Tonight marks the release of Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The original was received with mixed enthusiasm in its day, but has come to be regarded as director Ridley Scott’s masterpiece—and the advance word on the long-in-coming sequel is very, very good.
But not all adaptations are created equal. A surprising number of Philip K. Dick’s novels and short stories have been adapted over the years, with decidedly mixed results. Today, we’re taking another look at all of them, and ranking them from best
(We’re leaving off The Man in the High Castle series as both a TV production, and a work in progress. And for one other reason you can probably figure out.)
The early, pulpy Dick story focuses on a man named Jennings, an employee of a corporation with a unique non-disclosure agreement: after two years, they’ll erase his memory, but he’ll walk away with a hefty paycheck. He awakens to discover that, not only is he the target of a massive police chase, but he apparently decided to forego cash payment for his services and instead accept a pile of seemingly useless tchotchkes, though he has no memory of why. Spoiler for a really effective twist you might see coming anyway: ultimately, he learns the work involved a project to peer into the future, and the bag of seemingly useless knickknacks are what will keep him alive as he escapes his pursuers. That’s a decent enough hook for a short story, but can’t sustain a two-hour film. The movie adds in a love story and a lot of surprisingly leaden action, considering the director is John Woo. Affleck won a Razzie for his efforts, but presumably collected a nice paycheck.
10. Imposter, directed by Gary Fleder
Based on: The 1953 short story “Imposter.”
Even the least of Philip K. Dick adaptations have redeeming qualities, a tribute to the writer and the passion of his fans. This one’s fairly faithful, and deals with some of the same themes as Blade Runner/“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, following the themes of the story on which it’s based to deal with the idea of android replicants with Gary Sinise playing Spencer Olham, desperate to prove that he’s not a replacement in a post-war totalitarian society of the future. The film began life as a 40-minute segment in an anthology, and it shows. It’s good at the beginning, and good at the end, but an impossibly long and boring chase scene in the middle is obvious padding.
9. Next, directed by Lee Tamahori
Based on the 1953 novella “The Golden Man.”
If there’s one advantage to digging through Dick’s film legacy, it’s seeing the different treatments of his key themes. Here we have another story dealing with the consequences of being able to predict the future. The story involves a golden-skinned mutant who outfoxes captors through his foresight (as well as his in-born sexual magnetism). The movie is…basically nothing like that. Nicholas Cage plays a man who has the ability to see two minutes into the future, which is…pretty much a useless amount of time when it comes to the plot, which hinges on Cage and FBI agent Julianne Moore working to avert a nuclear terror attack. The ending that renders the whole thing moot, so you probably don’t need to bother watching it.
Credit to the filmmakers for taking on one of Dick’s lesser-known and more…interesting novels. Written during the ’70s, the initial draft of the book was rejected, only for it to be published after Dick’s death. It’s a semi-autobiographical take on Dick’s experience of the era, with a corrupt U.S. president undermining civil rights through the use of disinformation. Which, OK, might have gained some new currency. The movie involves a record-store clerk who receives messages from the stars and a songwriter played by Alanis Morissette. Much like the book, it is more ambitious than successful.
It’s a perfectly adequate sci-fi action film, with many of Dick’s ideas intact—both deal with the plight of a man who laments his humdrum existence, and visits a place that promises to give him the virtual vacation of a lifetime, only to be pulled into a conspiracy. But an all-star cast and enormous budget don’t really answer the question: “why?” Why remake a movie that was already made quite successfully just two decades earlier (see below)? It’s got good performances, action, and special effects, but the specter of the 1990 original hangs heavy over it. There’s every possibility that it would be better regarded if that film didn’t exist, or if this one had sought to add anything to the story. It doesn’t, really. And it never even goes to Mars, damnit.
This is a tricky one: critically dismissed at the time of release, it’s gained something of a cult following over the last couple of decades. Star Peter Weller, a cult-movie king, no doubt has something to do with that, as does the screenplay from Alien and original Total Recall writer Dan O’Bannon. It’s surprisingly faithful to Dick’s original short story, with one major caveat: while the story takes place on an Earth long-since devastated by nuclear war between western powers and the Soviet Union, the film moves the action to the planet Sirius 6B. Dick’s “claws,” autonomous robots with spinning blades, are the titular “screamers” of the movie. It’s smarter than the premise would suggest, and makes the most of its relatively small budget, but turns into a pretty generic action movie by the third act.
Moving into a higher tier (i.e. movies most people can agree are good), this one effectively fleshes out the original short story in a way that lesser adaptations of works haven’t managed. The relatively quiet original gets moved to something like the present, with Matt Damon as a political figure who begins to see the hands of manipulators pulling the strings of his life and of those around him. In the story, the character was a real-estate salesman. Here, he’s a potential president of the United States. It’s a change that ups the stakes and expands the scope of the story just enough to make for the film work.
Most of the adaptations of Dick’s work are based on earlier short stories, rather than his later works, many of which had to do, directly or otherwise, with his experiences with drugs and addiction. Richard Linklater’s adaption, which retains the feel of an elegy to a dying sub-culture, is largely faithful, beautifully animated (or more accurately, rotoscoped over live actors), and features the best cast of any of these movies, including Robert Downey, Jr. and Winona Ryder.
3. Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg
Based on: the 1956 short story “The Minority Report”
Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film is a decidedly loose interpretation of the source material, and in this case, that’s OK. The story has so many iconic elements: precogs and the idea of precrime, just to mention a couple, that the movie version nails. Spielberg retains the big ideas about authoritarianism and whether or not people are destined to be good or bad and adds in some striking visuals, inventive future worldbuilding, and bang-up action sequences, striking the balance lesser adaptions have missed.
Another very loose adaption, but a wildly successful one. As with director Paul Verhoeven’s adaption of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, it’s over the top to the point of near parody, but here he’s not commenting on the source material so much as he is having a ton of fun with it. And somehow, the core of Dick’s story of a man (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who begins to recall his experiences as a secret agent on Mars, remains. Through all the punching, Martian cleavage, and eye-popping visuals, he even does “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” better in one regard, adding a trippy level of ambiguity to Arnold’s recollections.
It would be sacrilege to put any other movie in the top spot, and with good reason. Ridley Scott’s masterpiece takes on the big questions of Dick’s story—namely, what does it mean to be human, and who gets to decide?—while adding a level of visual panache so iconic, even those who haven’t seen the film can picture it. The movie’s often accused of being cold, but that’s largely by design. Like 2001 before it, Blade Runner picked up the baton for intelligent science fiction in films and ran with it. Here’s hoping that Denis Villeneuve’s sequel can do the same.
What’s your favorite Philip K. Dick adaptation?