What did Philip K Dick think of Blade Runner?

September 2022 | 3,600 words | Contents | They say…

Digest: He hated the first screenplay but loved the second one. And the design.

Dystopia: Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles | Warner Bros


What did Philip K Dick think of Blade Runner?

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They say…

Quotes from emails about this post

I enjoyed reading your blog entry, which I thought was astute and thorough

Lawrence Sutin, author, compiled The Shifting Realities of Philip K Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings, 1995

Dug your post a lot! You know your shit

Rob Harvilla, writer at The Ringer, wrote ‘Blade Runner’ Is Still the Truest Philip K. Dick Adaptation, 2017


What did Philip K Dick think of Blade Runner?

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Contents

Introduction

SelecTV Guide article: early screenplay

Novelisation, Hollwood, new screenplay

Dick’s letter praises production

Dick enthuses about rushes

Conclusion

The end bit


What did Philip K Dick think of Blade Runner?

Contents 🔺

Introduction

We want to know

Genius sci-fi writer Philip K Dick died in 1982 (aged 53, from two strokes) shortly before the release of Ridley Scott‘s superb film Blade Runner, adapted from Dick’s book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Fans like me of the book and the film, aware of the great differences between the two, may anxiously wonder what the famously obsessive Dick knew about the film-in-progress – and what he thought of it.

As shown in this post, it turns out that although Dick was peeved at not being consulted and was very upset about an early screenplay, he loved the rewrite and was blown away by the pre-release rushes he saw.


What did Philip K Dick think of Blade Runner?

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SelecTV Guide article: early screenplay

He hated it

In early 1981 Dick wasn’t being consulted for Blade Runner but having heard about it he managed to get a copy of the screenplay via his agent.

He hated the screenplay and wrote a snarky article about it (for a sci-fi edition of LA cable company magazine SelecTV Guide).

The ostensible point of Dick’s article was that a breakthrough in special effects technology gave sci-fi movies box-office success at the expense of story. The real point was to criticise Scott and Blade Runner.

The excerpt below gives Dick’s views not only on the Blade Runner screenplay (suppressed anger and disgust) but also on Alien (bad), Star Wars (not bad) and early Star Trek (very good):

    ‘Ridley Scott, who directed Alien and who now intends to bring into existence a $15 million* film based on my novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, confessed to an interviewer from Omni magazine that he “found the novel too difficult to read,” despite the fact that the novel appeared as a mass-circulation paperback. On the other hand I was able rather easily to read the screenplay (it will be called Blade Runner). It was terrific. It bore no relation to the book. Oddly, in some ways it was better. (I had a hell of a time getting my hands on the screenplay. No one involved in the Blade Runner project has ever spoken to me. But that’s okay, I haven’t spoken to them.) What my story will become is one titanic lurid collision of androids being blown up, androids killing humans, general confusion and murder, all very exciting to watch. Makes my book seem dull by comparison.’

* Blade Runner’s budget was actually about $30 million. (It’s made about $40 millionsurprisingly little for one of the best movies ever.)

    ‘Still, you wouldn’t want to see my novel on the screen because it is full of people conversing, plus the personal problems of the protagonist. These matters don’t translate to the screen. And why translate them, since a novel is a story in words, whereas a movie is an event that moves?…

    ‘As a writer, though, I’d sort of like to see some of my ideas, not just special effects of my ideas, used. For all its dazzling graphic impact, Alien (to take one example) had nothing new to bring us in the way of concepts that awaken the mind rather than the senses … Star Trek, years ago, delved more into provocative ideas than most big-budget sci-fi films today, and some of the finest authors in the science-fiction field wrote those hour TV episodes … But I must admit that the eerie, mystical, almost religious subtheme in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back enchanted me.’

The SelecTV Guide article quoted above is reproduced in The Shifting Realities of Philip K Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings (1995), compiled and introduced by author Lawrence Sutin.

In his article, Dick said the Blade Runner screenplay was terrific and in some ways better than his book. But given his later comments (see below), he was clearly being sarcastic.

In a 1982 interview by James Van Hise, Dick described his SelecTV Guide article as ‘smartassed’.


What did Philip K Dick think of Blade Runner?

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Novelisation, Hollwood, new screenplay

He loved the new screenplay

In late 1981 Dick gave two interviews, recently collated on philipdick.com. The colllated interview covers many aspects of Dick’s life and writings, including his relationship with Blade Runner.

Although Dick said in his SelecTV Guide article he hadn’t spoken to the film’s producers, they clearly communicated later. In the interview, Dick described the negotiations that followed a lucrative offer from the film company for him to write a novelisation.

Dick also expounded in the interview on his fraught relationship with Hollywood, and on how he loved the new screenplay.

    Dick: ‘The amount of money involved [in a film novelisation] would have been very great, and the film people offered to cut us in on the merchandising rights. But they required a suppression of the original novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in favor of the commercialized novelization based on the screenplay. My agency computed that I would accrue, conservatively, $400,000 if I did the novelization. In contrast, if we went the route of rereleasing the original novel, I would make about $12,500.

    ‘Blade Runner’s people were putting tremendous pressure on us to do the novelization — or to allow someone else to come in and do it, like Alan Dean Foster. But we felt that the original was a good novel. And also, I did not want to write what I call the “El Cheapo” novelization…So we stuck to our guns, and at one point Blade Runner became so cold-blooded they threatened to withdraw the logo rights. We wouldn’t be able to say, “The novel on which Blade Runner is based.” We’d be unable to use any stills from the film. Finally we came to an agreement with them. We are adamant about rereleasing the original novel…

    ‘You know, I was so turned off by Hollywood. And they were really turned off by me. That insistence on my part of bringing out the original novel and not doing the novelization — they were just furious. They finally recognized that there was a legitimate reason for reissuing the novel, even though it cost them money. It was a victory not just of contractual obligations but of theoretical principles. And although this is speculation on my part, I think that one of the spin-offs was that they went back to the original novel. Because they knew it would be reissued, you see. So it is possible that it got fed back into the screenplay by a process of positive feedback.

    ‘I was such a harsh critic of Hampton Francher’s original screenplay, and I was so outspoken, that the studio knows that my present attitude is sincere, that I’m not just hyping them. Because I was really angry and disgusted. There were good things in Fancher’s screenplay, but it’s like the story of the old lady who takes a ring into a jeweller to have the stone reset. And the jeweller scrapes all of the patina of years and years and shines it up, and she says, “My God, that was what I loved the ring for — the patina!” Okay, they had cleaned my book up of all of the subtleties and of the meaning. The meaning was gone. It had become a fight between androids and a bounty hunter.

    ‘I had this vision in my mind then that I would go up there and be introduced to Ridley Scott, and be introduced to Harrison Ford, who’s the lead character, and I’d just be so dazzled I’d be like Mr. Toad seeing the motorcar for the first time. My eyes would be wide as saucers and I’d just be standing there completely mesmerized. Then I would watch a scene being shot. And Harrison Ford would say, “Lower that blast-pistol or you’re a dead android!” And I would just leap across that special effects set like a veritable gazelle and seize him by the throat and start battering him against the wall. They’d have to run in and throw a blanket over me and call the security guards to bring in the Thorazine. And I’d be screaming, “You’ve destroyed my book!”

    ‘That would be a little item in the newspaper: “Obscure Author Becomes Psychotic on H’wood Set; Minor Damage, Mostly to the Author.” They’d have to ship me back to Orange County in a crate full of air holes. And I’d still be screaming.

    ‘I started drinking a whole lot of scotch. I went from a thimbleful to a jigger glass and finally to two wine glasses of scotch every night. Last Memorial Day I started bleeding, gastrointestinal bleeding. And it was because of drinking scotch and taking aspirin constantly and worrying about this whole goddamned thing. I said, “Hollywood is gonna kill me by remote control!”

    ‘One is always haunted by the specter of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who goes there and they just grind him up, like in a garbage disposal.’

    Interviewer: All of that changed when you saw David W. People’s revised screenplay?

    Dick: I saw a segment of Douglas Trumbull’s special effects for Blade Runner on the KNBC-TV news. I recognized it immediately. It was my own interior world. They caught it perfectly.

    ‘I wrote the station, and they sent the letter to the Ladd Company. They gave me the updated screenplay. I read it without knowing they had brought somebody else in. I couldn’t believe what I was reading! It was simply sensational — still Hampton Francher’s screenplay, but miraculously transfigured, as it were. The whole thing had simply been rejuvenated in a very fundamental way.

    ‘After I finished reading the screenplay, I got the novel out and looked through it. The two reinforce each other, so that someone who started with the novel would enjoy the movie and someone who started with the movie would enjoy the novel. I was amazed that Peoples could get some of those scenes to work. It taught me things about writing that I didn’t know.

    ‘… I was so disappointed when I read the first Blade Runner screenplay, because it was … a destruction of the novel. But now, it’s magic time. You read the screenplay and then you go to the novel, and it’s like they’re two halves to one meta-artwork, one meta-artifact. It’s just exciting.

    ‘… It’s been the greatest thing for me. I was just destroyed at one point at the prospect of this awful thing that had happened to my work. I wouldn’t go up there, I wouldn’t talk to them, I wouldn’t meet Ridley Scott. I was supposed to be wined and dined and everything, and I wouldn’t go, I just wouldn’t go. There was bad blood between us.

    ‘That David W. Peoples screenplay changed my attitude. He had been working on the third Star Wars film, Revenge of the Jedi. The Blade Runner people hired him away temporarily to do the script by showing him my novel. I’m now working very closely with the Ladd Company and I’m on very good terms with them. In fact, that’s one of the things that’s worn me out…

    ‘I was supposed to go up there [to the studio]. They called me up and called me up, and I temporized and temporized. I thought — no, I’ll go up there and I’m on a diet, so I can’t eat the rich foods they’ll serve me, and what I’ll really hope for is a whole lot of free cocaine, and there won’t be any free cocaine, and I’ll be real pissed because of that. I’ll keep querulously, petulantly saying, “Where’s the cocaine?” and they’ll say, “No, that’s a myth, you’ve been reading TV Guide.”
    .
    ‘I have been up there to another film project, the little Capitol Pictures one, called Claw [subsequently retitled Screamers, based on Dick’s short story Second Variety]. They’re very nice. I really like them. Every change that’s made, they send me a copy to get my opinion. They just treat me like a human being.

    ‘In other words, I am able to discriminate between essentially reputable people up there, and these high-pressure types. Shit, Blade Runner started yelling at me because, in an article that I wrote in the SelecTV Guide, I mentioned androids. They said, “That’s very dangerous talk, mentioning androids in connection with this film. We’re not using the word android.” Well, it seems hard to avoid a word that’s in the title of your own book. And they wanted to know how I’d gotten hold of a copy of the screenplay. “How did you get hold of it?” they said, with the emphasis on the word “you,” you know?

    ‘The sets, I’m sure, are marvellous … Well, in a way it’s a Chinese finger-trap. If the sets are that good, maybe I’ll go up there and fall into the mode that exists now in science fiction, where the special effects and the sets are everything. And as an author I can’t afford, as a practical matter, to adopt that ideology, because it reduces the author to merely setting up a simple plot-outline in which special effects can be brought in. His job is very much a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.’

Source: two interviews collated on philipdick.com, originally published in The Twilight Zone, June 1982 and The Patchin Review, October 1982. (My bolding)


What did Philip K Dick think of Blade Runner?

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Dick’s letter praises production

I think he liked it

In October 1981 Dick wrote a gushing letter to the production company after seeing a TV show featuring shots from the film:

    ‘…After looking [at the shots] – and especially after listening to Harrison Ford discuss the film – I came to the conclusion that this indeed is not science fiction; it is not fantasy; it is exactly what Harrison said: futurism. The impact of Blade Runner is simply going to be overwhelming, both on the public and on creative people — and, I believe, on science fiction as a field. Since I have been writing and selling science fiction works for thirty years, this is a matter of some importance to me. In all candor I must say that our field has gradually and steadily been deteriorating for the last few years. Nothing that we have done, individually or collectively, matches Blade Runner. This is not escapism; it is super realism, so gritty and detailed and authentic and goddam convincing that, well, after the segment I found my normal present-day “reality” pallid by comparison. What I am saying is that all of you collectively may have created a unique new form of graphic, artistic expression, never before seen. And, I think, Blade Runner is going to revolutionize our conceptions of what science fiction is and, more, can be.

    ‘Let me sum it up this way. Science fiction has slowly and ineluctably settled into a monotonous death: it has become inbred, derivative, stale. Suddenly you people have come in, some of the greatest talents currently in existence, and now we have a new life, a new start. As for my own role in the Blade Runner project, I can only say that I did not know that a work of mine or a set of ideas of mine could be escalated into such stunning dimensions. My life and creative work are justified and completed by Blade Runer. Thank you … It will prove invincible.’

Dick’s letter (text and facsimile) is published on many websites, including here on the Dangerous Minds website


What did Philip K Dick think of Blade Runner?

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Dick enthuses about rushes

He definitely liked it

In early 1982 the Blade Runner production company, after getting Dick’s letter of approval and giving him the new screenplay, arranged for him to see some pre-release rushes.

Cinematographer and director Paul Sammon, who was on-set making a photographic record of the production, covers this event in his book Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner.

At the studio, Dick was shown the rushes by special effects chief David Dryer (who’d taken over from Douglas Trumbull). Sammon relates Dryer’s recollection of the event (plus a few words from the famously laconic Scott).

    [Dryer:] “I could tell right away that Dick was unhappy; he acted like somebody with a burr up their ass. First he started kind of grilling me in this grouchy tone about all kinds of things. He wanted to know what was going on, told me that he’d been very unhappy with the script, and so on and so forth.

    “So first we gave him a quick tour of the EEG [Entertainments Effects Group] shop, which I thought might settle him down. But Dick didn’t seem impressed, even when we showed him all the preproduction art and the actual models we’d used for certain effects shots. Then after Dick and Ridley had a meeting we went into the screening room.”

    “Dick was a bit guarded at first,” recalls Ridley Scott. “Until we doused the lights, turned up the music, and ran the reel for him,” adds Dryer. “Dick didn’t say a word at first. He sat there for twenty minutes like a statue. Then the lights came up, and Dick turned around to me. He said in this gruff voice, ‘Can you run that again?’ So the projectionist rethreaded and ran it again.”

    “Now the lights come up a second time. Dick looks me straight in the eye and says, ‘How is this possible? How can this be? Those are not the exact images, but the texture and tone of the images I saw in my head when I was writing the original book! The environment is exactly as how I’d imagined it! How’d you guys do that? How did you know what I was feeling and thinking?!’

    “Let me tell you, that was one of the most successful moments of my career,” Dryer concludes. “Dick went away dazed.”

Source: excerpt on Flavorwire from Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner by Paul Sammon (Revised and updated edition, 2017) (My bolding)

Sammon, who’d known Dick since the early 70’s, said Dick called him after the showing and said, ‘I can’t believe it. Where can I get a Deckard action figure?’.

Interviewed by Sammon about the film, Dick enthused about the thrilling detail of the street scenes shown in the rushes.

It wasn’t all sweetness and light at the rushes. In the Sammon interview, Dick said during his conversation with Scott they disagreed about the androids (or replicants).

Dick said he based Sheep‘s androids on his research for The Man in the High Castle. He told Scott the androids, lacking empathy, were a threat to humans; and Deckard, in hunting them, became like them.

Dick said Scott wasn’t interested in that intellectual aspect, but saw the replicants as superior. Dick said the conversation was nevertheless cordial.

Cordially awkward – Scott v Dick at the rushes
Photo: Ladd Company


What did Philip K Dick think of Blade Runner?

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Conclusion

Kind of

Fans like me of both the book and the film may wonder at this point: how come Dick so loved the new screenplay, and the design he saw on TV and in the rushes – when the film (as it was shaping up) was so different from his precious book?

In a 2017 Ringer article, writer Rob Harvilla addressed that question in detail with wit, empathy and appreciation. Harvilla convincingly concluded that while Blade Runner isn’t the most faithful Dick adaption, it’s nevertheless the truest to his vision.

In a 1982 interview with James Van Hise, Dick addressed the question himself. He said the original screenplay was ‘Philip Marlowe meets The Stepford Wives’.

    ‘When I read it originally I thought that I will move to the Soviet Union where I am completely unknown and work making light bulbs in a factory and never even look at a book again and pretend I can’t read.’

But he loved the new screenplay.

    ‘They took a good book and made a good screenplay. The two reinforce each other, two parts of a single whole. If you start with the book, the screenplay adds ma­terial to it. If you start with the screenplay, the book adds to that. They’re beautifully symmetric, a real miracle.’ [My precis]

Source: reproduction on Scraps from the Loft of Philip K. Dick On ‘Blade Runner’ by historian and author James Van Hise, originally published in Starlog, February 1982

Regarding the disagreement about the androids, or replicants (see above), Dick seems to have accepted Scott’s replicants, perhaps as a necessary compromise.

In his brilliant novel, Dick faced his androids’ dangerous inhumanity. Scott humanised his replicants – but was making a brilliant film.

So… what did Philip K Dick think of (pre-release) Blade Runner? He loved it.

That makes this fan of the book and the film happy. Less anxious.


What did Philip K Dick think of Blade Runner?

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The end bit

Vale

Dick lived much of his adult life in near poverty. The SelecTV Guide article about the earlier screenplay, quoted above, was written for his cable company’s TV guide. His payment was a year’s free cable.

Since the success of Blade Runner and other major films based on his books (such as the dodgy but high-earning Schwarzenegger Total Recall), Dick’s estate, run by his three children, has generated tens of millions of dollars from book royalties, rights and licensing fees.

It’s a shame Dick didn’t live to enjoy that deserved financial reward – and to see more of his ideas being used in films. His brilliant ideas have been used not as hooks to hang special effects on, but in their own right – as he hoped.

Blade Runner‘s production hoo-hah had a successful outcome, but it took its toll on Dick’s health. Sadly – ironically – it probably contributed to the early death which meant he never got to see the finished version (!) of the wonderful Blade Runner.

Forget it, Phil – it’s Hollywood… | Illustration: Timba Smits

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