This look at Blade Runner is the second installment of our blog series “Have You Watched a Good Book Lately?”
The series’ intention is to track a number of books’ progression from the printed page to the silver screen and assess how well or how badly the filmmakers accomplished each of the adaptations.
Today we’re going to be discussing “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” written by acclaimed science fiction author Philip K. Dick and published in 1968, which ultimately ended up as the 1982 film “Blade Runner,” with visionary director Ridley Scott at the helm. For those of you unfamiliar with the basic premise, here is a brief synopsis adapted from the book cover:
“By 2021, the World War had killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remained coveted any living creature, and for people who couldn’t afford one, companies built incredibly realistic replicants. They even built humans. Fearful of the havoc these artificial human could wreak, the government banned them from Earth. Rick Deckard was an officially sanctioned bounty hunter (a “blade runner”) whose job was to find rogue androids who tried to blend in with humans and to “retire” them. But when cornered, the androids tended to fight back, with deadly results.”
From the Source’s Mouth
Let’s start our discussion with one of the main concerns of any book adaptation – how true is the film to the source material? We should state right up front that we’ll be using “Blade Runner: The Final Cut” for comparison purposes, not the theatrical release, as it more accurately represents the director’s vision.
Here’s the thing: If you go by tag lines, “Blade Runner’s” story seems to align fairly closely with Dick’s written one. According to imdb.com, that story, with the screenplay written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, is: “A blade runner must pursue and try to terminate [or “retire”] four replicants who stole a ship in space and have returned to Earth to find their creator.” Both versions grapple with the concept of what it means to be alive and to be “human.” And there are a number of elements the two have in common, such as replicants sent to the off-world colonies and the “empathy” test that can distinguish between replicants and humans.
But that’s where the similarities end, making the movie more of an “inspired by” rather than a “based on” the book type of production. That begs the question of why the filmmakers used the novel for an adapted screenplay rather than just coming up with a new idea for the script. Perhaps, despite having directed the blockbuster “Alien,” Ridley Scott was not yet the powerhouse writer/director/producer he became after this film (with hits such as “Thelma & Louise” and “Gladiator”), and he wanted to rely on the name recognition Dick brought to the project. Regardless of the reason, that’s how the film was billed. Fans who are looking for a close-to-source adaptation will not find it here.
So, if “Blade Runner” was not a faithful adaptation of the book, how far afield did it stray from the original? Quite a bit, actually. The most obvious difference was in the setting. In the novel, the world was hot, dry, and radiation-blasted after the last World War. Inhospitable and almost uninhabitable, people naturally migrated to the off-world colonies, encouraged by the government with the guarantee of an android servant if they did so. The primary ones left behind were the “specials,” also known as “chickenheads,” those with mutated genomes and less-than-average intelligence who lived in abandoned buildings and eked out a living doing menial tasks. One of the main characters, J.D. Isidore, was a “special,” and it is through him that we gain most of our perspective into the day-to-day lives of those left on the planet. Three of the escaped replicants also take refuge in his apartment, where he’s drawn into a relationship with one of them, deepening the characterization of all four.
In the film version, there is no mention of the World War, there is no Isidore, and there are no “specials.” Scott’s world is a densely populated, multicultural San Francisco, dark and drenched in a perpetual downpour. Scott may have chosen this route because of the glut of post-apocalyptic films set in hot, dry, inhospitable landscapes up to that point (e.g. Mad Max, A Boy and His Dog, etc.). In addition, the constant nighttime rain gave the film a dark and brooding edge that allowed him to develop themes that tend to lurk in the underbelly of society – the “us” versus “them,” the nature of empathy and humanity, the attempts to create beings at once greater and lesser than ourselves. And the dirty, overbearing, multicultural city gave the impression of a humanity thrown together against all else – weather, off-worlders, and, of course, the replicants.
The film’s main character is solely Rick Deckard, a Blade Runner tasked with “retiring” replicants, and we see the world almost exclusively through his viewpoint. In the book, Deckard is married, his wife is unstable, and he is obsessed with owning a real animal rather than the electric sheep he keeps on his rooftop because in a world where most animals are scarce or extinct, it was all he could afford. Dick states that androids can’t appreciate the existence of another being, but Deckard still feels need for at least an electric sheep. Does that make him more human? It’s left up to the reader to decide. In the film, Deckard is a loner – no wife, no girlfriend, no attachments, and certainly no sheep. He is first and foremost a Blade Runner, and he’s damn good at his job – so good that he’s pulled in to track and retire four replicants who killed the crew of a spaceship on Mars and headed to Earth, where they have illegally tried to blend in with the human population.
The “empathy test,” called the Voigt-Kampff instrument in the book, is pretty much the same in the book and the movie. It measures pupil dilation and constriction, as well as response time, in subjects facing highly disturbing situations. It’s what allows the Blade Runners to determine if they’re facing a human or a replicant. In both media, Deckard must test a woman named Rachel at the request of the largest replicant manufacturer; in both, he also determines that she’s very sophisticated, but she’s definitely a replicant.
Now here’s where the two diverge widely. In the book, Rachel knows what she is and allies herself with other replicants in a vast network that spans the colonies and even infiltrates the entire police department; it’s how she stays one step ahead of Deckard and the other Blade Runners and tries to prevent him from retiring the group who recently came to Earth. It turns out she is the blueprint for one of the new Nexus-6 models, and they all look like her. She sleeps with Deckard so he won’t be able to take out the fugitive named Pris, reasoning that if he loves her, he won’t be able to fire on someone who looks like her. It’s worked for her with nine other Blade Runners in the past.
In the film, though, Rachel stumbles across what she is, and she is not a blueprint – she’s a completely new and unique model; Pris is a “standard pleasure model” and looks and acts nothing like her. Rachel is therefore free to serve as the primary love interest for Deckard, such that she tries to help him with his work and he snatches her away from her owners to smuggle her to freedom. As a result, she willingly flees with Deckard, welcoming the chance to escape to a better, more human life.
Though there are many other differences, the last one we’ll discuss is something critical to the success of the book but completely absent from the movie – a kind of new “religion” called “Mercerism.” Everyone has empathy boxes in their houses, and they dial up a certain frequency on the box, grab onto the handles, and follow Wilbur Mercer as he climbs a hill to the top where he is knocked down and climbs again, like a future-day version of Sisyphus. Following his journey up, down, and then up again, people feel empowered. In fact, it is Mercer, the man himself, who provides Deckard the strength he needs to retire Pris where he would have otherwise hesitated because of Rachel.
Mercerism is woven into every aspect of the novel, coloring everyone’s thoughts and actions. Philip Dick was well known for his strange ideas and even instability, and his creation of this new religion was probably just an outgrowth of some of his wilder fantasies. The whole concept had no place in the film. For one, there’s only so much you can cram in to a two-hour movie, and Scott had his hands full with futuristic world-building, atmospherics, and characters who had to be both villainous yet also sensitively flawed to be relatable to the audience. For another, “Blade Runner” was made as a science fiction-adventure movie, and such far-out ideas would not have melded well with the rest of the script.
The Final Cut
So, how did “Blade Runner” as a movie fare as a book adaptation overall? Although Ridley Scott veered wildly away from the source material, he managed to capture most of the essence of it. The major theme of “What makes a human?” was critical to the success of both versions, and he built up a stunning world around it to convey that message. I would give it an A- for the film’s ability to be “inspired by” the original while still creating a unique and memorable piece.
What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Please add your comments in the section below.
– Miriam Ruff, Content Creator, PoetsIN
DISCLAIMER: The opinions discussed in this blog post are solely those of the blogger and do not necessarily represent any thoughts, values, or opinions of PoetsIN and any of its affiliate groups.