Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner was arguably the most brilliant, though-provoking, and intelligent SF film ever made, with a uniquely dark vision of a deteriorated future Earth society and a morally ambiguous tale of a bounty hunter Rick Deckard hunting down and ‘retiring’ a series of very intelligent Nexus-6 type replicants (androids) that want very much to live. The movie changed the way moviegoers looked at SF films, and brought great credibility to its director and the genre for a much wider audience, although it was a box-office failure and Philip K Dick never lived to see the completed film. It raised questions of morality and humanity that are basically unanswerable, but presented this vision in a visually stunning, emotionally compelling and visceral story with complex characters and no easy conclusions.
Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a very different creature altogether. Although the broad outlines of the story are similar, there are some dramatic differences with the novel. In fact, some of the most important aspects of the book were dropped by director Ridley Scott:
1) Deckards’ depression-ridden wife, who deliberately dials up depressive moods on their “Penfield mood organ.” The first chapter shows us the strained married life of Deckard, whose wife sits at home in a catatonic depression, fighting Deckard’s suggestion to dial up happier moods, including “the desire to watch TV no matter what is on,” or even more diabolical, “the desire to dial up more moods” or “the feeling of satisfaction from obeying your husband.” It is his wife’s melancholy and desire for a real living animal (not the electric sheep they own to keep up with the neighbors) that drives Deckard’s need to retire more androids to earn more cash to hopefully buy something like an ostrich or real sheep. In the film, Deckard is a solitary hunter with a dark and cluttered apartment.
2) The obsession with owning living creatures since so many animals have become extinct from nuclear fallout. Throughout the book many characters yearn to own real animals, and all the people in Deckards’ building keep animals (both real and artificial) on the room in a sort of competition for social status. There is also a fascinating back story for JR Isidore, who in the book works for an animal repair shop that poses as a veterinary clinic to preserve face for its customers. There is a very poignant scene where JR picks up an ailing cat from a customer and seeks to change its batteries, too slow-witted to realize it is a real cat. His cruel boss forces him to contact the owner and offer a fake replacement. When Deckard visits the Rosen Corporation, Eldon Rosen attempts to bribe him to conceal that the Voigt-Kampff test is flawed by offering a real owl, which is incredibly valuable. The ending of the book also features a toad that Deckard finds in the desert, a creature thought extinct.
3) The Specials, often called “chickenheads,” humans who have been so genetically damaged that they are not allowed to have children or emigrate off-world. JR Isidore is a special, but it is frequently his behavior that is most humane and empathetic, whether towards animals or to the androids Pris Stratton, Roy & Irma Batty. Even after realizing that he is harboring androids, he doesn’t care because he still considers them friends (and regular humans always treat him with contempt).
3) The ubiquitous Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends TV show that everyone watches. This TV program is played 23 hours per day, and the host Buster Friendly is basically a Jay Leno-type TV show host with an endless stream of clever quips, interviews, and guests. It becomes clear that Buster Friendly must be an android, along with his guests, and it is never clear who is controlling these androids, though their role is obviously to pacify the population. At the end of the novel Buster Friendly also makes a big on-screen debunking of the Mercer religion, suggesting that someone in power feels threatened by this populist movement, but it has little effect because the adherents of Mercerism still seek the shared suffering that makes them feel alive.
4) The fake police station infiltrated by androids where Deckard is taken when he tries to retire Luba Luft, who is posing as an opera singer. At the station, he encounters the station chief, who when questioned turns out to be an android and is then killed by another bounty hunter named Phil Resch. Since Deckard’s Voight-Kampff test is different from that used by Resch to recognize androids, Deckard suggest’s that Resch administer it to himself, and Resch begins to have doubts about himself. Nonetheless they track down Luba Luft and Resch kills her, but shows his cruelty in taking pleasure from the killing. Even though he may be human, he is far less sympathetic than Luba Luft herself, who appreciates art and opera and only wants to be left to live the short timespan allotted to androids.
5) The religious cult of Mercerism, which unites believers via an Empathy Box with a martyr-like figure named Wilbur Mercer who endlessly climbs a mountain while being stoned by unseen assailants. This is certainly the biggest departure between the novel and the film, but understandable that it was removed from the film screenplay. Mercerism is depicted in a very ambiguous light by PKD: it seems to be a legitimate means for people to connect with each other, and are uplifted by the shared pain from the Empathy Box and the fact that Mercer comes back despite that punishment he endures. Although it is revealed that the artificial reality experience of the Empathy Box may have been staged, we see that it still has spawned a legitimate albeit strange religion than transcends its beginnings.
6) The repeated motif of slowly-creeping entropy, symbolized by the ubiquitous “kipple” that invades and takes over every corner of this dystopian world, turning order to chaos and draining life of vitality. The building that JR occupies is completely consumed by kipple (useless junk), which takes over room by room, rendering them uninhabitable. It also ties in with the world of the dead that Mercer extracts people from who have fallen into it.
As you can see, there are so many interesting story elements missing from the movie, so what do we get in return?
In my mind, the decision to drop these parts was both wise and necessary, since Ridley Scott and his screenwriters wanted to create a SF visual experience like nothing ever seen on screen before, along with a brilliant synth-music soundtrack by Vangelis. The haunting images of the film are now so iconic that people who have never seen the movie might still recognize them: a dirigible slowly floating about a dark, rain-soaked LA streets, projecting some Japanese geisha ad, Harrison Ford running through the streets chasing a helpless female android and shooting her down in cold blood among bustling streets of bystanders, Rutger Hauer holding Deckard’s hand dangling from a building roof with a symbolic nail thrust through his wrist, giving his perhaps the most famous and powerful death speech is SF cinema history:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion; I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate… All those… moments… will be lost, in time, like tears… in… rain. Time… to die.
If you want to know more about the making of the film, there are two excellent references: the documentary Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner and the book Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner.
The novel and film are different enough that it’s difficult to say that one is better than the other, but for me Blade Runner is the more powerful of the two. While Blade Runner is concerned more with questions of the morality of retiring androids that often seem more sympathetic than the humans in a world almost completely drained of pathos, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is much broader in its concerns, touching on the nature of human consciousness, the importance of empathy, the cruelty of normal humans to ‘specials,’ the obsession with real animals vs artificial ones, the clear inhumanity of the androids who nonetheless desperately want to live, and the strange religion of Mercerism.
In the end, I think Blade Runner is the more polished piece of work that pushed the boundaries of film-making and influenced every subsequent SF film, but Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep remains a bizarre, frightening, mordantly-humorous, and hallucinatory vision of the future that only PKD could have written. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Scott Brick, and he does a great job as always.
As Stuart says, the audiobook narrated by Scott Brick is excellent.
To my mind, Blade Runner is one of the few successful adaptations of a PKD book to film simply because so many of the book’s details were scrapped — which is not to say that I don’t love the book, because I do, but it would be unfilmable. Ridley Scott really did create a masterpiece with Blade Runner (depending on which version you watch, of course).
Absolutely, the screenplay went through dozens of revisions and Scott managed to extract the right ingredients to make a visually and thematically consistent noir classic. It would have been a mess with electric animals on rooftops, empathy boxes, fake police stations, Buster Friendly, and Mercerism.
Scott got to the heart of the story and created an original vision. I loved Blade Runner. I also loved the book (I choked up when Decker found the toad near the end.)
Changing the title was also a good idea; a signal to everyone that the movie was going to be a different experience.
Now, if someone wanted to make an adaptation that was truer to the book, it could be done, but it would have to be a “long form” work. Although… that could be very interesting… Hello? BBC?
Great article. And cover art. I’ve got a better chance of finding a special in a bookstore than a hardcover with original artwork.