The Readjustment Bureau – Philip K. Dick’s contribution to cinema.

Posted on October 30, 2011


A few days ago, the estate of Philip K. Dick started legal proceedings against Media Rights Capital over a dispute in payments resulting from the Matt Damon movie The Adjustment Bureau. According to the Trust, despite the numerous agreements made and the Trust’s every assistance in getting the film made, MRC are now denying they are liable for any payment and are claiming the author’s work on which the film is based is now in the public domain. In other words, they were quite happy to trade on his name and use his work, but less happy about having to pay for it. (Allegedly, of course.)

Whether this squabble will resolve itself is something for the courts, however it does bring to light the fact that filmmakers will still look to Philip K. Dick as a source of inspiration. Would The Adjustment Bureau have done as well without Dick’s name attached? Certainly, it had a starry cast, but nothing gives the sci-fi seal of approval like the line “based on a story by Philip K. Dick”.

So, with this in mind, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of the other science fiction films that have been based on the works of one of the most prolific writers in the genre. Philip K. Dick has long been the Hollywood go-to guy when it comes to adapted science fiction. In fact, a total of nine films have been based on his novels and short stories, and there are more on the way.

Blade Runner:

Certainly the most famous film adaptation of one of Dick’s stories has to be Blade Runner, taken from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Blade Runner remains fairly faithful to the novel in terms of both narrative and theme, although there are some obvious differences and omissions. However, the exploration of what it means to be human is at the heart of both the book and film alike.

Blade Runner is also a beautifully shot film, in which Ridley Scott gives us a visual feast as Harrison Ford’s blade runner scours the dystopian streets in search of the renegade Nexus-6 replicants he must “retire”. Blade Runner’s production design set the benchmark for science fiction films and has been referenced and, let’s face it, shamelessly copied in countless sci-fi films since.

Total Recall:

Next up was Total Recall, based on Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, an unlikely combination of Dick’s trademark themes of identity and reality, blended with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s particular brand of physical action.

It would be very easy to dismiss this film as just another low brow Arnie action movie, however, there is far more depth to this film than first meets the eye. Whilst the action set pieces are all present and correct, the idea of fantasy and delusion are subtly played into the mix by director Paul Verhoeven and it is left open to interpretation as to whether the events of the film are happening for real or we are simply witnessing a fantasy played out in the mind of Schwarzenegger’s everyman character, Doug Quaid. There are many hints throughout the film that this is indeed the case, however the film’s ambiguity allows the viewer to come to their own conclusions and no definitive answer is given.


Perhaps a lesser-known film is Screamers, based on the Philip K. Dick short story, Second Variety. The film is actually reasonably faithful to the short story, although the film takes place on an alien world as opposed to a post-apocalyptic Earth, and the ending is slightly different. However, the basic narrative and core themes remain intact.

In both Screamers and Second Variety, a war has left the planet ravaged and the population has been reduced by a number of robot killing machines. These killing machines have evolved on their own and are now capable of perfectly mimicking humans in order to infiltrate the human strongholds and eliminate them. If this sounds familiar to you, then it should. The similarities between this premise and that of The Terminator are fairly obvious and did not escape Dick’s notice, either. He wrote: “When the claws/screamers start changing, their newest models take human forms for much the same reasons the T-800 was created.”


Once again, the notions of identity and what it means to be human are addressed in Imposter, a thriller based on the short story of the same name. Here, in the distant future of a war ravaged Earth, a government weapons designer is arrested and accused of being a replicant imposter. He is told that his heart is actually a biological nuclear weapon and that he will detonate it in an embassy containing Earth’s chancellor, killing her and many other important people. Protesting his innocence, he escapes and goes on the run, determined to uncover the truth.

Minority Report:

After the success of Total Recall, a sequel was planned, based upon another Philip K. Dick short story, The Minority Report. This was due to star Schwarzenegger once again, reprising his role as Quaid, this time working for the police force. The sequel never made it past the script stage. However, the short story was adapted into the Spielberg film Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise.

Minority Report differs quite drastically from the short story in a number of ways, but the original premise of crime being stopped by the predictions of three precognitive mutants and the theme of free will versus destiny remain in both.

What Minority Report truly is though is a Hitchcockian “wrong man” thriller. We see Tom Cruise’s potentially falsely accused cop go on the run for a crime he may or may not commit, whilst trying to clear his name. It certainly bears all the hallmarks of this genre whilst remaining a thought provoking piece of original sci-fi.


Next year saw the  slightly disappointing John Woo film Paycheck, starring Ben Affleck and based on the short story of the same name. Once again, the film is a man-on-the-run thriller with a twist. Here, the hero agrees to working on a three-year secret project that will require him having his memory of it erased upon its completion, but with the compensation of a hefty financial reward. Having had his memory erased, he goes to collect his paycheck, but discovers that, rather than money, he has signed away his reward in favour of an envelope containing a series of seemingly innocuous trinkets. As the FBI and his former employers pursue him, he discovers that these trinkets, used at the right time, enable him to escape from otherwise impossible and potentially fatal situations. It transpires that, prior to having his memory erased, he had been working on a machine that enabled him to see his future, and was therefore able to pre-arm himself with these items that on the surface seem worthless but actually save his life. The film itself is rather less successful than it might have been, but is elevated by the strong storyline and Dick’s imaginative premise.

A Scanner Darkly:

Of these films mentioned so far, it is really only Blade Runner that stands out as a visual masterpiece, despite Total Recall picking up the Oscar for best visual effects in 1991. However, 2006 gave us Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel. Scanner is unique amongst the Dick adaptations in that it is animated using interpolated rotoscoping over the original film footage, which gives the film its unique and distinctive look.

The story in both the book and the film deal with the themes of identity and duality, this time induced by the addiction to a psychoactive drug that, after excessive use, can cause the hemispheres of the brain to work independently, creating a split personality. This is one of Dick’s later books and parallels his own experience with the drug culture of the 1970s. Dick himself was experiencing strange hallucinatory phenomena by this point, and began to experience a dual life, one in which he was Philip K. Dick, the other in which he was Thomas, a Christian persecuted by the Romans in the 1st Century AD. The film was a financial failure, but is actually one of the best Philip K. Dick adaptations out there.


Following A Scanner Darkly’s faithful adaptation was Next, a film only very loosely based on Dick’s The Golden Man. There are a few similarities between the film and the source material. For instance, the film deals with a precognitive mutant named Cris being hunted by the government, but here the similarities end. This film stars Nic Cage and is directed by Lee Tamahori, the director of Die Another Day. I’ll leave it to your own discretion as to whether that makes it worth seeing.

The Adjustment Bureau:

Which brings us neatly to The Adjustment Bureau. Once again, this is a loose interpretation of a Philip K. Dick short story, in this case The Adjustment Team. The premise is relatively straight forward: There is a plan for all of us and the Adjustment Bureau occasionally have to step in to correct the small mistakes that we make when we deviate from this plan. Once again, the notion of fate versus free will is examined, when our protagonist is told quite clearly that he must not continue to have a relationship with a girl with whom he has fallen in love or there will be dire consequences for the both of them.

So, the adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novels and short stories continues unabated. A remake of Total Recall is in the wings, Radio Free Albemuth is completed and awaiting a distributor. The Disney animated film The King of the Elves, based on Dick’s short story, is slated for a 2012 release and The Halcyon Company, the film development company who currently own the rights to The Terminator franchise, are making Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.

As Dick was undoubtedly one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, surely more of his stories making the leap to the big screen can be no bad thing.Let’s only hope that his estate is properly recognised for it.