Philip K. Dick, the sci-fi writer who fires Hollywood's imagination in film after film

By Lewis Beale
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 5:24 PM

Philip K. Dick isn't really Hollywood's favorite dead author. It only seems that way.

Primarily regarded in his lifetime as a pulp science fiction writer with a drug-influenced, paranoid worldview, since his 1982 death, Dick's literary reputation has not only risen but his books and short stories also have become filmmaker favorites. "Blade Runner," "Total Recall," "Minority Report," "A Scanner Darkly," and a dozen other movies, TV shows and video games have been adapted from Dick's works.

Due out on Friday is "The Adjustment Bureau," starring Matt Damon and based on the Dick short story "Adjustment Team," in which a real estate salesman discovers that reality is being manipulated by strange, other-worldly forces (in the film, Damon is a U.S. congressman who discovers essentially the same thing).

"Paranoia works great on screen generally, and paranoia runs throughout his work," says Gordon van Gelder, who edits the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and administers the annual Philip K. Dick Award for sci-fi writing. "There's also a mystical quality in his later work that works well, and it doesn't get too touchy-feely."

Dick's fiction also is highly regarded because it tends to avoid the typical elements found in Hollywood science fiction - alien invasions, battles in outer space, time travel, etc. - and is more character-driven, featuring a small group of people in confined settings and environments.

His books and stories concentrate on average Joes who "discover the way things seem to be aren't what they are," says sci-fi author and North Carolina State University English professor John Kessel. "That's more the way we see the world today than when he was writing in the '50s and '60s. There's a reality breakdown; what you thought was real was an illusion."

Or, as George Nolfi, writer-director of "The Adjustment Bureau," puts it: "He takes what we take for granted, and says 'what if.'"

The Dickian worldview can be seen in such films as "Blade Runner," in which the Harrison Ford character, a detective searching for rebel "replicants' - genetically engineered robots - discovers the woman he has fallen for is an artificial creation; "Total Recall," in which Arnold Schwarzenegger's character finds out his memories have been artificially implanted; and the 1995 film "Screamers," in which a highly evolved weapons system gradually morphs into human form.

With its emphasis on corporate monopolies, altered psychic states and totalitarian governments, this worldview seems startlingly contemporary. "We're living in a future that Phil Dick predicted," van Gelder says. "In the '70s, he was thought of as a fringe-y nutter, but that's because he was looking ahead."

One thing Dick is not admired for is fine prose. His stuff tends to be lumpily written, obviously produced on the quick for sci-fi magazines and the pulp paperback market (Dick died at 53, after writing 44 novels and more than 120 short stories.)

"He's not a great literary stylist," says Anne R. Dick, his second of his five wives, who wrote "The Search for Philip K. Dick," a memoir of their time together. "He was very prolific, and had prophetic ideas. His books are not really space operas; Europeans considered them postmodern surrealism, and I think that's a better way to describe them."

The film industry's passion for Dick's work grew gradually. Director Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner," based on the novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," was a commercial failure when it was released in 1982, but has since gained a reputation as a masterful and trend-setting blend of mood and set design. Eight years later, when "Total Recall," adapted from the story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," grossed $119 million domestically (and spawned a short-lived TV series and video game), the Dick gold rush was officially on.

"We probably have more passion and interest from writers and directors than studios," says Kalen Egan of Electric Shepherd Productions, the Dick estate's film arm, who adds that in any given year, there are at least eight to 10 "serious conversations" about film rights. "A whole lot of these people saw 'Blade Runner' at a young age and that was a huge influence. A lot of the conversations we have begin with 'I saw "Blade Runner" when I was 12.'"

In the pipeline are a remake of "Total Recall"; a TV series based on "The Man in the High Castle," Dick's award-winning 1962 novel about a future America in which the Axis powers have won World War II; a Disney animation, "King of the Elves," based on a young adult fantasy story; and recently the director Michael Gondrey ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") announced he is adapting "Ubik," a novel about a firm that blocks telepathic spying."

The bottom line for Hollywood when it comes to Dick, says van Gelder, is that "Success breeds success."

Beale is a freelance writer.

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