Welcome to By The Book, where we compare books with their cinematic adaptations. Are they faithful and delightful partners in storytelling, or are the authors turning in their graves through these unholy versions of their work? This time, ahead of the release of its highly-anticipated sequel, it’s Blade Runner.
SPOILER WARNING: From this point on there are plot spoilers for both the novel and film.
Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir Blade Runner, based on science fiction goliath Philip K. Dick’s more eccentrically-named Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (published 1968), is an indisputable classic. It’s also often, correctly, described as a “loose adaptation” of its perhaps less widely-known literary inspiration. The similarities and differences between the two, from language and themes to characters, are fascinating to explore.
The (not so) distant future
Dick’s novel is set in the year 1992; an almost laughable date in retrospect, with our distinct lack of convincing humanoid robots, mood organs and flying cars. Yet, from the author’s viewpoint in the optimistic, liberated late 1960s – in the midst of the space race and just a year before the moon landing – these leaps in technology would have surely seemed plausible and attainable.
When the film adaptation was being conceived in the early ‘80s, Scott and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples allowed themselves to look a little further ahead to 2019. The goal, though, was the same: to create a dystopia that felt alien, yet believable.
In terms of technology, Blade Runner sticks close to the book – though forsakes the subplot of Dick’s emotion-altering mood organs in favour of exploring an in-your-face world of giant animated billboards and neon-soaked streets.
Language and themes
Philip K. Dick had a unique way with words, which often manifested in tongue-in-cheek titles which brilliantly captured his novels’ knowing humour – but don’t necessarily work for Hollywood. Another Dick classic, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, became the much more snappily-named Total Recall.
It was Fancher who made the change to Blade Runner, a term never used in the novel, which he took from a William S. Burroughs screenplay for a totally unconnected project. Fancher bought the rights to it, thinking it sounded cool. Which it does. Likewise, the word “replicant” is not in Dick’s original – the androids are known simply as “andys”. This one came from the other screenwriter, David Peoples, after his microbiologist daughter suggested playing with the idea of replication.
Other superb Dickian words from Do Androids Dream include “kipple” (describing the buildup of junk), and “chickenhead” (a person whose mental faculties have deteriorated due to the radioactive fallout of the novel’s nuclear war) – William Sanderson’s J.F. Sebastian is an onscreen version of chickenhead character J.R. Isidore.
While some of these intricacies and other aspects of the novel – including mood organs, empathy boxes and the religion of Mercerism – didn’t make Scott’s version of the story, the themes they represent most certainly did. At the heart of both book and film are issues of empathy, authenticity and the question of what it means to be alive.
While simplifying and streamlining the plot, Blade Runner retains the very essence of what Dick was seeking to convey. Rick Deckard hunts the replicants with an initial business-like acceptance, but soon starts to question the morality of “retiring” the Nexus-6 units, which have a more complex and advanced emotional range than any androids he’s destroyed before. His relationship with the replicant Rachael pushes him further down this road, while Roy Batty’s more prominent role in the film – saving Rick’s life – again exposes him to the empathy these “machines” are capable of feeling.
Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard is ostensibly the same character as the book’s protagonist, but his representation is pretty different on screen. Do Androids Dream’s Deckard is a workaday, downtrodden police employee and, rather than having quit the police department and being enticed to return, he’s the second fiddle to chief bounty hunter Dave Holden. In both versions, Holden is attacked and taken out of action by one of the androids, but in the novel this creates an opportunity for Deckard to step up and earn some serious money for a change ($1,000 for each andy he retires). Cash is initially his main incentive, so he can afford the status symbol of owning a real animal instead of the electric sheep on his roof he pretends is genuine.
In Dick’s original, Deckard has a wife named Iran who, after his sexual and romantic encounter with Rachael, he returns to at the end. Rachael is revealed not to be in love with Rick, but to be manipulating him. Rather than ending up together, her last act is to kill the real goat he eventually buys.
Of Dick’s cast of escaped androids, only Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty and Daryl Hannah’s Pris make Scott’s film and both roles, particularly Roy’s, are beefed up and given more depth. They’re also made a couple in Blade Runner, changing the emotional connection when she’s killed by Deckard. Here Batty’s grief is shown to further humanise him. On the page, Pris is an exact copy of Rachael – a very different take, which also presents more of a moral dilemma for Deckard in his mission to retire her.
Hauer’s Batty is the real transformation on show though, with his poignant end summed up by the actor’s famously self-written line “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
Is Deckard a replicant?
Blade Runner’s enduring mystery of whether the human android hunter is in fact a replicant himself appears to answered by Dick with a pretty firm “no”. He always wrote the character as human – though, in a state of fatigue and delirium, Deckard does for a time start to believe he might be something else. The original theatrical version of the movie leaves the issue ambiguous, and it was only really with Scott’s Director’s Cut (and later the Final Cut) that the director pushed the audience towards the conclusion that Deckard must be a replicant. The inserted unicorn dream sequence and subsequent origami unicorn are cited as evidence, while Scott has since confirmed in interviews that his main character is indeed an android.
Blade Runner is not trying to be a faithful adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s offbeat and thoughtful novel. It pitches itself as a grittier, grimier, sleeker companion piece, with an emphasis on building a future world drenched in neon and rain. But Scott’s seminal sci-fi picture retains at its core the very same examinations of what it means to be human, to be alive and to be free.
Dick himself said the film “rejuvenated” his novel, and that the two “reinforce each other”. The only question now is what the Scott-produced, Denis Villeneuve-directed Blade Runner 2049 will leave us dreaming of next.