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?

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.

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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OtterMan's picture
OtterMan from New Jersey, near Philadelphia USA is reading Ringworlds Children June 19, 2014 - 3:38pm

I knew I wasn't the only one. I've loved everything about that movie since the first time I saw it. Found the story in an anthology of Dick's works a few years ago. It was a little confusing at first but I got most of the idea. I'm used to movies and films differing on important points. I think it's most often the movie that comes off badly in the comparision. This one of those exceptions to the rule.

Mark Norris's picture
Mark Norris from La Jolla, California is reading The Most of SJ Perelman June 19, 2014 - 9:28pm

The noir in 'Blade Runner' is taken directly from 'Marlow' starring James Garner, which is a futuristic (1960's) retelling of 'The Little Sister' by Raymond Chandler. The Bradley building is there in both, so is the stripper (Rita Moreno) who gets shot down and collapses through a plate of glass... Watch Marlow and then Blade Runner and let me know what you think...

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer June 20, 2014 - 8:36am

I really like the book, but it is a much different creature than the movie. I hadn't seen the movie when I read the book.

Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Another Side of Bob Dylan by Victor Maymudes June 20, 2014 - 3:04pm

I guess any fictional setting might seem"suburban" compared to the film's fantastic rendering, but I never had the feeling of being outside "the city" when I read "Android".  Roy Baty's replicant wife, Irmgard, never even made it into the movie. And JR Isidore, Pris and the Baty's have a bit of a swinging time before Deckerd crashes in. I mean I love that toyroom/dollhouse scene from the movie but that's an example of Scott being suburban not Dick.  Dick's humor about relationships and religion doesn't have to be incompatible with the noir treatment his stories usually get from directors. Woody Allen are you listening?  

Angel Rodrigues's picture
Angel Rodrigues June 22, 2014 - 12:02pm

See I loved the book and wasn't so much a fan of the film. I agree with Mark Norris's comment as well.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 22, 2014 - 12:06pm

i really agree. i like the book, but LOVE the film. in fact, it MAY be my favorite movie ever. so much about it to love. great article, cath.

Winter Mute's picture
Winter Mute June 22, 2014 - 2:43pm

Your conclusion,"...Android as an allegory about suburban existence gone mad...," is possibly too superficial.  A "suburban existence gone mad" is too simplistic of a reading, when the implications of the novel are far more unsettling. I suppose if you describe Dick's "suburban existence" as being defined as unconnectedness. Then I fully agree. Suburban dwellers become androids, inauthentically connected without having the means to do so. Sociopaths, if you would want a psychological label.

Further thoughts:
Consider the central-most theme of empathy in the novel (discussed at the forefront at almost every turn); Dick is making a statement about what it means to be human and it is arguable that he claiming that without empathy, we are not human and do not, therefore, deserve to live among humanity. People who lack empathy are locked away, out of mercy, and androids that pretend to be human (lacking empathy) are 'retired'. The novel's fictional world came crashing down during World War Terminus (a common trope during the Cold War era) because humanity's leaders lacked empathy. The world was disconnected from each other and the solution was to create a fictious religion (Mercerism) to promote empathetic growth and used technology (empathy boxes) to connect people together so they would feel the same things.

Comparison to the movie:

"...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" is an idea in the novel, too. How many times were humans (who supposedly have empathy) shown to be cruel to other humans? Isadore is arguably the most empathetic character, but he is treated like sub-humanely by human and android alike. The differences between androids and humans is also questioned, not always by the characters, but by the confusing similarities between android and human in the sub-text. Can a psychological empathy test really reveal anything? There is ambiguity, especially with the other bounty hunter Resch, about the validity of the test.

Anyways, those are just some of my thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast June 24, 2014 - 5:48am

@Mark - I have seen Marlowe but so long ago I don't recall the details. I will give it another viewing - intriguing comparison.

@Winter Mute - 'suburban' is a little facile, agreed. 'Unconnectedness' is probably closer to the mark and is a theme Dick played on over and over again. From what I recall, he hated living in the suburbs (didn't Bradbury also?) and that dislike of 50s 'Honey I'm Home' mentality creeps into so many of his stories. That's the reason I made the connection.

Mary Jane Norris Jones's picture
Mary Jane Norri... June 24, 2014 - 5:33pm

Spoiler alert for film and novel in comments.

I am an English teacher who has taught Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep for years. Blade Runner is adapted from Dick's novel. (By the way, the novel takes place in San Francisco and the Bay Area.) Director Ridley Scott discusses P.K. Dick's paranoid vision and the distinction between reality and illusion/delusion in one episode of The Prophets of Science Fiction.

Dick's essential question in the novel is "what does it mean to be human." He cleverly sets up societal norms that try to distinguish humans from organic androids and then proceeds to slowly dismantle them, as the reader, too, questions empathy as a measure of humanity. While claiming empathy as man's distinct quality, he creates a society that classifies people as "specials" like John Isidore, who society discriminates against in a completely non-empathetic manner. He creates Mercerism, a religion where humans can bond with Mercer in a group empathetic bonding through the use of an "empathy box." Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends is a 24 hour talk show popular with humans. The Penfield Mood Organ allows a person to mechanically or electronically create their mood. Humans purchase electric animals if they can't afford a real one in order to demonstrate their empathy. All these concepts speak to the artificiality of human existence. Unknow to human fans, Buster Friendly is an android and Mercer is a drunk actor on a sound stage. These revelations emphasize the lack of distinction between androids and humans. The novel is a puzzle to make the reader question the idea of empathy and the distinction between humans and organic androids.

I saw the film when released in the Hollywood version Scott disliked. I have also seen the director's cut release of the film 25 years after the 1982 Hollywood verson. The New York Times has an interesting review and history of the film. Near the end of the film, Roy Baty saves Deckard in his final act, demonstrating androids capacity for empathy. In the novel, Deckard grapples with the distinction and ultimately decides to quit his job as a bounty hunter, alluded to in the film's beginning. He realizes in the novel the distinction doesn't matter. To paraphrase one of Deckard's comments in the novel: Even androids have a life, no matter how paltry it is.

Маргарита Духовная's picture
Маргарита Духовная June 27, 2015 - 1:59pm

So the book is worse because you don't understand it? Really? Yes it's a bit confusing sometimes, but... well, read it twice. It was an easy and exciting read even for me, and I'm not good at English, being a foreigner.
In the book. the post-apocalyptic dystopian world is described much deeper than in the movie. In the movie, there is no feel of the abandoned planet, absorbed by the nuclear dust, where everything real is vanishing. The adaptation doesn't leave the feeling that all life is fragile and sacred afterwards. Empathy doesn't mean much in the movie and it's the main thing about humans (and androids). It's absolutely obvious for me why Buster Friendly and Mercer fight is needed there. One-chanalled TV and the only stupid show available are to prevent people from thinking and to give them an illusion of an activity (the mind). Mercer is an illusion of not being alone, the new religion of the new post-apocalyptic world, a mixture of pre-war religions as it must be (the feelings). So it's the contradistinction between the mind and the soul, leading to the main question about what does the soul exactly mean. The only thing the androids can't possess, and does it matter if it's a fake anyway?
The only important thing the movie inherited from the book is the cold almost-like-human androids' nature. The blurred difference between a fake and a real thing. The idea of what remains in a human if everything that can be faked is removed. What IS humane. Everything else from the book was cruelly left behind.
Two different worlds. The film is a noire detective with cyberpunk elements, the book reveals the new post-apocalyptic culture on the ruins of the civilization. It's stupid to tell what is better.
Personal opinion, of course.

darkly's picture
darkly October 15, 2018 - 11:35pm

I totally agree with this. I too sought the book, read it and then thought... 'What? Where's all the Bladerunner stuff.

I've subsequently read loads of Phillip K. Dick and feel that his work is a bit hit and miss. I think a much better book on the Replicants thing is 'We can rebuild you'. The story of the very first Replicant. 

Also Ubiq. There needs to be a Ubiq film.