Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Next Week in Hoboken

This post at Peiratikos--the first part of an essay dealing with Spielberg's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's "Minority Report"--reminded me that I had never really gotten around to blogging my PKD Adaptation Theory.

As Steven Berg suggests, PKD's stories are all pretty sketchy. In most of his stories, PKD takes one, really compelling sci-fi idea (i.e., precognitive crimestopper or implanted memory "vacations"), draws out some of the obvious and not-so-obvious implactions of it, and ends with a little O. Henry/EC Comics twist. The plot, setting, and characters all take a backseat to PKD's conceptual noodling. (PKD's novels are only slightly less sketchy.)

PKD's stories are examples of low-rent sci-fi, and, while reading them, it's easier to visualize them being produced in a cheapo Twilight Zone or Outer Limits-style than it is to imagine them getting the huge big-budget Hollywood treatment. PKD's stories don't seem to be set in some weird, shiny far off World of the Future, but rather next week in Hoboken.

And this is where the Hollywood mentality comes into play. It is part of Hollywood Conventional Wisdom that a screenplay needs a "hook" in order for it to be sold. The cool sci-fi concepts at the center of PKD's stories provide great hooks on which Hollywood screenwriters can hang a big budget, special-effects-driven action movie. And in Hollywood, sci-fi=huge, big-budget FX-driven action movie.

But using PKD's ideas to prop up big budget action spectacles is just a little bit pretentious. The central idea of "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" doesn't really have anything to do with the ultraviolence and flashy special effects of Total Recall. Spielberg's efforts with Minority Report aren't so distasteful, but his movie still feels like a bloated mess--but that's what you get when you try to turn a short story into a 2 1/2 hour movie. (John Huston's version of James Joyce's "The Dead", a much weightier story than PKD's, clocks in at under 90 minutes).

Now, it's usually a bad idea to make any kind of judgment on a movie based only on the preview, but the trailer for Richard Linklater's version of A Scanner Darkly looks like it might have gotten it right. It doesn't seem like Linklater has made an action movie, but rather a philosophical thriller closer in spirit to his earlier animated feature Waking Life than to the other movies made from PKD's stories. Linklater's movie might turn out to be no good, but he at least seems to be trying to do justice to PKD's work rather than rummaging around in his stories for a saleable pitch.

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