They were building sets in Australia when De Laurentiis’ company went bankrupt.

This gave Schwarzenegger his chance. He got Carolco, the high-flying mini-studio behind the Rambo series, to buy the property, and Paul Verhoeven to direct it. The henpecked clerk named Quail became a muscle-bound construction worker named Quaid, and a new ending was written to make up for what many filmmakers see as the problem with Dick’s short stories: their lack of a third act that will take a movie to 90 minutes or more. But while Verhoeven’s film was an interplanetary shoot-’em-up that bore little resemblance to Dick’s story, it did retain the tale’s essential ambiguity: At the end, we’re not sure whether the main character actually went to Mars or only thought he did, thanks to some memory implants he bought. “This was extremely innovative, coming from a Hollywood studio,” says Verhoeven. “To dare to say, Everything you see could be a dream, or everything you see could be reality, and we won’t tell you which is true — I thought that was pretty sensational.”

It sounds like Verhoeen hasn’t seen a little cult classic from the late 1930′s…called The Wizard of Oz.

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