Book vs Film: 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' vs 'Blade Runner'
Are you a fan of the film Blade Runner?
Me too. Such a big fan that when I visited LA and did the compulsory studio tour, the highlight for me wasn’t the visit to the set of Big Bang Theory or the chance to sit on the Friends sofa (yes, my bum has touched the same cushion as Jennifer Aniston’s) or even the opportunity to visit the house the Gremlins wrecked in…er…Gremlins. The part that had my camera clicking was when we rolled past a mediocre looking bit of wall and the guide mentioned, almost as an aside, that said wall had featured briefly in…guess which film?
Well it wasn’t Free Willy.
I love Blade Runner. I splashed out £££ on a snazzy remastered version with an additional 10 seconds of footage and a commentary which adds nothing to the film. I will probably go and see the sequel, if they ever manage to make it. I even wrote a YA novel in homage to it.
But when I stumbled out of the theatre after that first viewing and rushed immediately to the book shop to buy Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the Philip K. Dick novel on which it is based, my reaction on reading wasn’t joy. It was bafflement. Then disappointment. Then annoyance.
This is nothing like the film! I raged internally. I mean, this Dick fellow writes about the future. Why couldn’t he predict the movie version would be awesome and pre-write his novel to be just like it?
Love makes me unreasonable that way. Now, years later, I’ve read the book again and have had a chance to reconsider my first reaction. It’s time for a sober reassessment of which is better – book or film?
WARNING: from this point on this article contains spoilers the size of Godzilla’s meaner older sister. If you haven’t read Androids or seen Blade Runner go away and do these things, then come back and read on.
Why 'Blade Runner' is a great film
Is it the plot? The Vangelis soundtrack? The futuristic vision of a Los Angeles ruined by pollution, lit only by giant floating billboards?
Or is it all of those things combined?
Blade Runner – genius hybrid of science fiction and noir – works when it shouldn’t. Panned on release, cyanide at the box office, Runner obtained cult status and gradual grudging acceptance. Ridley Scott, who like me, grew up in Teeside, and cut his directorial teeth making Hovis adverts, had established his movie-reputation with a little film called Alien, where his use of Giger’s nightmarish exo-skeletal spaceships should have warned us all that here was a director who liked to subvert genres.
But up to that point, science fiction meant actors clad in white plastic jumpsuits firing laser beams at each other, not weary gumshoes wearing trenchcoats straight from the shoulders of Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. Scott pushed noir to its limits – the shadowy cinematography, the femme fatale, the evil Chinatownesque tycoon. The deadpan narration proved a step too far for all but the most ardent fans (of which I am one), but what we could all agree on is that Blade Runner, like most noir, is a film of ideas. Human identity, religious belief, the reliability of memory, the nature of love – all of these impinge on the story. Deckard, the Blade Runner of the title, is hired to ‘retire’ six replicants – near human androids created as slave labour to assist our colonization of new planets. The replicants have returned to Earth on a desperate mission – their lifespans are limited to four years. They want their creator to give them more time. As Deckard hunts them down, he begins to question just how sharp the distinction is between human and created-human. Not very, he concludes, as does the audience. Given the same basic attributes, it doesn’t matter if we come out of a tank or a womb.
Profound huh? All that and Rutger Hauer saying some of the best lines in the history of cinema (and he wrote them himself). Plus a cast which reads like a studbook of acting talent: Joanna Cassidy, Brion James, Joe Turkel, Edward James Olmos. But the litmus test of any movie is longevity. Blade Runner has worn well. Three decades after its release, Scott’s neo-noir movie about renegade replicants remains unsurpassed as the prime example of literate scifi.
Which brings me to…
Why 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' is not such a great book
On the face of it, the movie and the book have much in common. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? sets up the basic plotline which the film would later follow: bounty hunter Rick Deckard is hired to retire six replicants who have returned illegally to Earth and mingled with the human population. Over the course of a day, he hunts them down through a crumbling Los Angeles, in a world where almost all real animals have become extinct.
This is pretty much where the resemblance ends. The cast of characters is roughly similar, but the tone and objective of the story entirely different. Androids opens with Deckard bickering with his wife about which emotional state they should choose from those offered by their mood organs (she has ordered six hours of self-recriminating depression. Deckard would like her to select something more…cheerful). Obsessed with owning a real animal and desperate for authenticity in a world of fakes, he takes on the job for the downpayment on a real ostrich. More like one of those annoying people who doorstep you with marketing questionnaires than a gumshoe, Deckard’s main job is to persuade the replicants to take an empathy test, so he can determine whether they are human or not. He himself is not sure at points if he is human or android and at one point in the book, the action slips surreally into the issue of whether a saint-like ‘Mercer’ character, who spends his time toiling up an endless slope, is real or invented. Then Deckard becomes Mercer. Then he finds a toad and takes it home.
Confused? Me too. It ends well for the toad, which despite being fake gets a shedload of flies as a gesture of reconciliation by Deckard’s wife, but maybe not so much for the reader. Here’s a sample of the eyebrow-knotting stuff Dick likes to pull in the course of the novel:
[Deckard is hunting a replicant called Polokov. He’s sitting in a hovercar with a man who claims to be Kadalyi – a Russian policeman]
‘You’re not Polokov, you’re Kadalyi,’ Rick said.
‘Don’t you mean that the other way around? You’re a bit confused.’
‘I mean you’re Polokov, the android: you’re not from the Soviet police.’
Stop! My brain hurts! Androids is full of moments like this. Lose focus for a moment when reading this sucker and sheep turn into goats, androids change names and what the hell is the point of that TV show anyway?
But this is all pure Dickism, as I discovered when I finally got around to reading more than one of his books. He’s no prose stylist, turning out sentences which scan like a ride over rough ground in a wheelbarrow with a flat tire, and he’s no crafter of a pageturning read either. But where Dick excels is in the scope of his imagination. In the sheer exhilarating bigness of his ideas.
Which brings me finally to…
Why comparing the two is pretty stupid actually
Comparisons only make sense when the objects under scrutiny were intended to do the same job. Dick never set out to write a detective story (although there are hints of noir influence towards the end of the book). He aimed to use the future to illuminate the present. He takes the day of an average Joe and subverts all the attitudes we take for granted. Change the status symbol from a car to a sheep and the usual conversation about who trumps who becomes ridiculous. Marital discord takes on a whole new angle when both participants get to choose their mood. The arbitrary nature of bigotry is exposed when androids are zealously eliminated in a world where almost no life survives.
See Android as an allegory about suburban existence gone mad and you get the sense of its brilliance. Blade Runner takes Dick’s vision as a starting point and produces something more traditional, yet just as illuminating. As we can see with The Shining, the best adaptations don’t have to be faithful copies of the original.
And as for me, from resenting the difference between book and film, I now see it as a cause for celebration. Instead of two variations on a single theme, I have two entirely different experiences, both as excellent in their own way. What's not to like?
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