Books to films

Why Philip K Dick is Hollywood’s go-to writer for dystopian sci-fi movies

Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is only the latest movie to be inspired by the American author’s writings.

Without conducting extensive research, one can state with some certainty that many more people have encountered Philip K Dick through cinema or television than have read his published novels or short stories. Blade Runner, the critically acclaimed 1982 sci-fi blockbuster directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford, was based on Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The highly anticipated sequel, Blade Runner 2049, has just been released to general acclaim.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017).

Channel 4 is currently broadcasting a 10-part series of standalone dramas, penned by British and American writers, called Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams and based on his short stories. In 2015, Amazon aired the first season of The Man in the High Castle, a loose adaptation of Dick’s Hugo Award-winning novel of 1962, which vividly imagines an alternative history in which the Axis Powers were victorious in World War Two.

Philip K Dick. Photo credit: Nicole Panter/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 2.0]
Philip K Dick. Photo credit: Nicole Panter/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 2.0]

The full list of Dick adaptations is too long to reproduce here, but it includes two big-screen versions of Total Recall, based on Dick’s 1966 story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, Richard Linklater’s 2006 production of A Scanner Darkly, and the Steven Spielberg-directed Minority Report in 2002.

On the surface, it is easy to understand why filmmakers and television producers are so keen to plunder Dick’s oeuvre. For one thing, there is his sheer prolificacy. Dick published his first short story in 1951 and never stopped writing until his death from a stroke on March 2, 1982, barely four months before the release of Blade Runner. There are 45 novels and more than 120 short stories for potential adaptors to choose from.

Dystopian visions

Many critics have observed that this headlong rush of creativity – driven partly by a naturally feverish imagination and partly by amphetamines – led to works of variable prose quality. And yet each of Dick’s sci-fi texts is replete with surprising and compelling visions of dystopian futures (or presents) and profoundly unsettling explorations of his recurring themes. These include: the nature of reality, subjective consciousness, schizophrenia, alternate universes, authoritarianism, technology and interactions between humans and non-humans.

Minority Report (2002).

The opening paragraph of one of Dick’s less critically-acclaimed novels, Eye in the Sky (1957), suggests the attractions of his work for producers of popular visual media:

The proton beam deflector of the Belmont Bevatron betrayed its inventors at four o’clock in the afternoon of October 2, 1959. What happened next happened instantly. No longer adequately deflected – and therefore no longer under control – the six billion volt beam radiated upward toward the roof of the chamber, incinerating, along its way, an observation platform overlooking the doughnut-shaped magnet.

The opening is highly misleading, in fact. If it promises uncompromising action ideal for cinematic special effects, then it highlights a consistent problem with adaptations of Dick’s work, whether or not they are (as is the case with Blade Runner) great movies. The author himself feared that Ridley Scott would turn his vision into “one titanic lurid collision of androids being blown up, androids killing humans, general confusion and murder, all very exciting”.

Coloured by his wry humour, Dick’s comments nonetheless raise an important issue about his writing which is that it isn’t, in any immediate, descriptive sense, particularly visual. Eye in the Sky, despite the bombastic opening, becomes a deeply paranoid meditation on consciousness, identity and gestalt, in which individuals injured in the deflector beam accident are forced to live in each other’s solipsistic subjective realities, inner worlds constructed and projected through prejudice and ignorance.

The Man in the High Castle.

So Dick’s real visual strengths – the ones much less amenable to Hollywood treatment – consist in the conviction with which he visualises irrational, unconscious, inner terrain. When he describes alien landscapes, as he does in Martian Time-Slip (1964), they are inseparable from the psychological landscapes of his profoundly troubled characters.

For author Jonathan Lethem, who, having edited the Library of America editions of his novels, has tried harder than anyone else to drag Dick into the mainstream, Dick remains “the ultimate outsider, nonconformist dissident”. This is because of his absolute emotional commitment to the inner lives of his characters. Indeed, he was so close to them that, in Lethem’s words, he “was not utterly in control”.

Like that of his sci-fi contemporaries, such as Robert Heinlein, Dick’s work critiques consumer capitalism and authoritarian institutions, and reflects and predicts technological advances, not all of them benign. Lethem is right, however, to argue that Dick stands apart from other practitioners because of his “personal visionary intensity” and the overwhelming sense of powerlessness his characters experience in the face of their shifting universes. For the same reasons, Lethem suggests, some readers have found Dick’s writing challenging.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011).

Critics have identified a kind of “spiritual turn” in Dick’s work after 1974, when he started having powerful, religious hallucinations. In truth, the novels which followed these visions, such as Valis and The Divine Invasion (both 1981), have more in common with his early, more obviously political sci-fi stories than many have allowed. Though these later novels evince a sincere interest in gnostic Christianity and divine communications, their obsession with identity, perception and the battle between isolation and connectedness is consistent with previous works.

Philip K Dick, who tried to write mainstream literary novels without much success before embarking on his sci-fi career, seems to epitomise the struggle that genre fiction continues to have to gain credibility within the canon. And yet he also seems to be positioned to the side of that debate, somewhere in his own created universe, following his own path. His remarkable destabilising visions will continue to offer rich material to cinema and television – and yet the adaptations will never quite catch the unique spirit of his work.

James Peacock, Senior Lecturer in English and American Literatures, Keele University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.


During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.