Where Blade Runner came from

Philip K Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968, Gollancz 1999)

Those who know about such things say the best introduction to Philip K Dick’s fiction is his short stories, especially ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’. The advice came too late for me: my introduction was the movie based on this book, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which I saw a shocking 28 years ago. Something – perhaps nothing more than the awkward title –  led me to expect the book to be a poor, pallid thing in comparison to the movie, but I’ve been meaning to read it anyhow since 1982.

Apart from the broad outlines of the plot (Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, is a bounty hunter who tracks down and kills advanced robots who have rebelled against servitude and are trying to pass as human), what I remember of the film is the dark turbulence of the design, the crazed, ruthless, romantic robot played by Rutger Hauer, the tear that runs down the cheek of a female character when she discovers she’s not human, and not much else. The world of the book is a quietly decaying desolation rather than an overpopulated millrace; Roy Baty (not Batty as in the movie), the leader of the rogue androids, is unambiguously unsympathetic; and Rachael Rosen finds out she’s not human fairly early in the piece, though later plot points suggest she has always known it – and either way there’s no great emotion involved. It’s the same story, but very different.

I enjoyed the book. I would have enjoyed it if Blade Runner had never been made, but as a study (in my case a mighty superficial one) of book-to-film adaptation it’s fascinating. The book has a religious movement, Mercerism, that isn’t in the film, that emphasises and reinforces the human quality of empathy. It’s mainly an Orwellian method of population control, and but it also enables the characters to have genuine mystical experiences. Though there’s plenty of killing, none of it is graphic: the most horrifying moment – and it is truly horrifying – involves a few scissor snips that draw no blood. The movie goes for much bigger effects, though it’s probably tame by today’s bang and splatter standards, and uses noir conventions to establish a moral and metaphysical murk that has (for my money, and in my memory) a much more powerful effect than the book. The book raises the same basic questions – something like: what makes us human? what does it mean to care, and what are its limits? – and has its own ambivalence and ambiguities, but in a much cooler, more cerebral, register.

The movie, in other words (and I intend to see it again soon), departed from the book in major ways, leaving out not just the religious element but also a central strand about companion animals (which survives vestigially in images of artificial owls, and ostriches in the streets), and even the major back story of a nuclear war. It was a futurist noir piece (perhaps the first of its kind?), where the book is something much quieter, more measured, more individual. The movie became its own thing, broke free of the constraining obligation to be true to the book (which has such a dampening effect on, say the movie adaptations like the Harry Potter series or the Millennium Trilogy). Interestingly enough, this leaves the book relatively uncontaminated. The book’s hero is definitely not Harrison Ford. I’m free to imagine him freshly for myself as I read.

One response to “Where Blade Runner came from

  1. Those who know about such things will also tell you to watch the director’s cut of Blade Runner. I can’t remember why, having only seen the director’s cut in full and the first release edition in sections which were shown to me to prove the superiority of the director’s cut. But I was duly impressed at Scott’s directive choices and watching the two side by side was an excellent study in what happens when Hollywood non-artists get their fingers into the creative content of a film.

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