Film: Cranky goes to Hollywood

Philip K Dick inspired `Blade Runner' and `Total Recall'. Now Steven Spielberg is to film one of his stories.
Steven Spielberg has chosen a Philip K Dick sci-fi story for his new project with Tom Cruise, due to start filming this summer. Minority Report tells the story of a cop (Cruise) in the "Pre-Crime Division" who is fingered for a murder he is yet to commit, and has 24 hours to solve his own case.

Hot stuff, you'd think. Proof of the esteem in which the writer is held. Yet, as if to confirm Dick's ambiguous literary status, you'll find the story out of print in this country. Not even confirmed "Dickheads" have heard of it. "Isn't that the same plot as A Scanner Darkly?" one said to me on the Internet, recalling the nervy but brilliant story of a cop whose addiction to the drug "Substance D" splits his brain in half and leads him to nark on himself. If Dick wasn't repeating the plot, it sometimes seems, he was in danger of losing it completely.

Philip K Dick was an amphetamine-addicted schizophrenic who wrote about complex identity issues, psychosis, empathy and God - nominally under the banner of science fiction. Born in 1928, Chicago, he wrote 36 novels and five short story collections before his death aged 53. He was married five times and had three children. In fact, everything Philip K Dick did, was done to excess, something to do, it is routinely claimed, with his surviving an identical twin who died shortly after their birth. Pop psychologists tend to say the same thing about Elvis.

Hollywood always enjoys dysfunction and has been on the Philip K Dick case for some time. Though rather looked down on in his lifetime as a mere genre writer, an adept of pulp fiction and a purveyor of trashy mind- bending novels, no sooner had Ridley Scott filmed Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (renamed as Blade Runner) back in 1982, than his dark star began to rise. With tragic irony, however, Dick died a few weeks before the film was released.

Now, 17 years later, the plaudits are everywhere. Timothy Leary, the late LSD guru, dubbed Dick "a major 21st-century writer". Village Voice called him "an oracular postmodern" and Rolling Stone settled for "the most brilliant sci-fi mind on any planet". He is generally feted as the frazzled godfather of Cyberpunk, the shambolic precursor to William Gibson. And the youngsters love him. Darren Aronofsky, the precocious director of Pi, grew up devouring the whole Dickian oeuvre. Aronofsky has spent much of his newfound clout (and money) buying up the rights to a lot of the Dick back catalogue. "I'd love to do one of his stories soon," he told me recently.

But what so special about Dick? Fay Weldon regards him highly enough to have written a foreward to a recent edition of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (in which she describes him as the "William Blake of Northern California"). She's thinks Dick makes more sense now than he did in his own time. "His fans are not the brightest, but now he has an intellectual following. His was a drug-induced, genuinely prophetic vision." She says she's not surprised that Dick's stories appeal to film- makers, "because they're stories about ideas and are therefore not fleshed out". In other words, they give directors free reign in their realisations. But they always go further. All the three best known Dick adaptations - Blade Runner, Total Recall and Screamers - actually bear little resemblance to the original stories.

Fans of the movie Blade Runner who have sought out the book are startled to find a strangely rambling novel with only a couple of scenes related to the film. In the novel, the Harrison Ford character is far more obsessed with owning a real (rather than android) animal in the post-nuclear earth landscape, or in needily plugging his mind into a "mood machine", than tracking down the errant androids played by creepy Rutger Hauer and leggy Daryl Hannah. Ridley Scott did re-jig the movie for the "Director's Cut" version - cutting out the continuous Harrison Ford faux-gumshoe monologue, adding a new score and fashioning a more ambiguous ending (Ford realises that he too might be a "replicant" or android). Only then does the film bear a little more resemblance to Dick's original vision.

Dick's almost constant ambiguity about perception and reality is always the first thing to be given the chop by Hollywood producers. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the Ford character suddenly finds himself arrested by fellow cops who do not recognise him, have never heard of him or his commanding officers, and who take him to the city police station which is in a different place from where it should be. It is a classic Dick breakdown in reality, where every mooring is loosed and every certainty is yawningly absent.

In the lumbering 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Total Recall (based on the story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"), Arnie's identity is erased so he can infiltrate some insurgents on Mars without detection. Though director Paul Verhoeven does allow one moment of doubt as to whether Arnie's character is simply being fed the whole adventure by a machine plugged into his head (a sweaty doctor arrives claiming that Arnie is trapped in a computer-generated fantasy world and is suffering a "schizoid embolism"), Arnie definitely gets to Mars. Only in the Dick original is it clear that the story is a delusion: Arnie's character never gets out of the building on Earth.

The 1995 Screamers (based on the story "Second Variety") was a low point, even though in many ways the film improves on the plot of this very early, very slight Dick story. In the original story, the action takes place not on some distant mining colony on another planet waging a mechanised, meaningless war with other miners, but on Earth itself. In Dick's version, the war is a straight battle between Soviet forces and the United States. It bears all the hallmarks of the Cold War era in which it was conceived. As in Blade Runner, the main male character falls for an android girl (similarly - and saying much about Dick's spooked attitude to women and emotional closeness - in Total Recall, Arnie's wife is merely a woman imitating being his wife). Then again, the book does contain one of the best Dickian conceits: that of crying robotic children clutching teddy bears in order to elicit sympathy from a group of GIs before getting close enough to blow them up (it's the best moment in the film, too). Such is the warped world of Mr Dick.

Unfortunately, there's every sign that the Spielberg production will follow the usual path and strip out the most troubling, and therefore the most interesting, elements, of the story. After all, Spielberg is "Mr Empathy" and Dick is "Mr Don't Mess with Empathy". In Blade Runner, if you fail an "empathy test", you're clearly a fake human being, a box of wires or a synthetic organism without a soul. So is Spielberg about to go post-modern and deconstruct his own sentimentality? Unlikely. The Jon Cohen script has been drifting round Hollywood gathering editorial accretions for years and Spielberg has already indicated that it needs "more work".

However a ray of hope is offered by JG Ballard. When I ring to tell him about the Spielberg plan to return to his roots and do sci-fi, but in the unlikely company of a mad cult writer, Ballard is up-beat. "I like the idea of someone having to investigate their own crime before it happens," he says acidly. "Maybe Jack Straw should be sent a ticket."

Ballard is vehement that Spielberg is misunderstood (he's still mightily pleased with the Spielberg adaptation of his book Empire of the Sun). "Don't imagine that he's a suburban fantasist, he's not. He's interested in panic, fear and what it is to dream: is reality a conspiracy, are we who we think we are? Those are the same themes you find in Dick's writing. And anyhow, look at The Truman Show. That could have been a Dick story. A man realises his reality is a computer-maintained fake and that his family and friends are actors. I think Dick's ideas about identity and alienation are now pretty mainstream in the cinema."

Fay Weldon is also in favour of the project, though for slightly different reasons. "Dick is the opposite of a sentimentalist, so he and Spielberg might complement each other. And one would much rather he was doing that than a Holocaust movie."

So maybe Dick won't be turning in his grave when the cameras start rolling and Cruise flashes a smile at the bearded director in his ubiquitous baseball cap. Will Spielberg find that old intelligence he once displayed in films such as Close Encounters, or will he merely present an anodyne, only vaguely tricksy confection? One thing for sure. Dick would relish a film being made by a Hollywood studio called Dreamworks. Suddenly that cosy Spielberg corporate identity gains a whole new sinister ring.

Philip K Dick's novels are published by HarperCollins