5 Ways Philip K Dick's Insanity Changed the World of Movies
Sometimes you see a movie with a real mindfuck of a plot and you think, "Who the hell thinks up this stuff?"
It's pretty much one guy. His movies are on the way to grossing a billion dollars, but the man himself died broke, not having lived to see any of them.
Also, he was insane.
You Are a Fan of Philip K Dick, Whether You Know it or Not
His name was Philip K. Dick, and if you haven't heard of him you should try reading those words that appear on the screen at the start of a movie sometime. He was a prolific but not hugely popular sci-fi writer from the 1950s until his death in 1982, but now Hollywood seems determined to adapt every single one of the man's 44 novels and 120 short stories. Have you seen the new Matt Damon movie The Adjustment Bureau? About a politician who finds out that all of reality is in fact controlled by supernatural men in hats with the ability to stop time?
They use it the same way we'd use it: to watch people fuck.
It's adapted from a Philip K Dick short story, and it's typical Dick -- at the center is a likable everyman who finds out that reality is not what it seems. If you haven't seen that one, you've probably seen at least half of these Dick adaptations:
1982: Blade Runner -- Harrison Ford stars as an everyman cop who figures out he might be a robot in disguise.
1990: Total Recall -- Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as an everyman construction worker who figures out he might be living in a computer simulation, or is a secret agent who has been programmed with a false personality.
Some adaptations are...looser, than others.
1995: Screamers -- Peter "RoboCop" Weller stars as an everyman soldier who realizes the human enemies he thought he was fighting are actually robots in disguise.
2002: Minority Report -- Tom Cruise is an everyman cop who realizes the pre-crime unit he works for is not what it seems.
Man, you could spam dozens of YouTube comment #2es at a time with a computer like that.
2003: Paycheck -- Ben Affleck is an everyman engineer who finds his memory has been wiped and the job he has taken is not what it seems.
2006: A Scanner Darkly -- Keanu Reeves is an everyman who inhabits a world of hallucinations and "scrambled" agents where no one is what they seem.
2007: Next -- Nicolas Cage can see two minutes into the future or some shit.
Just skip this one.
That's not even a complete list. Eleven freaking stories from this one guy have been turned into movies, and right now no fewer than six more are being developed for film by the likes of Michel Gondry and Ridley Scott, including a Total Recall reboot starring Colin Farrell.
Name us one single writer, anywhere, from any genre, who can say the same (Dick was already the most adapted sci-fi author in film history several movies ago). And that's not even getting into all the movies that borrowed from Dick (aka The Truman Show, Inception, Vanilla Sky, The Matrix -- and then you have directors like Darren Aronofsky who refer to him as an influence).
"I'd like to thank Philip K. Dick and the half-liter of LSD I take with my cheerios every morning."
"Wow", you're no doubt thinking. "It must have been sweet to write all those stories that inspired hit movies. No doubt this Philip K. Dick was constantly lounging by the pool with Harrison Ford and had tons of money and was completely sane. lol Dick."
Dick Was Broke When He Died
Philip K Dick passed away just before Blade Runner came out and the Hollywood gold rush began. Even during the most profitable time of his career from 1965-1968. he was only making about $12,000 a year. For instance, in the early 50's when he wrote Paycheck he ironically was so poor he had to buy horse meat from a pet shop to survive.
We've all been there, Phil. Some of us go back from time to time when we're making fajitas.
Meanwhile, the $15 million Ben Affleck made from starring in the (shitty) adaptation was enough for Affleck to eat a different thoroughbred racehorse for dinner every day for the next three years. We're not saying that's what he did with the money of course, just that he should be man enough to come forward and admit it, and apologize to the foals for making them watch.
Twenty-plus years into his career, Dick was so broke that Robert Heinlein, an author who was his polar opposite, offered to buy him a typewriter. By the way, this was around the same time in his life that Dick began to believe he was traveling to ancient Rome, courtesy of a time travelling alien who visited him in his sleep.
"I'mf Philip K. Dick, and this terrifying android replica of me is less crazy than literally every sentence I ever uttered."
Did We Mention He Was Also Crazy?
And here's where the story takes a positively Dickian twist.
Audiences love these movies because of the patented "what's real and what's not" mindfuck twists. And it appears that Dick wrote them because he, himself, didn't know what was real. Dick was paranoid and may have been schizophrenic.
In other words, his mental illness has sold tens of millions of tickets.
Stay tuned for our next article, "7 Unexpected Benefits of Unmedicated Schizophrenia".
From the age of 7, Dick experienced vertigo so severe it led to him feeling completely disconnected from reality. When he started writing full time in the 50's he'd get paid about $20 per short story, which led to the formation of his amphetamine habit as he used to lock himself away with his drugs and his typewriter writing 68 pages a day (by comparison, writing machine Stephen King does 10 pages a day).
Then in February and March of 1974, Dick believed he started receiving a series of communications from an entity that he called VALIS, for Vast Active Living Intelligent System. These were delivered via an "information-rich pink beam" that transmitted directly into his mind. At first the messages were in the form of laser beams and geometric patterns, eventually they involved him living a double live as a persecuted Christian in Rome during the first century A.D. He ended up writing about these experiences in the books VALIS, Radio Free Albemuth and an 8,000 page long journal he called Exegesis. Here's one of his journal entries on the subject:
That pink beam is shooting Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep into his brain right now.
"March 20, 1974: It seized me entirely, lifting me from the limitations of the space-time matrix; it mastered me as, at the same time, I knew that the world around me was cardboard, a fake. Through its power of perception I saw what really existed, and through its power of no-thought decision, I acted to free myself. It took on in battle, as a champion of all human spirits in thrall, every evil, every Iron Imprisoning thing."
Dick claimed that at one point VALIS informed him that his son's life was in danger from an undiagnosed hernia. Dick took his son to the hospital, the hernia was discovered and operated on and his son's life was saved.
It's okay if you need to take a few minutes to piece your shattered concept of reality back together. We'll wait.
You don't have to be crazy to write mind-bending science fiction, but it apparently helps. Many of Dick's stories revolve around questions about the nature of reality, schizophrenia, paranoia, drug use, religion and hallucinogenic imagery. Whether any of these are related to the fact that all his pre 1970 stories were written while high on amphetamines we'll leave for you to decide, but they totally were. The man would mix offworld colonies, cold war politics, Tibetan theology, corny advertising jingles, psionic powers, sentient jellies and small scale domestic drama. Not just in the same book -- all those elements could easily appear in the same paragraph.
We're shocked that Philip K. Dick-style writing isn't taught in any Writer's Workshops.
Not That His Real Life Was Any Less Insane
It gets weirder. In the 1950s, Dick and his wife were visited weekly by two FBI agents who were investigating their left wing views. He eventually received their file on him under the Freedom of Information Act and found they'd been keeping notes on stuff like his beard length (makes sense, everyone knows only commies have beards).
"Sir? We've got a Class-Lenin on our hands."
But then Dick took the paranoia and ran with it. In the early 70's there was a break-in at his house which he eventually came to believe was part of a neo-Nazi conspiracy (rather than, you know, the work of one of the many junkies living in his house at the time). In 1974 he met with several literary critics who were fans of his. He disagreed with their interpretation of his work and naturally contacted the FBI claiming he'd uncovered a Marxist invasion of American sci-fi. In his letter, he accused Polish author Stanislaw Lem, who'd written an essay praising him, of actually being a "composite committee."
Then Again, He Kind of Did See the Future
So why, after ignoring him for the duration of an incredibly prolific if not lucrative career, is Hollywood suddenly determined to get every word the man wrote in front of the camera?
Okay, yes. But also...
It's because over time, the real world and Dick's mental illness have met each other half way.
Hey, remember when Minority Report came out in 2002? It was right in the middle of the war on terror and everyone thought the movie was a thinly veiled allusion to the invasive Homeland Security tactics we were seeing in the headlines. And in fact, a few years later the government introduced cameras that could supposedly detect when you intend to commit a crime in the future. Yeah, Dick kind of seems like a prophet in retrospect. Especially considering he wrote that story in freaking 1956.
This is what you needed to record a video in 1956.
Meanwhile, those themes of confused self-identity he explored have become more relevant in the age of the Internet, where pretending to be a 15-year-old girl pretending to be an orc in a completely virtual world is a common way to spend a lunch hour. Paranoia about corporations and shady characters run amok behind the scenes? Hell, look at a headline.
So here's to Philip K Dick, who led a rough life, but kept churning out stories through it all. He no doubt took quite a bit of shit and ridicule from those around him back when he was ranting about time traveling aliens, but now, from beyond the grave, he's the one who has A-list stars saying his words out loud in front of millions.
So, are you a struggling writer? Who knows, perhaps if you start taking amphetamines, have five broken marriages, start hallucinating and become paranoid you could be the next Philip K. Dick, and your work will be in lights for decades after you're gone.*
"Though his fiendish speed habit lead him to an early grave, Tim will always be remembered by the EMTs who found his half-written manuscript and laughed for like, twenty minutes straight."
Note: This almost certainly won't happen, please don't do any of those things.
For more impressive things accomplished while under the influence, check out The 5 Greatest Things Accomplished While High and The 5 Most Inspiring Things Ever Accomplished While Drunk.