With unflinching honesty, the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? discusses its cinematic adaptation and the shock of reading the original screenplay, which made him think that he had died and been condemned to eternal torture.
by James Van Hise
Philip K. Dick is one of the unique writers working in the science-fiction genre. Over the past thirty years he has produced an impressive and varied body of work. No other author’s books quite match his distinctive style.
One source of altered reality met another when Dick and Hollywood formed an uneasy alliance in order to bring the author’s startling visions to the screen. His 1966 short story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” is being produced at the Walt Disney Studios from a Dan O’Bannon screenplay, under the title Total Recall. His 1953 short story, “Second Variety,” has also been adapted by O’Bannon for Virginia Palance and Capital Pictures and will be filmed under the title Claw. The first Dick adaptation to make it to the screen will be director Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, based on Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and starring Harrison Ford.
This Ladd Company production is the final result of a series of misunderstandings which made Dick doubt he would ever see anything filmed. At times the author was so alienated by the Hollywood system that he would have been just as happy if his novel never got filmed at all.
“It all began years ago,” he explains. “Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks were both interested in Androids but they didn’t option it. That was the first movie interest in any property of mine. Then later Herb Jaffe optioned it and Robert Jaffe did a screenplay back about 1973. The screenplay was sent to me and it was so crude that I didn’t understand that it was actually the shooting script; I thought it was the rough. I wrote to them and asked if they would like me to do the shooting script, at which point Robert Jaffe, the one who wrote the screenplay, flew down here to Orange County and confessed that he had written it under a nom de plume. I said to him then that it was so bad that I wanted to know if he wanted me to beat him up there at the airport or wait till we got to my apartment.”
Robert Jaffe was very straightforward and asked Dick if he really thought it was that bad, whereupon Dick responded candidly. “I said, ‘All I ask is that you do not drag me down to ruin with you.’ I said that I’d honestly prefer to buy back the property than let them make a film based on that screenplay and he was real nice about it. I gave him suggestions and he took notes and then I noticed that he wasn’t actually writing, but rather he was just moving the pen about a quarter of an inch from a piece of paper that already had printing on it so that he was only pretending to take notes. I realized then that there was a gulf between me and Hollywood.
“What he had done is taken the novel and turned it into a comedy—a spoof, along the lines of Get Smart. Everybody was a clown in it and it was full of smart-ass remarks. Finally Jaffe turned to me and suddenly said, ‘Why, you take your work seriously! ’ and the scales fell from his eyes and I said ‘Yes, Robert, I do take my work seriously. Very seriously.’ To him, working outside of the field of science fiction, he had the stereotyped idea that it was camp. It was really bad news, but we remained very close friends after that and they finally let their option drop.”
Ridley Scott’s screenwriter, Hampton Fancher, originally approached Dick while the Jaffes still had an option on the material. “Now, in an article in the April ‘81 Omni, Fancher is quoted as saying that I was initially uncooperative about having him make a film. Well, of course I was, because it was under option to somebody else at the time and there was no way that Fancher could purchase it. I don’t know if Fancher’s memory failed him on that point or what, because he and I saw each other a number of times and in fact we had a lot of fun together. Fancher noted that I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic and that was because I had become distrustful of Hollywood and had that spectre of the Jaffe screenplay in my mind. I’d already felt that I’d been burned by Hollywood and I wasn’t all that turned on by the prospect of big bucks and great fame because I sensed that there was going to be another joke screenplay written and that it would debase my book again and I was melancholy and taciturn, but as I say, Fancher and I got along very well. 1 became real good friends with him and his girlfriend, Barbara Hershey, until she went to Israel to do a picture. I haven’t seen her since nor has Fancher ever contacted me again. I sent word up to the Blade Runner project that I wished Fancher would contact me, but he never did get hold of me. Apparently Fancher felt that I didn’t think too much of him or his efforts, and Lord knows I didn’t think too much of his screenplay, that’s true. It wasn’t until I read the February, ’81 version by David Peoples that my attitude changed.
“The way I expressed it to the Ladd Company people is that, in the original screenplay, the intention was base and the execution was clumsy. So you had two dynamically tragic faults: they aimed low and they failed in what they aimed at. Now the intention is high and the execution is sophisticated and adroit, so the intent and the execution there is a quantum leap upward.”
Marlowe Meets “Stepford”
Dick emphasizes that the February 1981 rewrite of the screenplay by David Peoples is the one that Ridley Scott used as a shooting script. The earlier version written solely by Hampton Fancher is something else altogether. “I had not read any of the screenplays at the time I was interviewed by Omni and I said, ‘I do hope they don’t turn Sheep into a simple fantasy about shooting androids. But if they go that route, there’s nothing I can do to stop them.’ And then I read the Fanther screenplay and that was precisely what they had done. I was terribly depressed. I remember that my agent called after I read the original screenplay that Fancher had done and he asked me what it was like. I said to him: ‘It was a dirty city. It was a dirty job. Somebody had to do that job. I was that somebody. Rick Deckard.’ He said, ‘That bad?’ I said, ‘That bad.’ It was Philip Marlowe meets The Stepford Wives. I did not please the Blade Runner people or the Ladd Company in toto by my attitude because I wrote an article for SelecTV Guide on science-fiction films, because they were doing a science-fiction festival, and in the article I mentioned that I had read the screenplay and that it was a lurid collision of androids and humans blowing each other up, and I was really smart-assed in what I said. I even criticized Ridley Scott’s picture Alien, saying that a monster is a monster and a spaceship is a spaceship and it had no new ideas and just got by on special effects. The whole tenor of the article was that science- fiction films now tend to get by on their special effects because special-effects people can simulate anything. I have a friend who’s a special-effects man who worked on Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star and he said, ‘Anything you can write, we can create. These guys don’t go on storyline any more, they go on special effects. ’ This is exactly what I was saying about the original screenplay of Blade Runner, that they were going with squishing people’s heads, and having people’s arms and legs coming off, and that they were really going to do what they had done in Alien, in that they’d get Douglas Trumbull and they’d just have these smashing special effects but no storyline. Yet in some respects I could see where the screenplay could be salvaged through special effects, but the writer doesn’t want to see a terrible screenplay salvaged through special effects, especially if it’s based on a reasonably good novel and I consider Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a reasonably good novel. I think it’s one of my three best novels. I did not enjoy what Fancher had done to it, and I know word got back to them because word got back to them through me, if through nobody else.”
Dick explains that many of the problems between him and the production company arose because the company seldom communicated with him and never asked his advice on the screenplays. “It’s funny,” Dick recalls, “but I got a phone call from them originally and they wanted to know how I’d gotten a hold of a copy of the screenplay. I thought, Jesus Christ, I’m the author of the novel on which the property is based! Is it so strange I should have a copy of the screenplay? I had gotten it from Michael Deeley’s lawyer [Deeley is the producer] through my agent, so I had acquired it legitimately. I was tempted to be a wise-ass and say I floated over the studios in a helium balloon, bored through the ceiling, used string and a piece of chewing gum and just lifted the script up off somebody’s desk, because they were very hostile to me on the phone.”
This situation continued until the production shifted to the Ladd Company in January of ’81. “In the SelecTV article, I wrote that Ridley Scott had said that he tried to read my novel, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, but had found it too difficult, which is what he said to someone who spoke with me a while back. So I was sniping at these people from the get-go. I was hostile toward them and they were hostile toward me. We really weren’t co-operating until the Ladd Company came in … then they started treating me kindly. I asked for a copy of the latest screenplay and they sent it over last week. This is the February ’81 version by David Peoples. Now there’s no problem. Now I can quite sincerely say that I am terribly enthusiastic and it won’t be just the special effects because there will be a coherent storyline. There’s an excellent storyline. Peoples did a terrific job. He’s got one thing there that moved me to tears, and it’s not in my book. It’s something that he inserted and it’s beautiful. That guy’s a genius. It was a scene between Roy Batty and Rick Deckard. It’s the final confrontation where artistry is needed if ever it’s needed in that screenplay, and it was needed at that point. I started reading that scene, and it starts, out about the same, I’m gonna kill you or you’re gonna kill me, only one of us will emerge, and I thought, well, we’re gonna’ wind up with the same thing, but we didn’t! The guy solved it artistically; how to take that scene, retain the confrontation and yet handle it artistically—and he substantially revised it—and I was moved to tears. I called my agent and read to him from it for about forty-five minutes and spent a lot of money on the phone.
“I have to admit that in some ways Peoples improved over the book, but I don’t want to emphasize that point too much either!
“I don’t want to say that he took a bad book and made a great screenplay; that’s not true either. They also didn’t take a good book and make a bad screenplay. They took a good book and made a good screenplay, and the two reinforce each other. They don’t fight each other now. The impression I got was that the first thing Peoples did was read the book, and then not only did he have the skill and the talent to bring to bear, but he was also conscious of the book. So now the book and the screenplay form two parts of a single whole. Each reinforces the other. If you start out with the book, the screenplay adds material to that, and if you start out with the screenplay, the book adds material to that, so they’re beautifully symmetric. This is a miracle. A real miracle ” Dick says.
“Frankly, when I got the February ’81 screenplay, I just thought that it would be like the two previous versions, which were like Cinderella’s two older sisters; each was uglier than the other. So I expected that I would now be treated to a third ugly, horrible experience and within a couple of pages I realized that something dramatic, drastic and fundamental had happened since the December ’80 screenplay version. I don’t recall if it actually had David Peoples’ name on my copy, and yet it was obvious that somebody else had come into the situation. Either that or Fancher had suddenly grown to the stature of Ernest Lehman who wrote Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest! But it was Peoples—but he said that he should not take it away from Fancher because he did write the screenplay to start with and I acknowledged that Fancher did have credit coming to him.”
Dick feels that it’s important to point out that he did not know that David Peoples was a highly respected screenwriter/editor before he read the final draft of Blade Runner. “Now, if I had known who David Peoples was when I read that screenplay, one might say that I was influenced by my knowledge that he was an award-winning documentary writer, and this was his first fiction and that he was essentially a quality writer. I had no idea who he was until [the film’s publicist] told me. Quality does show, which is really exciting, that I could pick up this quality without even knowing who he was. Perhaps he was brought in as part of the transition of the project to the Ladd Company, but they must have paid him a lot of money because he’d won awards for his work and was highly thought of, so they didn’t just bring in a script doctor. This goes beyond that,” Dick says adamantly.
“I had heard scuttlebutt because I’m in touch with other studios who are making films from other properties they’ve optioned from me, and these other studios call me and bad-mouth Blade Runner. They’re scared to death that Blade Runner will make it big and that it’ll absorb all the revenue for movies based on my properties, and so they wish ill luck to Blade Runner, they hope it takes a pratfall. They said that a script-doctor had been brought in, but that’s not what Peoples did. He’s not just a script doctor. His name appears in the credits so he’s done what the Writers Guild requires in making a substantial contribution to receive credit, and it shows. God, I was in ecstasy. I said to my agent, if I discovered tomorrow that I had terminal cancer I would go to the hospice with a smile on my face because in all my years of writing I have never had such an exciting experience as to see one of my books transformed by a master craftsman. It’s one of the most high-quality, professional screenplays I’ve ever read.”
Fans of Dick’s novel may be wondering just what elements from the novel have been retained and which are missing. For instance, does the film include Deckard’s desire to own a real animal (a rare commodity) instead of just an artificial one? “That’s really pushed into the background, ” Dick explains. ‘ ‘There is that scene with the real owl, the genuine owl there at the corporation where the owl flies around, so that element has not been eliminated entirely, but it has been pushed into the background. It’s not central any more. The symbolism of the live animal versus the artificial animal is no longer there. It’s gone. The metaphor of that is gone, but the basic theme of the novel, the two basic themes which interweave, are there.
“The first is what constitutes the essential human being and how do we distinguish and define the essential human being from that which only masquerades as human. That’s there. And the second theme is the tragic theme that if you fight evil, you will wind up becoming evil, and that this is the condition of life. There’s a quote from the novel which I think really is the basic theme of the novel. This line doesn’t appear in the film because it’s spoken by Mercer, a character in the book who wasn’t transferred over to the film:
‘You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow; the defeat of creation. This is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life everywhere in the universe. ’
“Now that really is the intellectual theme of the novel, that Deckard, to kill the replicants, or the androids, or whatever you want to call them, is brutalized and dehumanized. Now, what Peoples did in the screenplay, and Fancher gets credit for this because it’s based right on something Fancher did, is that there is a reciprocal motion from the standpoint of the replicants and Rachel in that she becomes more and more human, and now Peoples has it where Roy Batty becomes more and more human. So you have Deckard becoming more and more dehumanized, and the replicants become more and more human, and at the end they meet and the distinction is gone. But this fusion of Deckard and the replicants is a tragedy. This is not a victory where the replicants become humanized and there is some victory by humanity over inhumanity. This is horrifying because he is now as they are, so the theme of the novel is completely and essentially retained. The value is that it shows that any one of us could be dehumanized in the effort of fighting evil.”
Nazis and “Androids”
While looking through some photos which the Ladd Company had provided for him, Dick saw for the first time a picture of Roy Batty, as played by Rutger Hauer. “I was looking at the stills of him and I said, ‘Oh my God, this is the nordic superman that Hitler said would come marching out of the laboratory. This is the blond beast that the Nazis were creating. And of course the origin of the book Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? was my research into the Nazis for The Man In The High Castle. I had done years and years of research at the closed stacks at the library at U.C. Berkeley, and I had come across prime Gestapo documents. It was an incredible experience to pick up something that was a Gestapo document stamped ‘For The Eyes Of The Higher Police Only,’ which was the Gestapo, and I knew German well enough that I could read these things. This was not American propaganda about the Nazis, these were real Gestapo documents. There was one which was the diary of an S.S. man who was stationed in Poland, in Warsaw, and he’d even drawn pictures of Jews in the ghetto. He’d gone into the ghetto, the Jewish ghetto, and drawn pictures of what he described as these colorful people. That was in the late forties when I read that diary and I still remember the one line he had in there: ‘We are kept awake at night by the cries of starving children.’ I still remember that line, and that influenced me. I thought, there is amongst us something that is a bipedal humanoid, morphologically identical to the human being but which is not human. It is not human to complain in your diary that starving children are keeping you awake. And there, in the forties, was born my idea that within our species is a bifurcation, a dichotomy between the truly human and that which mimics the truly human, and when I saw those stills of Rutger Hauer I thought Holy Jesus, it’s come back!”
The original ending of the Hampton Fancher version had Rick Deckard talking Rachel into committing suicide, but that idea is not in the script any longer. “That’s gone. Thank God for that! That whole Mickey Spillane-type thing is what was so terrible. If you really want to get on my bad side, turn one of my books over to Mickey Spillane for him to rehash and you’ll make me an enemy of yours for life. If I want to know if I’ve died and gone to Hell, that’s how I’ll know because they’ll turn all my books over to Mickey Spillane to rewrite and they’ll all come out with ‘Two shots rang out because the replicant Rachel has shot herself, which is the least she could do.’ But that’s not there now. Peoples jettisoned all that crap,” Dick says with obvious relief.
“First of all, he had an unerring sense of what wasn’t good, and an unerring sense of what was good to replace it, so you’ve got a double transformation. An ejection of what was bad and an introduction of new things which were good. He’s got great stuff, like the fight scene between Roy Batty and Rick Deckard. 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. Well, Peoples took that scene, and it’s still there, but it’s transformed! It’s not the same. I learned a lot from what Peoples did. I didn’t know that you could take something that bad and come out with something that good. The Ladd Company won’t want me to say that it was that bad, but why not admit that it was that bad since it’s not the script they used? My God, if they had gone with that… I foresaw doom!” Dick shouts, with what might be taken as mock horror, but is not.
“So the book has been transferred essentially intact. It hasn’t been transferred scene by scene, and I don’t think that can be done. I don’t think this is even desirable, let alone feasible. This is not how you transform a book into a film. You don’t do it scene by scene and you don’t do it line by line. It was tried with Ulysses. It was tried with Death In Venice. It was tried with Greed. Greed, for example, was the first great attempt to transfer a novel to the screen, word by word, scene by scene, character by character, and it simply cannot be done. You’re going from a verbal medium to a visual medium, and I understand that. And yet I knew that the early screenplay could be improved; that it needed a revision. Oh, indeed it needed a revision. It needed wings. It didn’t work. And what I said to the Ladd Company was that, with the new one, it’s magic time!
“So now what we have is the beautiful result that Ridley Scott, who is a visual director who does not normally go in for storyline but rather is of the new school who goes in for dramatic visuals, is now yoked to a coherent storyline. Even if it wasn’t my story it’s still an effective and coherent storyline in that new screenplay. There’s some tender parts, and there’s some very intelligent parts. It’s a very mature and sophisticated screenplay, and it has subtle nuances which are very good. It appeals not just to the dramatic—although it is very dramatic—it also appeals to the intellect.”
Starlog n. 55, February 1982