Durham, N.C. - Philip K. Dick's short stories and novels often turned on unstable realities and changing identities.
Now, two decades after his death, Dick himself is taking on an unexpected new identity: Hollywood icon.
For Fredric Jameson, William A. Lane Professor of Comparative Literature and Romance Studies and a long-time scholar of Dick's work, the belated interest in his writing -- only "Blade Runner" was made during Dick's lifetime -- is welcome. But he said Hollywood's interest comes with a catch.
The Films of Philip K. Dick
Blade Runner (1982)
Confessions d'un Barjo (French, 1992)
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
"I think many of these films are very good," Jameson said. "But almost all of them come from short stories and not the novels. I think there's a reason for that. He had a fantastic imagination, and his short stories were built around one or two fertile ideas -- for example the precogs (who see crimes before they're committed) in 'Minority Report.' A filmmaker can just take that single gimmick and construct a movie of his own around it.
"A Scanner Darkly," which was released last month, was the eighth movie based on one of the science fiction writer's more than 100 short stories and 44 novels. Several, such as "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and "Minority Report," have been box-office hits. A ninth, "Next" starring Nicholas Cage and Julianne Moore, is scheduled for release in 2007.
"The texture of his novels is harder to translate to film. Dick's distinctive humor and satire are more integral to the story, and these are always going to be more difficult to capture. Before he died he saw the script for 'Blade Runner,' and he wasn't very comfortable with it. In the end, he saw the movie and liked it, but he recognized that the film had more to do with director's Ridley Scott's artistic vision than with his own."
Dick published his first story in 1952. Over the next three decades he produced a vast quantity of work, much for science fiction and pulp magazines. He admitted he wrote many of these quickly for money, but even these stories are often filled with arresting commentary and images that allow them to rise above any genre label, Jameson said.
"I think of him as a '50s writer," Jameson said. "That's not to say the stories don't have any meaning for today, but his obsessions -- the emerging consumer culture, the fear of the atomic bomb -- aren't necessarily the things that people today focus on. At best in the movies, you're going to just get an echo of those obsessions."
In Dick's imagination, everyday items and situations are turned into the unfamiliar. In "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," the novel on which the movie "Blade Runner" is based, Dick creates the image of flying machines with speakers blaring out people's credit debts for everyone to hear. In "Confessions of a Crap Artist," the eccentric lead character collects worthless objects and ideas, turning crap into art. In "Ubik," a comedy about death, salvation comes from a can of aerosol spray.
"A lot of his images and ideas, particularly in the novels, come from this beginning of modernity and the consumer culture," Jameson said. "This is a science fiction expression of a consumption society, and generally these things don't work as well in the movies. That is why I don't think the novels may work as well on film.
"His humor in the novels wouldn't translate well for similar reasons. He created things like flying cars that flap their wings like birds. What appears funny on the paper would probably end up looking just nightmarish in a straight science fiction film."
Then there's the matter of his leading characters. Jameson said Dick wrote about ordinary people in strange situations. "He didn't have heroes. That again is part of the '50s and early '60s. But when you cast Harrison Ford in 'Blade Runner' or Tom Cruise in 'Minority Report,' the characters are transformed into heroes doing extraordinary things. That doesn't mean you can't make a fine film from the story, but it is just going to be an entirely different thing."
In the novels, Dick's imagination took him to create other worlds, sometimes underground, sometimes on other planets. Dick also attempts to recreate history, in alternative history stories such as "The Man in the HighCastle," which imagines an America under the rule of Nazi Germany and Japan. Or he has characters recreate history, such as one who reproduces a model of 1935 Washington, D.C., on another planet.
"Dick does interesting things with the ideas of collecting. In 'The Man in the HighCastle,' one of the Japanese overlords is fond of collecting Americana. Dick's perspective on the authenticity of the past is both relevant to today and given a turn that nobody else has. His take on history and our relation to it is very fresh."
The "canonization" of Dick, who has been selected for the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, came mostly after his death in 1982 from a stroke. During much of his life, he was more popular in France than in the United States, Jameson said. Many of the novels and short stories collections are still in print, so the interest will probably be maintained for some time.
"I hope there are more movies made," Jameson said. "I would love to have a filmmaker try some of the more difficult novels, some of the other world novels, but I'm just not sure who that would be. I'm not sure there's a filmmaker whose interests dovetail with Dick's enough to make it work."