What I’m really asking: Is it time to make another movie version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Blade Runner was a masterpiece film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s masterpiece novel, but it was just one interpretation of a very complex story. I first read the novel in 1968 when I discovered it on the 7-day new book shelf at the Coconut Grove Library in Miami. I can still remember reaching up to pull this very strangely titled book off the top shelf. Even the cover was bizarre, far beyond the weird science fiction standards of the time.
I have read the book and seen the movie many times, and just recently I listened to an unabridged audio edition read by Scott Brick entitled Blade Runner, even though he was actually reading the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It’s sort of sad when the public has to be sold a classic book by using the movie title. Whenever I reread the book I’m always amazed by how well the movie got the book but also disturb by how much was changed and left out. As soon as I started listening to the novel this time I kept thinking they really need to make a movie version that’s closer to PKD’s original vision.
Blade Runner is famous, and Ridley Scott keeps trotting out tweaked versions every decade or so, keeping his film version prominent in the public eye. The Library of America just released Four Novels of the 1960s that includes Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which ups the ante on the novel’s value. Dune has had one movie version, a television miniseries version and now another film version is in the works. There have been many science fiction novels that have had two or more media productions, including The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Thing, and so on, so the idea of remaking Blade Runner isn’t totally crazy.
The reason to make a new version of the novel is to try and get closer to PKD’s actual story. Blade Runner used most of the major plot, but left out most of the subplots and many fascinating themes, and it reversed the polarity of the audience’s attitude towards the androids. In the PKD novel the androids are bad and the reader ends up wanting them killed. In the movie, the audience feels sympathetic to androids and wish they could live. The movie leaves out the obsession about owning live animals, Mercerism, the fake police station, the mood organ, the other bounty hunter, Rick having sex with a very different Rachael, Rachel killing the goat, kipple, and so many other fascinating ideas.
Philip K. Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? at a particularly significant time in U.S. history, during the peak of the sixties, facing the issues of the Vietnam War, civil rights, psychedelic drugs, and so on. PKD was obsessed with two questions: What is human? and What is real? I believe the androids in his story had nothing to do with science fictional robots and future tech – they were metaphors for what Dick hated about people and what he thought made them inhuman. Dick could not believe humans could have committed the atrocities of the holocaust and wondered how to explain the human-looking creatures that ran the ovens? Ridley Scott and crew seem to be asking: Can mankind recreate humans? This is a very different theme.
Should A New Version Be Faithful To the Novel
Would a new version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? have to be faithful to the PDK book? A lot has happened in the world since 1966 when PKD wrote the book. Now that humanity is destroying the planet and making animal species go extinct faster than mother nature, what if there were a race of androids that were fighting humans to stop us and save the world for their reasons? In PKD’s story, humans are superior because they have empathy and love animals – well, it appears Dick was wrong because we have failed at both.
Robots in today’s society are popular and loved. I have an issue of the hobby magazine Robot sitting right beside me and it shows our drive to build androids. Commander Data is one of the most loved all all the Star Trek characters. There is something that challenges the modern mind to build an android that’s better than ourselves. If the 1982 audiences felt sympathy for the androids of Blade Runner, what would the audiences of 2008 feel? The 2004 film I, Robot got away again with evil robots, so we know audiences can accept robots in bad guy roles, but is that what people really want?
Even in the original 1966 novel, Philip K. Dick walks a tightrope by creating a race of artificial slaves that want to pass for humanity – doesn’t that beg for the reader’s empathy? Well, at the time PKD ends up saying no. In the novel, androids will kill humans, betray their own kind, but most importantly they will kill and torture animals with a total lack of feelings. They are all intellect and no emotion. Rachael has sex with Deckard, not out of love, but because she knows bounty hunters become sympathetic to androids and can’t kill them after having sex with her.
In the novel androids are incapable of feeling love. Dick wants the reader to believe there are humans that look just like us but ultimately lack that qualities that make us good. I feel that in the violent times of the 1960s PKD had specific people in mind. I assume Dick is not writing a book advocating killing off empathy lacking humans but is merely telling us we all need to kill off that portion of our psyche. Blade Runner confused the issue by suggesting that androids do deserve our sympathy. It further screws up the story by suggesting that Deckard is an android. I really hate this twist of Ridley Scott. It actually hurts his own work of art. Part of the beauty of the film is a human falls for an android and an android falls for a human. If they are both androids you lose a lot of philosophical zest.
What I’d Like to See
Ultimately, what I’d like to see is a new version that is extremely faithful to the book except that it will be ambiguous as to whether humans or androids are truly good. As long as they kill each other who can be the morally superior species? If homo robotica can develop a will to live, an empathy for life, a sense of ethics, and a desire to preserve Earth, mankind, as well as all the other species, will such an artificial life-form be bad and worthy of destroying even if it kills out of self-preservation?
The next version needs to add the philosophical aspects of religion and mass culture that Dick explored with Mercer and Buster Friendly. Also, Deckard needs his wife to contrast any possible relationship he will have with Rachael. At one point in the book Deckard comments that Rachael and her kind have more will to live than his wife, Iran.
Then there is the whole choice of casting. Harrison Ford brought an action hero aspect to the film that wasn’t in the book. From the recent audio production I pictured Deckard being a lot like a younger William H. Macy, more of an average guy with a tendency to doubt over action. Rick and Iran have a lot of marital problems that help set the philosophical stage when we ask what it is to be human. A Sean Young type actress is perfect to represent the temptation of an artificially perfect woman.
And that brings up we humans want to be as perfect as artificial beings. After PKD’s death there emerged a science fictional story line of downloading human minds into artificial bodies, which essentially combines humans and androids into a yet unnamed construct. This new being goes beyond the bionic man and woman.
I had a friend that used to argue most vehemently that if an artificial intelligence was ever created it would always turn itself off. My friend could never fathom programming the artificial will to live. I, on the other hand, never could imagine any creature, live or artificial, that was self-aware willing to turn itself off if it wasn’t suffering. I always assumed that awareness is always preferable over non-existence as long as there is no real incentive to shut down.
Any future film version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? will need to deal with these philosophical issues of identity. In 1968 and 1982 we imagined PKD’s fictional world dark and decaying, suffering from the effects of a nuclear holocaust. Any future film version will probably use the backdrop of an ecological holocaust. The current debate over global warming centers around a very deep conflict over whether mankind is the cause of our own potential doom. In any mythic archetypal story about the lethal conflict between human versus artificial humans and the ethical considerations of which species is superior will have to deal with this ecological issue.
Like the classic SF short story, “Farewell to the Master,” which was made into the memorable science fiction film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, we have to remember the roll of the robot, Gort, who belongs to a race of robots that rule the humans to protect them from themselves.
The science fiction stories Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner exists on the razor’s edge between the hated world of robots in the Terminator movies and the acceptance of Commander Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Any future film version of our story needs to continue being a blade runner riding the razor’s edge between those two positions.
Engineers and computer scientists are working full tilt to build robots and artificial intelligence. The question will not be if robots will shut themselves off – the question will be how they judge us, their gods. Most science fiction that gets to this point, imagine homo robotica taking the dominant position and wanting to snuff us humans out like cockroaches. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner explores the Romeo and Juliet world of the ever feuding Capulets and Montagues, which is why it remains so fascinating.