With the Alien prequel, Prometheus, due to hit our screens on June 1 (in Ireland) it seemed an apt time to turn my mind towards Sir Ridley Scott and his SF magnum opus, Blade Runner. I saw it on its original cinema release back in the day and, as a long-time fan of Philip K. Dick, was blown away by the fact that someone had found a way to put his vision of the future up on the big screen. Of course Scott;s version of Dick’s dystopian vision has become something of a cliche, but then does that diminish the originality of that Spartacus moment just because it influenced so many films that followed. (I sat my – at the time twelve year old – son in front of Spartacus, at the bit where everyone stands up saying, “I am Spartacus”, attempting to illustrate the power of originality, or some such rubbish. But all he saw was a hackneyed line copied from the likes of The Simpsons – Matt Groening spoilt The Shining for my kids as well, by the way.
But for me, Blade Runner set a high standard that few directors have even attempted to match in the intervening years. It wasn’t until a colleague mentioned that she was reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep that I actually returned to the source material after all these years. My recollection of Androids/Sheep was pretty hazy and I remember thinking that the main difference was that Deckard’s desire to own a real animal- central to the book – had been left out of the film almost completely.
On re-reading the book I was pleasantly surprised at how faithful (by cinematic standards) Scott had been to the book. Sure, the whole animals are virtually extinct and owning pets is the ultimate status symbol had been left out but that was okay. But the second omission – necessary to pacing and the fact that nobody ever got broke by underestimating the intelligence of his audience (Sm Goldwyn mis-quote, maybe?) – okay, let’s be frank, Hollywood believes we (moviegoers) are all stupid – kind of lets the sense of the novel get way from us. And I had forgotten this point. I had remembered Blade Runner as being a pretty fair adaptation of the book.
For much of his life Philip K. Dick was obsessed by religion. In Androids/Sheep the massses have been tamed by Mercerism, a religion in which adherents can meld with the mind of their godhead(?) and experience his feelings as he continuously pushes a stone uphill and is attacked by unseen assailants. and through Deckard’s fusion with Mercer towards the end of the novel we are once again dragged into Dick’s contemplation of what is real and what is only in the mind.
I realise that Hollywood cannot afford to ask its patrons to stick their brain in gear – that’s for those damned French and their Nouvelle Vague or that other arty crap that doesn’t put bums on seats. But I do think that every SF fan who has seen and loved Blade Runner – can yo be a SF fan if you haven’t and don’t? – should read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep if they haven’t already done so. It’s no hardship – the Gollancz Masterworks version is only 208 pages long – and it reveals another layer of the story that deserves wider consideration. After all, nobody’s going to say I don’t need to read Dickens I saw Oliver! in the West End.