Hidden Meaning in Philip K Dick’s Work and Movie Adaptations

Lukáš Kačinetz

Philip Kindred Dick has been acknowledged as one of the founders of modern science fiction. Although his work is not very well known, movies inspired by his work are. The source material has been brought to life by some major directors, including Steven Spielberg, Paul Verhoeven and Ridley Scott. The biggest question we must ask ourselves, is this: “Is this a good adaptation or is it just some flick?”

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1962) and Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott, became an instant classic. Thanks to its breathtaking visuals, dark, gloomy dystopian future, amazing practical tricks and sad, melancholic story, its success appears to be ageless. Blade Runner was nominated for many awards, including five Academy Awards, but it won only 3 BAFTAs, the Hugo Awards and London Film Critics’ Circle Award.

Although the source material is slightly different and much more depressing, both storylines discuss the same questions: How do we define life? How can we tell if our life is real? And does it even matter?

There are many symbolic scenes and motives, both in the movie and in the book. These often unexplained and cryptic scenes add mysticism to both movie and book. The biggest question is, of course: “Is Deckard, the main protagonist, a replicant (cyborg)?” In the source material there are no clues that he is, except for the title. Rick Deckard from the book does his job (“retiring” androids) to buy a real animal to replace the electric sheep that he has. At the end of the book, he finds a toad, but is displeased to discover that even the toad is just a replica. It is stated towards the end that “electrical things have their lives too, paltry as those lives are”, which may suggest that Deckard can never fulfil his life’s aim. In the movie, there are many subtle hints, especially in the Director´s Cut version. Most of these are made by the character Eduardo Gaff, an enigmatic LAPD officer who confuses the audience with origami. In one of the last scenes, he leaves an origami unicorn at Deckard’s desk, suggesting that he knows about Deckard’s dreams. This would be impossible if Deckard wasn’t a replicant. Some other things, too, support this theory – for instance, the appearance of many animals (e.g. owl, snake) which symbolize truth and wisdom. Also, the character of Rachel, who is not aware that she is a replicant, opens up many possibilities. But not even Harrison Ford can say if his character is or isn’t a replicant.


We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (1966) and Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall, directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, is one of the best sci-fi movies of the 90s. This action classic, filled with one-liners, good cast, amazing effects and fine storyline, created a great mix. Inspired by Philip K Dick’s short novel, the movie features a company which can implant memories and the story of Douglas Quaid, a construction worker who has discovered that he is a special agent on a mission. The movie itself focuses more on action than on questions, which are asked usually after the movie. The big question concerns the nature of Quaid´s memory. Is the movie real or is it just a memory implanted by the Rekall company? The breaking point of the movie is Quaid’s visit to Rekall, where he is taught that he will “get the girl, kill the bad guy and save the entire planet”, which is basically how the rest of the movie turns out. Other hints at the Rekall company, too, foreshadow the rest of the movie, so the validity is not solid. The director has said that he didn’t want to answer questions about fake memories and that he wanted to keep it “this way”.

The source material of the short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” is similar. It portrays a worker with a boring life who undergoes an artificial memory implant because he wants to be a hero. He remembers his past as a secret agent and his work as an assassin. The biggest twist in the plot comes at the end of the story. Douglas Quail agrees to have his memory of his time as a secret agent erased, to be replaced by his most fulfilling fantasy ever. He is told by a psychologist that his fantasy was about saving Earth from an alien invasion. Having arrived on Earth, the aliens, who look like small mice, were so moved by Quail’s kindness and mercy that they postponed their attack on Earth for as long as Quail would live. This makes him the most important person on Earth without lifting a finger. At the very end of the story, we learn to know that this is not a fantasy and that the proof-artefacts, including a citation from the UN Secretary General, are not fake. What a twist! He really has saved the world, and so become unaware of the fact.


Minority Report (1956)  and Minority Report (2002)

This movie is full of star names, most notably Steven Spielberg as a producer, Tom Cruise as lead actor and John Williams as a writer of the score. An instant success, the movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound Editing and many Saturn awards. An action movie, it tells us the story of John Anderton, a police officer who works for PreCrime, a system of crime precognition which leads to arrests before the crimes are committed. The action begins as the captain himself is declare the murderer of a man named Leo Crow, whom he doesn’t even know. John must escape from PreCrime to discover where the mistake was made and explain the glitch in the system, so clearing his name.

The novel of the same name is probably the source material addressed in this article that is most different from the film(s) it inspired. In the source material, John Anderton, an old man in his fifties, is the head of the Precrime division. He is also revealed as a future murderer, so he tracks down the source of PreCrime. At the end, he stands before a big dilemma. His target is General Kaplan, who is planning to shut down the PreCrime organization. What should Anderton do? Prove that PreCrime doesn’t work by not committing the crime? Or fulfil his predestined role by killing Kaplan and getting punished for it, so proving that PreCrime works? He takes the second course.

Both novel and movie work around something called Minority Report. PreCrime uses mutants to predict the future, but sometimes results vary. Two out of three in the movies are considered a Minority Report, where one mutant has seen another possibility. These reports are taken to be valid, but not by 100% so. The big motto of both works is quite simple, and it concerns destiny. Are people responsible for murder or is PreCrime responsible for the crime? If we know the future, do we still have a free mind and the right to choose?

Other movies, too, have been inspired by the work of this author. Sadly, today this work does not receive the appreciation it deserves. One of Dick’s greatest achievements was to combine sci-fi with philosophy, so laying one of the cornerstones of modern science fiction.

Blade Runner: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083658/
We can remember it ….: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/we-can-remember-it-for-you-wholesale/
Total Recall: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100802/
Do androids….: https://www.behance.net/gallery/12828737/Do-Androids-Dream-of-Electric-Sheep