Welcome back to 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 “Paycheck,” yet another adaptation of a story from the prolific writer Philip K. Dick. The story was written on July 31, 1952 and first published in the June 1953 issue of Imagination. It was adapted in 2013 for film by screenwriter Dean Georgaris and noted action director John Woo (“Mission: Impossible II,” “Face/Off,” “Broken Arrow”). For those of you unfamiliar with the basic premise, here is a brief synopsis of the story (adapted from enotes.com) and the film (taken from imdb.com):
“Jennings is an engineer who agreed to work for two years for Rethrick Construction and have his memory erased afterwards to protect company secrets. Instead of the money promised at the end of his contract, however, Jennings discovers his pre-erasure self asked to be paid with a collection of odd items. As Jennings tries to unravel why his earlier self would do such a thing, he uncovers the truth of Rethrick Construction and the secret project he worked on. Each item proves useful in this quest, and each helps him discover the scope of The Company’s work and its intention to mould the world’s future.”
“What seemed like a breezy idea for an engineer to net him millions of dollars leaves him on the run for his life and piecing together why he’s being chased.”
From the Source’s Mouth
Let’s start our discussion with one of the main concerns of any story adaptation – how true is the film to the source material? Though the story was written all the way back in 1952, it has a solid backbone and enough versatility and future perception to make it right for a film made in the decade it was written or for one made decades after.
The film uses the basics of the original story to craft a longer piece appropriate for a feature-length film (the runtime is just over 2 ½ hours). In the story, Jennings is a mechanic, and he works freelance for Rethrick Construction. He has no idea what he does for them because, after a two-year stint on a project, Rethrick wipes his memory clean for that entire time. This was part of his agreement to work for The Company, which pays handsomely for such work-for-hire.
Jennings has a bit of a shock, though, when he goes to the office for his paycheck. Instead of handing him an envelope with the 50,000 credits he expects, Kelly gives him a small cloth sack containing a code key, a ticket stub, a parcel receipt, a length of fine wire, half a poker chip, a green cloth strip, and a bus token. He’s outraged, but Kelly shows him a clause in his contract that says he could, at any time, request articles he felt were equivalent in value to the money he was to receive, and that there’s no doubt he made the request, since it’s written in his own handwriting.
As he leaves the office, the Security Police pull up and insist he come with them. All they want from him is information, they say. Where is Rethrick’s plant? What was his job while he worked for the company? He’s known for repairing high-quality computers and allied equipment, but exactly what kind of machinery did he work with these last two years? He genuinely can’t remember anything about his time with Rethrick, but the SP doesn’t buy his story. Stumped as to what to do, they take him to the Station, locking him in the cruiser while they consult their superiors. Jennings knows they’ll work him over, given the opportunity, and that his answers will always be the same. He has to get out and make a run for it. The lock, though, can only be opened with a special code key. If only he could short it out …
Suddenly he remembers the wire he has from the cloth bag in his pocket; he pulls it out and carefully wedges it into the groove between the lock and the door, and — bang! The door falls open, he runs out into the crowd outside, and finally he jumps on a passing bus before the SP men can reach him. The conductor says he can’t just board in the middle of the street, but Jennings reaches for the second item from the bag, the bus token, and hands it over. It hits him then – two of the seven items from the bag had just proved more useful than any money could have been. Clearly he (his former self) had known this in advance, but how? Before he can solve the puzzle, though, he has to get somewhere safe. As an individual, the SP can pick him up anywhere at any time. However, businesses and corporations are protected against seizure. All he has to do is make it back to Rethrick, and he’ll have sanctuary within The Company. They liked his work and had indicated they would hire him again, so that shouldn’t present any kind of problem. What will be a problem is finding the plant. It’s certainly not at the office where he picked up his things, but he can’t remember where it’s located, and time is of the essence.
A ticket stub would tell you where you’ve been, and the one from the bag points Jennings to Stuartsville, Iowa, a place of farms, fields, and miles of empty country. He drops in to a coffee shop and casually asks about finding electrical or mechanical work in town, but he comes up empty until the server mentions a Government station up the road. They only use a few day laborers, though, and they’re fussy about who they pick. They choose the ones wearing a green strip of cloth – item #4 from the goody bag. For the next step he’ll need help, and if Rethrick is indeed located here, then Kelly should be too. He tracks her down and begs her to help him. He has a theory, and if he’s right, he can blackmail Rethrick into taking him on again on his terms. He believes Rethrick isn’t a construction company at all. Instead, it’s created a time scoop –a mirror sees into the future and a scoop picks up items to bring back. It makes sense – if he had been repairing the machinery for Rethrick the past two years, then he probably would have taken the opportunity to look into his own future, see that the SP would pick him up, and retrieve the items he’d need to escape. One of the trinkets contains a future date, so he’s sure that’s what he did. Since it’s illegal to experiment with such technology, if the SP can get proof it exists, it becomes the property of the Government. It’s Jennings’ plan to re-enter the plant, steal the blueprints and schematics for the time scoop then hand them over to Kelly for safekeeping while he negotiates with Rethrick, threatening to deliver the documents to the SP if they don’t comply with his demands.
This all goes seemingly without a hitch until his meeting with Rethrick. Apparently, before he left The Company Jennings sabotaged the mirror so it was unusable by anyone else. Rethrick wants him back, but only as a mechanic; Jennings will only return as a full partner. His hold over Rethrick, though, vanishes, as he discovers Kelly is really Rethrick’s daughter – she did hide the documents away, but she won’t return them to Jennings. Rethrick says the company’s been in his family for generations, and that’s the way it’s going to stay. The Company has a big future ahead of it. People will soon refuse to be tossed back and forth by political and economic powers, and Rethrick will be able to “sell” them its future-seeing services to help them in their fight.
Jennings still has one trinket left from the bag, a dated receipt for a parcel delivered to a bank vault. Even as Kelly protests that she has the original, a dark hole opens above her head, a claw reaches down and grabs the receipt, and everything vanishes into nothingness. He had foreseen even that. But Jennings promises that The Company will be there in the future for the people, only it will have the three of them together at the helm.
So, that brings us to the movie, which, in terms of basic plot, is similar to the original story. Michael Jennings is a mechanical engineer who has done numerous two-month stints for his friend Jimmy, the head of Allcom. Basically, he reverse engineers other companies’ products and then makes them one step better, and it’s a great paycheck. Of course, his memories of his work and the people he knew during those times are completely erased before his obligation to the company is competed. Then Jimmy dangles out another job, one with a guaranteed eight-figure payout. This one will be two to three years, though, and it will deal with optics in some way. It’s too tantalizing to pass up, and Jennings accepts. The next thing we know, though, the three years has passed and Jennings is being paid – with an envelope full of 20 trinkets like a cigarette lighter, hair spray, a paper clip, a bus pass, and a bullet. He’s outraged, but it’s definitely his signature on the forms.
Jennings goes back to his apartment, but FBI agents are waiting for him, and they bring him in for interrogation. It seems during his last job he was working with William Decker, a government weapons physicist who sold his classified technology three years earlier when he couldn’t get government funding. By accepting payment for working with him, Jennings committed treason. Not willing to accept the permanence of the memory wipe, the FBI tries to extract those memories anyway, with no results. Jennings escapes custody using three of the items in the envelope, setting up the usefulness of the remainder for the rest of the film.
For some odd reason, these days you can’t have an action movie without a love interest, and here it comes in the form of Dr. Rachel Porter, a zoologist also working for Jimmy. She and Jennings become an item for the three years he works on the project, we are told, and apparently he said he wouldn’t leave the company without her, but for some pressing reason he did anyway. She has pictures to prove their relationship, and she still loves him, so he feels guilty about remembering nothing. He enlists her help in bringing down the company, but any other character could have done that. Except for kissing scenes, she serves no real purpose in the story.
Jimmy, while this is going on, has dozens of men out to find and kill Jennings for what he may still remember about the project. Decker had been working on laser-enhanced lenses that could allow people to see around the curves of the universe; Jennings then deduced that if you curved space enough, you could wrap back and see yourself – in the future. Jimmy wants this technology, but Jennings sabotaged the machine’s hardware before he left. Dodging bullets right and left, Jennings heads back to Allcon to destroy the machine. One of the items he left for his future self were images from every possible future seen through the machine, and all of them ended in the destruction of humanity. Naturally, he is successful in his efforts, but only after a drawn-out battle with Jimmy and his thugs, and professing a belief to Rachel about “second chances.”
I think this possibility of “future travel” is extremely interesting, and so I was invested in both the original story and the film, though they differed in the mechanics and the consequences of such technology. However, I found several points in the film exceedingly puzzling, even irritating.
First, the scientists go about extracting memories like each one is a discrete package stored in a specific area of the brain, which is not the case. Memories are formed from connections between neurons, the more connections, the stronger and longer-lasting the memories. There is no possible way to excise a memory like trimming fat off of meat. It made the whole “memory wipe” technology highly questionable right from the start, and that interfered with my ability to suspend disbelief for the rest of the film.
Second, no one seemed to consider that if you forget what you’ve done, you can’t ever move forward in your thinking – you have no prior theory or knowledge on which to build the foundation for your next project or for your life. Re-acquainting yourself with the people you work with and their habits, knowledge, quirks, and any rapport you may have built in the past is very time consuming, and no company could run effectively with everyone always having to start from scratch.
Third, and this is more petty, we jump from the scene with Jennings starting the optics program to the one where he’s trying to pick up his paycheck three years later, and everyone looks exactly the same. Clothes, haircuts, fingernails – all identical. This goes beyond implausible, it’s just carelessness. Similarly, despite all the action, everyone looks none the worse for wear.
The Final Cut
So, how did “Paycheck” as a movie fare as a short story adaptation overall? As I’ve mentioned, the original premise of the film was sound, but there were a lot of little details that, added together, detracted from the story as a whole. It also seemed that director John Woo couldn’t resist a single gunfight or a car chase that came his way, and all that non-stop action diluted the movie’s big ideas. I would give it a D+ for nice shooting but for missing the point of the whole adaptation idea.
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.