Do filmmakers dream of TV adaptations? – Why Philip K. Dick’s books are a better fit for the small screen

Total Recall turns 30 this month, and if this knowledge has spurred you to revisit Paul Verhoeven’s big screen adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, I’m guessing you were left with two main takeaways. The first is that this 1990 action/sci-fi romp remains a largely enjoyable affair, thanks largely to star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s undeniable charisma and Verhoeven’s signature blend of hyper-violence and broad satire. The second is that it’s a perfect example of just how much Hollywood has struggled over the years to faithfully adapt Dick’s books for film.

Total Recall might even be considered the poster child for this phenomenon, as it pretty much ticks every box on the “Bad Philip K. Dick Movie Checklist”. Not only does it jettison virtually everything other than the source material’s compelling premise – in this instance, a construction worker in the near-future learns that he may or may not be a sleeper agent for the totalitarian government of Earth’s colony on Mars – but it only pays lip service to the deeper intellectual and philosophical themes that characterise Dick’s work, preferring to spend more time on elaborate action set pieces, instead.

“He said, ‘No, no, we want to do Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars

– David Cronenberg recounts Total Recall producer Ron Shusett’s approach to adapting We Can Remember It for You Wholesale

Funnily enough, though, even the Philip K. Dick adaptations that essentially get it “right” in terms of the overall story and themes – Blade Runner, Minority Report, and The Adjustment Bureau spring immediately to mind – still re-frame the narrative in more conventional, action-oriented terms. There’s an understandable logic to this: the time constraints of the medium and the expectations of audiences (and studio execs!) for the sci-fi genre means that Dick’s more contemplative, idea-driven style is going to need to be retooled into something more commercially viable before the cameras can roll.

And yet the mundane reality of this situation doesn’t make it any less frustrating for fans of Dick’s books – especially when they compare the movies based on Dick’s books to a TV series like The Man in the High Castle. Sure, this Amazon Studios show diverges from the novel it’s modelled after in several ways. But it also hews much closer to the overall plot of the book, and more importantly, over the course of its three seasons, it fully explores (and even expands upon) the ideas Dick delved into when The Man in the High Castle first hit shelves in 1962 – all while still managing to deliver a gripping and emotionally-engaging alt-history thriller, too!

This begs the question then: should all of Philip K. Dick’s novels and short stories have been adapted for television, instead?

The big facts about the history of small screen sci-fi (or Flow My Tears, Said the Anthology TV Show Producer)

Certainly, the contemporary critical and commercial success of Black Mirror – with its high-brow take on speculative sci-fi – suggests that a big budget, cerebral episodic anthology TV adaptation of Dick’s catalogue is practically a no-brainer. But the television programming landscape of the 1980s-90s and 2000s when Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and other Dick adaptations were developed was markedly different to that of today, when the episodic anthology has enjoy a major resurgence.

After all, CBS cancelled acclaimed The Twilight Zone – which was essentially Black Mirror before there was a Black Mirror – in 1964, ABC had ended its rival series The Outer Limits only a year later, and although both would be briefly revived (in 1985 and 1995, respectively), the sci-fi anthology format was more or less dead until Black Mirror debuted in 2011.

So, the reality is that trying to get financial backing for small screen versions of Dick’s stories back in the day when they were first being optioned around the film and TV industry would have been an uphill slog – if not outright impossible. If Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale or The Minority Report were going to be retold in live action, the only viable medium was cinema, not the telly.

Let’s revise the original question, then, and ask instead whether somebody should adapt Philip K. Dick’s books for TV today?

(Electric) dreams that faded from memory

Believe it or not, someone already has.

No, I’m not talking about the short-lived (and frankly, terrible) Total Recall or Minority Report TV series (which were based on the movies and not Dick’s books, anyway) – I’m talking about Electric Dreams.

Backed by Channel 4 and Amazon Video, Ronald D. Moore and Michael Dinner developed this 10-episode anthology series back in 2017; it garnered broadly positive reviews and modest viewer numbers before being largely forgotten. However, Electric Dreams didn’t necessarily draw from Dick’s most celebrated efforts – presumably due in part to rights issues, neither previously adapted or as-yet-unfilmed classics are represented here, which means the show isn’t truly reflective of what a Philip K. Dick-inspired anthology series is capable of.

Having said that, even a show created under the most ideal circumstances – one able to freely reimagine any of the author’s stories, unfettered by legal red tape – may not be the unqualified lay-up I’m positioning it to be, for two main reasons.

The first of these is the lingering affection surrounding at least a few of the existing adaptations. Hardcore fans may grumble over changes to Dick’s text, but Blade Runner is still widely regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time (Dick himself considered the film a fitting companion piece to his novel), Total Recall is fondly regarded for its pulpy charms, and Minority Report remains one of the most starkly prescient popcorn flicks of the last 20 years.

“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.”

– Philip K. Dick comments on the Blade Runner movie

This is far from an insurmountable obstacle, though. Plenty of remakes of beloved movies have won audiences over – and in the case of less well-remembered flops like Imposter, A Scanner Darkly, Knowing and Next, the odds of anybody objecting to a second go-round are slim, to say the least.

The second challenge facing a Philip K. Dick anthology series is less easily waved away: content overload. The dramatic uptick in quality TV programming over the past decade has resulted in a glut of quality options to choose from. How often have you found yourself saying “Oh, I’ve been meaning to watch that show?” There are so many great shows out there already, a new series would have to work overtime just to be noticed, much less find an audience.

What’s more, as we’ve already covered, anthology series are in vogue right now, so much so that we’re at a saturation point. Besides Black Mirror, there’s also the Twilight Zone reboot headlined by Jordan Peele, and non-episodic affairs like American Horror Story and True Detective.

Perhaps there’s just no room for yet another anthology series – not to mention one that’s at least 50% comprised of material we’ve seen before (however diluted it may have been).

We can remake it for you wholesale

Blade-Runner-2049

I’m inclined to think the answer’s not so simple.

Call me naïve, but there’s always room for a well-crafted new TV series, even in the face of a clear audience favourite like Black Mirror (particularly when said audience favourite is currently on unofficial hiatus). And so what if a decent chunk of the episodes are based on books and short stories that have been made into movies before? This could actually hook viewers intrigued by the prospect of seeing a different spin on a familiar yarn (and that goes double for disgruntled fans of Dick’s books!).

Let’s also not forget that several of Dick’s most celebrated works – including Ubik, which Time ranked among the greatest novels of the last century or so – have languished in development hell. Again, this would be entirely contingent on who owns the screen rights involved (and when their ownership expires), but hypothetically speaking, a new Philip K. Dick anthology series could tap into the best of the author’s writings that nobody has adapted before, which surely has to count for something.

Now, do I think this series will happen any time soon? No, not really. But that still doesn’t change the fact that television remains the best format for bringing Philip K. Dick’s books to the screen.

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