****SPOILERS FOR “BLADE RUNNER”*****
****SPOILERS FOR “DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?”****
Like many sci-fi movie fans of my generation, I came into the late Philip K. Dick’s work ass-backward; from the movie adaptations of his works to the books themselves. One movie I’d become increasingly fond of, especially after its 1991 “Director’s Cut”, was Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982); the film version of PKD’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1969). One fine day in 1996 I was perusing a favorite (sadly since defunct) bookstore when I came across a new edition of the book, and after years of curiosity, bought and devoured it over a few days.
Like other PKD stories, particularly my favorite book of his, “Martian Time-Slip” (1964), the book crossed over into a near-fever dream state between reality and hallucination, particularly near the end. At the time, I found the book to be a very distinct entity from the screenplay adaptation by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples (and many others), but as I recently reread the book, via a fine Audible audiobook version narrated by Scott Brick, it occurred to me just how closely the Scott film actually captures the spirit of PKD’s book.
Unlike Ridley Scott’s nearly beat-for-beat adaptation of Andy Weir’s “The Martian”, “Blade Runner”, at times, feels wrestled from the late PKD’s subconsciousness. In hindsight, it’s easy to understand why, when shown a rough cut of the film in early 1982, the author was reduced to tears of cathartic joy. Sadly, Philip K. Dick passed away in 1982 at the age of 53, mere months before the film’s release.
With “Blade Runner” turning 40 years old this summer (!), I’d like to examine some interesting divergences and surprising similarities between the movie and the book.
Book to Movie; the Setting.
One of the first differences between the book and the film is where it is set. The book takes place primarily in the post-“World War Terminus” cities of San Francisco and Seattle in January of 2021. World War Terminus has left most of the world’s animals dead. Owning a real animal (even a mouse or a spider) is a status symbol for those who don’t qualify or choose not to leave Earth for the “off-world colonies” on Mars. Both the movie and the book feature a persistent push for off-world emigration, perhaps to ease the burden of an increasingly toxic and barren Earth. Many of those still living on Earth (in both versions) can’t pass either the mental and/or physical requirements for off-world emigration. In the movie, we see blimps with giant screens urging remaining Earthlings to seek “a new life” in the off-world colonies.
Speaking of media bombardment, the inhabitants of the book’s world all tune into a favorite worldwide talk show host named “Buster Friendly”; a then-satirical riff on late 1960s TV hosts like Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson or any number of today’s vacuous talk shows. There is also a much-revered religious icon named Mercer, who is a 21st century prophet/guru who has turned the world on to devices called “empathy boxes”–interactive consoles which allow users to feel and react to the emotions of millions from all over the world; a clear mechanical forerunner to today’s social media, which does almost exactly the same thing. Mercerism has many tenets of traditional religions (pacifism, empathy for others, kindness for its own sake, etc) but there’s also an addictive quality to its empathy boxes as well (the business aspect of organized religion doesn’t go unnoticed by PKD). The book also features machines to dial in a desired emotional state as well–a commentary on antidepressants or other mood-altering drugs (PKD also struggled with drug addiction).
Neither Buster Friendly nor Mercer/Mercerism are present in the film, although the messianic Mercer’s godlike qualities survive somewhat in the character of Eldon Tyrell (more on him later).
Note: To those who say no one in sci-fi predicted the internet? The late Philip K. Dick proves you wrong with his 1969 book. The empathy box might as well just be renamed Twitter.
Another change from book to movie involves the radioactive dust raining on the cities versus the movie’s ceaseless acid rain–which seems a more imminent danger, given our ongoing spiral into environmental collapse. The ecological decay of “Blade Runner” is continued in its outstanding 2017 sequel, “Blade Runner 2049”, with giant seawalls erected to push back against rising coastal tides. Seeing heavy rains in San Francisco day and night is a bit less surprising than it would be in the typically-hotter Los Angeles setting of the film, but then again, with climate change wreaking havoc with Earth’s thermostat, who knows? Both climate change and radioactive dust from wars could lead–or are leading–to the imminent collapse of our ecosphere, and are legitimate means of causing mass animal extinctions.
The book also speaks of an underpopulated Earth–made so by “World War Terminus” and the subsequent exodus of healthy/fit emigres to Mars. The movie “Blade Runner” shows heavily crowded street level traffic, but surprisingly vacant apartment buildings–which implies the thick street traffic might just be tourists, commuters or other non-residents of 2017 Los Angeles. The movie’s J.F. Sebastian (nee: J.R. Isidore) lives by himself in Los Angeles’ historic Bradbury Building (a real location). This is in-keeping with the book, as the many apartment buildings of its 2021 San Francisco are also overrun with vacancies–and unlike the heavily-policed Los Angeles of the movie, the book’s San Franciscans are advised to carry weapons (laser tubes) to fend for themselves, due to a nearly nonexistent police presence in the streets.
Note: No, the Bradbury Building is not named for the late sci-fi author/legend, Ray Bradbury (1920-2012). It was named after Lewis Bradbury; a real-estate mogul who commissioned architect Sumner Hunt to create it in the 1890s.
For those in both the book and movie who can’t afford real animals, they sometimes cheat with an “electric” animal–though it’s usually a secret; what’s the point of a fake if everyone knows it’s fake, right? The movie still carries this thread, as real animals are seen as very expensive–hence the market for high-quality replicants. The movie’s replicants are genetically engineered bio-mechanical beings, as opposed to the book’s more obviously mechanical creations. In the book, the humanoid artificial beings are referred to as “Andys”–short for androids. While the Nexus 6 line are nearly indistinguishable from humans in the book as well, they are still referred to as ‘androids’–which has a more mechanical than biological implication.
Book to Movie; the Characters
Both the book and film feature Rick Deckard as the protagonist. As expertly played by Harrison Ford in the film, the character is surprisingly intact from book to screen–retaining the character’s cynicism, distrust and desire to get out of the killing business. However, the original Deckard from the book, a hard-boiled bounty hunter right out of film noir, differs significantly from the movie’s Deckard in key ways. For starters, Deckard is married in the book (unlike the divorced Deckard of the 1982 theatrical cut), and his long-suffering wife, Iran, is addicted to the empathy box and is often forced by Rick to artificially dial in her emotions from her naturally depressive state (as Rick does himself at times). Unlike the movie’s Deckard, the book sees Deckard desperately hoping to own a live animal someday, instead of the insulting electrical sheep he and his wife keep in a rooftop pen.
While the film’s Deckard was “quit” from the LAPD’s “blade runner” unit (a unit setup to hunt down replicants), the book’s Deckard is an active bounty hunter by trade who shares an office at San Francisco police headquarters, but he’s paid only on commission–$1,000 for every ‘Andy’ Deckard “retires” (i.e. kills). He mentions fellow bounty hunting associate Holden (played in the film’s opening scene by Morgan Paull), who is the previous record holder for android retirements in a single day. The book’s Deckard also deals with another rival bounty hunter named Phil Resch, who may or may not be a replicant himself–but who stops a dangerous android from nearly killing Deckard midway through the book (a scene that inspired a similar moment in the film with the replicant Leon, but with replicant Rachel killing Deckard’s would-be murderer, not Resch).
Note: I much preferred “Blade Runner” without the goofy narration we heard in the 1982 theatrical cut. It was too on-the-nose, telling me things I much preferred imagining on my own. Even star Harrison Ford sounded as if his heart just wasn’t in it while he recorded it. For a terrific account of the movie’s making (and its many versions), seek out the book “Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner” (1996) by Paul Sammon.
Both the book and movie Deckards have love affairs with the android/replicant named Rachel (played by Sean Young), a Nexus 6 model who works with Deckard to help him ‘retire’ her fellow Nexus 6 androids/replicants. In the book, Rachel’s last name is Rosen, same as her uncle Eldon Rosen, who, like the movie’s Eldon Tyrell, is also in the business of making androids/replicants, but his company is based in Seattle, not Los Angeles.
While the movie’s Rick falls in love with Rachel, the book’s Deckard has decidedly mixed feelings about her. In the book, Rick and Rachel’s relationship ends badly, with an incensed Rachel coming to the Deckards’ apartment and savagely pushing Rick’s newly acquired ‘real’ goat off of their rooftop, killing the animal right in front of Rick’s wife. The movie’s final scenes of a battered Rick coming home to take Rachel away seem inspired by the book’s scene of an exhausted Rick’s loving reconciliation with his long-suffering wife.
Note: Despite Rachel’s unforgivable act of murdering the Deckard family goat (like Glenn Close’s boiling of a pet rabbit in 1987’s “Fatal Attraction), her animosity towards Rick is relatable, as she is being asked by him to help her track down and murder beings who are exactly like her. Yes, the androids/replicants murdered human beings to flee from Mars, but they did so to escape a life of slavery. I agree that Rachel’s killing of the living goat was inexcusable, but the anger leading up to the act isn’t without cause, however misdirected.
The movie, at least the 1991 international cut, as well as the 2007 Final Cut (my preferred reference for this column), plants lingering seeds of doubt regarding Rick Deckard’s own humanity as well–echoing some philosophical exchanges between Deckard and rival Phil Resch in the book. Ridley Scott’s movie lays it on a bit more thick, with Rick dozing off at the piano while dreaming of an elegant unicorn. Later on, as he and movie-Rachel flee his apartment to spare her life, he sees an origami unicorn left by LAPD detective Gaff (Edward James Olmos)–this implies that Gaff allowed the two of them to escape, and that Gaff is also aware Rick is a replicant.
Much in the same way that the movie’s Rick knew of Rachel’s vivid childhood memories of a mother spider being devoured by her hatchlings, Gaff seems aware of Deckard’s unicorn dream. This is something Gaff wouldn’t be privy to otherwise, unless he was told of Rick’s dreams by Rick’s own “manufacturer,” perhaps? Incidentally, Gaff is a character created for the film, though he seems suggested by the book’s rival bounty hunter, Phil Resch, since Gaff and Deckard share a similarly competitive relationship.
Note: Rachel’s vivid memory of the hatchling spiders eating their mother after birth seems suggested by a key scene of similar ‘spider horror’ near the end of the book when android Pris torments a spider by cutting off several of its legs, to the trauma of her benevolent, animal-loving human host, John R. Isidore (J.F. Sebastian in the movie).
The movie-Deckard’s doubt of his own humanity near the end is a metaphysical moment similar to one experienced by book-Deckard near the end of the book, when he has a vision of the godlike figure Mercer, who he believes to be ‘fused’ with, after getting Mercer’s permission to kill the remaining androids; the hallucination of Mercer tells him that (and I’m paraphrasing) sometimes doing the wrong thing is right. Book-Deckard’s merging with Mercer (after Mercer is “exposed” as a fraud on TV by the closeted android talk show host Buster Friendly) is a metaphysical moment somewhat similar in tone (if not intent) to the doubts raised of movie-Deckard’s own humanity. Whether Deckard believes himself to be a messianic Christ-like figure or a replicant, the character clearly struggles to keep himself grounded to reality in both versions.
Note: As in many of PKD’s stories (“Martian Time-Slip,” “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” “A Scanner Darkly”), the blurring line between reality and hallucination reflects the author’s own struggles with drug addiction. That PKD was able to so lucidly translate those struggles into coherent narratives and characters is a tribute to the brilliant late sci-fi author’s skillset.
The book’s character of Rachel Rosen, like the Rachel Tyrell of the movie, also engages in a relationship with bounty hunter/blade-runner Deckard. In the book, Deckard and Rachel’s relationship is far more contentious, not to mention illicit, as he thinks of her more as a machine than a ‘real’ woman like his troubled wife, Iran–something he tells himself, perhaps to ease his own conscience over their affair. Book-Deckard and book-Rachel rendezvous in a San Francisco hotel after she flies down from Seattle, and after a night of lovemaking, both begin to feel used by the other; Rick suspects she’s playing both sides, and she suspects Rick only slept with her for access (take that however you wish). Some of their exchanges in the hotel now take place in movie-Rick’s 97th floor apartment, but are still similar in many ways, as both Ricks seem impressed by how “human” Rachel is–even complimenting her piano-playing; “You play beautifully,” the film’s Rick lovingly tells her.
Note: Nowhere in the book is the term “blade runner” ever used. The movie’s working title, under screenwriter Hampton Fancher, was “Android and Dangerous Days.” The name ‘Blade Runner’ was used in a same-titled novel “Bladerunner” (1974) about future dystopian medical smugglers by writer Alan E. Nourse, and was also used by famed stream-of-consciousness writer William S. Burroughs. Fancher liked the sound of it, ran it by director Ridley Scott, and a modern classic film title was born.
Book-Rachel is described with big black eyes, dark hair, and very young looking, with small breasts and a slim, almost androgynous figure. At least with her hair and face, movie-Rachel is taken almost directly from the book’s description, although her fashion tastes are a bit more conservative, preferring a 1940s film noir-heroine look as opposed to book-Rachel’s fish-scale coat and matching bra top. Sean Young, a relative novice at the time, truly nails the part of movie-Rachel; even her careful line delivery sounds exactly fitting to the character. It’s also hard to believe she was only 21 at the time of filming, as she has a depth and maturity beyond her years. This is one of the many, subtle ways that the movie manages to near-perfectly capture the mood and feel of PKD’s novel, if not in exacting beats.
Note: The character of Rachel is critical to the sequel “Blade Runner 2049” and she is recreated in a new body (using near-perfect CGI), much as she appeared in 1982’s “Blade Runner”, save for her eye color–a mistake that alerts an aged Deckard to the imperfect doppelgänger.
Speaking of Rachel, book-Rachel and book-Pris, aka “Pris Stratton”, were supposed to be the same android model, which added to book-Deckard’s initial reluctance to kill book-Pris when he confronts her and her other android associates in the book’s climax. Movie-Pris is played by Daryl Hannah (“Kill Bill,” “Splash”), who has a very different look from Sean Young (blonde hair, blue eyes), but a remarkably similar vibe. Both were around the same age at the time of filming, and both bring an almost unsettling intensity to their performances. While they are clearly not playing the exact same model of replicant, it’s quite easy to imagine movie-Rachel and movie-Pris emerging from the same genetic designers.
Another character who is considerably altered, yet remains spiritually the same is the book’s kindly, feeble-minded “chickenhead” electric animal courier J.R. Isidore; a shy, socially awkward young man who lives in an abandoned apartment building in San Francisco, where he comes across the refugee android Pris Stratton living in one of the vacant apartments. Feeling an innate attraction and a chivalrous need to protect book-Pris from harm, Isidore allows himself to be taken advantage of by book-Pris, who clearly doesn’t reciprocate the simpleton human’s romantic feelings for her, but gladly accepts his hospitality after her initial reluctance, realizing his apartment could serve as a safe house for her other renegade android friends.
Note: “Chickenhead” is the book’s derogatory slang for mentally challenged persons, with the more socially acceptable in-universe term being “specials.”
So far, this is all very similar to the movie’s J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), save for several key points. The movie’s J.F. Sebastian is similarly kind, shy and socially awkward, but he is also very intelligent. In fact, Sebastian’s a genetic designer for the Tyrell Corporation, and has even engineered some ‘friends’ for himself to offset his loneliness. Between making unique replicant dwarfs, mechanical automata and other bizarre creations, Sebastian engages in games of remote phone-chess with his boss, Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel). Despite his obvious gift for genetic designing, Sebastian remains on Earth not because of mental incapacity but because he suffers from a premature aging disease called “Methuselah Syndrome,” which causes the 25 year-old J.F to appear as a middle-aged man.
Note: J.F. Sebastian’s Methuselah Syndrome, aka “accelerated decrepitude” as movie-Pris indelicately puts it, also gives the kindly genetic designer an extra motive in wanting to help the android refugees, given they all suffer from prematurely shortened lifespans.
Both book and movie-Pris take advantage of their hosts’ attraction to them in order to secure their help, with movie-Pris hiding in the trash outside of J.F. Sebastian’s residence in the dilapidated Bradbury building, while book-Pris was living in another apartment within a similarly abandoned building as the book’s helpful J.R. Isidore.
Another dramatic change from book to screen involves the character of rogue android leader Roy Baty (nee: Batty). Book-Roy Baty is still the unofficial leader of the group, and, like book-Deckard, he’s married as well; his wife Imgard, also joins her husband and book-Pris in J.R. Isidore’s abandoned apartment building, eventually moving all of the their belongings into Isidore’s apartment to avoid potential bounty hunters. Another very dramatic difference involves book-Baty’s appearance, which is described in the novel as slovenly. Book-Baty posed as a pharmacist on the Martian colonies, with his wife assisting him. Pris worked for them as well.
Book-Baty’s final confrontation with book-Deckard in the apartment building is nowhere near as dramatic nor poetic as it is in the Ridley Scott film, which embellishes the character to great cinematic effect. The movie reimagines the replicant’s backstories as well, save for the absent Imgard; Pris, a former “pleasure model” replicant, is now the lover of Batty, who was developed as a highly intelligent “combat model.”
Note: Movie-Batty is unquestionably the single greatest improvement of the film over the book.
The change of book-Baty to movie-Batty from a slovenly shopkeeper to a sleek, Punk/New Wave combat model replicant was a wise one, as the late Rutger Hauer (1944-2019) was simply too handsome and physical to play a thick shopkeeping android. Baty/Batty is reinvented much in the same way that Alfred Hitchcock reimagined Robert Bloch’s novelized character of Norman Bates from a dirty, creepy, oafish middle-aged man to a shy, innocent boy next door in 1960’s “Psycho.” Hitchcock made the change to keep our suspicious eyes off the movie’s true menace. In “Blade Runner,” the change to Roy is for precisely the opposite reason–Roy Batty’s sleeker, dangerous combat replicant is now more instantly recognizable as a threat than the book’s shopkeeper. The movie’s Roy Batty is like the shark in “JAWS”; the moment we see his Billy Idol-hair, chiseled physique and icy blue eyes, we get an immediate sense of danger about him–even standing still, he looks as if he could snap into lethal action, like a humanoid cobra.
Movie-Batty’s final confrontation with movie-Deckard is also far more memorable and impactful than book-Deckard instantly killing movie-Baty with a well-placed laser beam after a somewhat, less eventful exchange . Also missing was movie-Batty’s beautiful final lament on his short, but eventful existence…along with a newfound appreciation for (all) life, and ultimate acceptance of his own death:
Note: The speech’s writing credit is slightly murky, although it’s generally accepted that actor Rutger Hauer improvised much of it himself, riffing off of the script by cowriter David Peoples.
There are other less critical character changes from the book to the film as well. The book’s android opera singer “Luba Luft” is reimagined as exotic snake dancer Zhora (Joanne Cassidy), who retains Luba Luft’s brusqueness with Deckard, but little else. In the book, Luba Luft is an internationally renowned opera sensation–even book-Deckard is a fan, until he sees her name on the list of suspected androids, and uses the Voight-Kampff test on her. In an interesting twist that is not recreated for the movie, Luba Luft calls the police on book-Deckard for sexual harassment, and an android policeman shows up to haul book-Deckard off to an all-android populated police station–something the androids had set up in advance to protect themselves. Deckard eventually escapes from the ersatz police force, which briefly causes him to question his own perception of reality (once again, a common theme in PKD’s stories–a main character questioning their sanity).
Note: To be honest, I found the android-created alternate police station to be a bridge too far, even for a novel filled with reality-bending imagery. Seems like an awful lot of trouble for a handful of escaped androids just to stop a potential bounty hunter or two. It’d be a lot easier to simply hide incognito somewhere.
Another of the book’s android escapees reimagined as a cinematic replicant would be the bogus Soviet cop named Polakov, who goes from being a Santa Claus-bearded murderer to a brute force laborer named Leon in the movie. Polakov and Leon both nearly kill Deckard mid-way through the story, until Deckard is saved by the book’s Resch and the movie’s Rachel. The ill-tempered Leon is memorably portrayed by the menacing (and sadly late) character actor Brion James.
Leon is also the first character in the film we see taking the book’s oft-mentioned and used “Voight/Kampff test,” a series of random questions designed to trigger instant emotional responses in humans. As both the book and movie reiterate, the androids/replicants are emotionally underdeveloped– lacking in empathy, even for each other. Asking them questions that would otherwise repulse or trigger human beings causes a telltale response delay (or lack) that tends to expose an android, since we’re told the androids lack human empathy. But, as several characters in the book counter, there is the possibility that a neuro-diverse or person on the autism spectrum might also fail such a test, which is why the book makes references to a secondary test (the Boneli Reflex-Arc test) which book-Deckard generally dismisses as less accurate. The Voight-Kampff test is used several times in the book, but only twice in the movie (on Leon and Rachel), but it’s critical inclusion is one of the surprisingly faithful ways that the film remains true to the essentials of PKD’s book.
Overall, Ridley Scott’s now 40-year old film does tremendous justice to the original story, and has become a definitive classic in its own right, independently of Philip K. Dick’s source novel. While the movie works well as a standalone experience, reading the book gave me a look into a “Blade Runner” universe that might’ve been, as well as insight into the hallucinatory fever-dream imagination of the late great Philip K. Dick (1928-1982).
Both book and film are well worth your attention.
Where To Watch & Read/Be Safe
“Blade Runner” is currently available for streaming at home on HBOMax and Netflix as of this writing. The movie can also be purchased on BluRay/DVD from BestBuy.com, BarnesandNoble.com and Amazon.com as well. Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is available for purchase on Amazon.com and in audiobook format on audible.com (a terrific reading by Scott Brick). The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 862,000 (and over 5.6 million worldwide) as of this writing, so please wear masks (N-95/KN-95 masks are optimal), practice safe-distancing and get vaccinated as soon as possible to minimize infections and protect your loved ones (booster shots are available everywhere). There is also the highly contagious Omicron variant to safeguard for as well, so please continue to mask up in public spaces for others’ sake as well as your own.
Take care and be safe!