Minority Report and Other Stories: 4 PKD stories that inspired movies

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMinority Report and Other Stories by Philip K. DickMinority Report and Other Stories by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick is the classic case of a brilliant but struggling artist who only got full recognition after he passed away. Despite publishing an incredible 44 novels and 121 stories during his lifetime, it was not until the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner was released in 1982 that PKD gained more mainstream attention, and sadly he died before being able to see the final theatrical release.

A number of his short stories were adapted into feature-length films, and this audibook contains “The Minority Report” (1956), which inspired the 2002 Steven Spielberg film Minority Report starring Tom Cruise, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (1966), which was the loose basis for the 1990 Paul Verhoeven film Total Recall and a 2012 reboot starring Colin Farrell, “Paycheck” (1953), which John Woo directed in 2003 and starred Ben Affleck, and “Second Variety” (1953), which was adapted in 1995 as Screamers, starring Peter Weller. This audiobook also includes an ultra-short whimsical SF story called “The Eyes Have It” (1953) that has no reason for being here. Instead, it should have included the short story “Adjustment Team” (1954), which was made into the entertaining 2011 film The Adjustment Bureau starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. That film had a lot of nice character development, and strong romantic chemistry between the two leads.

The audiobook narrator is Keir Dullea, a name that didn’t ring a bell but turns out to be none other than David Bowman from the iconic Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. He does a good job with PDK’s material.

There’s no question in my mind that Minority Report and Total Recall are the most successful films that have been adapted from Philip K. Dick short stories (the other strong films came from his novels: Blade Runner was adapted from his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly was adapted from his novel A Scanner Darkly). But honestly, it’s quite a stretch to say that a 20-30 page short story can really form the basis for a feature film. That’s why marketing teams use the terms “inspired by” and “loosely-based on” to distance the films from their source material. That often stems complaints by the author or fans when filmmakers produce a real stinker, which happens all too often.

So the first thing you’ll notice is that these short stories are dramatically different from their film versions. Of course they are. Normally you have a 200-300 page novel that a writer will adapt for the screen, usually going through dozens of versions throughout the filmmaking process. And frequently the job of a skilled screenwriter is knowing what aspects and characters to cut from the story that still preserves the core narrative of the original, while also allowing room for the visual aspects of film to be emphasized over some of the background details of the story.

But if you are trying to make a 20-page story into a 90-minute film, you need to do the opposite, adding whole new characters or storylines to make a complete story. So it wouldn’t be fair to judge the film adaptations based on the story that provided it inspiration. And that’s why I will look at the short stories in this collection and their film adaptations as separate creations below.

“The Minority Report” (1956) short story — I think this is one of the most intricate and thought-provoking stories that PKD ever wrote. John Anderton, the head of the Precrime unit, is a believer in the criminal justice system, which has reduced crime by almost 100% by using the predictions of three ‘precogs,’ whose visions of possible futures allow the police to apprehend suspects before they commit crimes. It seems to be a perfect system, until one day Anderton receives the ‘precog’ report that he will kill a man named Leo Kaplan that he has never heard of. To prove his innocence, he goes on the run and his assistant Ed Witner takes over and seeks to bring him to justice.

The excitement of the story lies in Anderton hunting down the ‘minority report,’ which is a dissenting report when not all three ‘precogs’ see the same future event. While on the run, Anderton approaches his wife for support, is confronted by Leo Kaplan, learns what motivation he might have for killing Kaplan, realizes that Witner and he are not necessarily enemies, and has time to question whether the ‘precog’ crime prevention is really a ‘just’ system, whether it negates human free will, and whether right and wrong can exist if people are prevented from making their own choices. The story has all the classic PKD themes of paranoia, betrayal, and moral conundrums. The resolution of the story involves three separate ‘minority reports,’ each intricately connected to the other, and Anderton’s decision and its consequences are very different from the Spielberg film version.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMinority Report (2002) film — This Steven Spielberg film is very successful because it takes the ideas of the story and then builds a complete future society around them. The film makes significant changes to the story details, but preserves the core moral questions that PDK raised. The visual details are very striking, with washed-out blacks and whites that give it a unique look. The biggest changes are to Anderton’s wife, the greater involvement of one of the precogs in providing Anderton help in clearing his name, and a completely new subplot involving Witner, Anderton’s boss Lamar Burgess, and a murder from the past that has been carefully covered up.

The resolution of the film version is much more Hollywood than the story, since there is never any question that Anderton is a good person seeking justice who is wrongly accused. Questions about the justification of the precog system are not as prominent, and the moral dilemmas of Anderson’s final decision in the story are missing. But as a thought-provoking and pulse-pounding SF thriller, it’s a pretty impressive achievement.

“We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (1966) short story — This story is only 22 pages long, and is a far cry from the big-budget, special effects-laden and hyper-violent Schwartzenegger extravaganza from Paul Verhoeven. Basically, the story version covers just the opening third of the film, before Arnold gets to Mars. Douglas Quail is a typical nobody who dreams of going to Mars. He decides to visit Rekal Incorporated, which implants false memories that feel real, and requests one in which he is a secret government agent. But when the Rekal staff begin the procedure, they discover that he already has real memories of being a secret agent on Mars, but they have been erased from his conscious mind. They decide the best recourse is to leave his memories alone and send him on his way. However, his real memories are surfacing and suddenly he is confronted by two police officers intent on killing him for knowing too much.

Unlike in the film, the Rekal staff are not killed in painful and graphic ways, Quail’s wife is not a sexy but treacherous Sharon Stone, and there is no action-packed chase as he tries to escape his enemies. Instead, Quail cuts a deal with his pursuers that he will agree to have his memories erased if they promise to leave him alone. But when he returns to Rekal for the procedure, they discover an even deeper embedded memory that reveals exactly how important Quail is to the safety of Earth. It’s a pretty far-fetched development, but keep in mind this is a 22-page story and PDK never anticipated that it would be expanded into a blockbuster SF action film starring a Austrian former bodybuilder who would later become governor of California. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction!

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsTotal Recall (1990) film — What’s left to say about this film? It’s directed by one of my favorite directors, who made one of the best futuristic cop films of all time, 1987’s Robocop, as well as 1997’s satirical take on Robert A. Heinlein’s classic military SF novel Starship Troopers (1959). Total Recall was one of Verhoeven’s greatest moments, pairing Arnold Schwartzenegger at the peak of his acting powers (I can’t believe I just typed that) with a propulsive, action-packed, ultra-violent romp through a future Earth and Mars. Its satirical and black humor were augmented by the complex plot involving real and false memories, so it could be enjoyed on a basic visceral level as well as a more cerebral one. I’d have to say that Total Recall is one of my favorite SF action films, but it is so different from the story that it wouldn’t be fair to compare them.

“Paycheck” (1953) short story — This is another PDK short story about erased memories, a hero on the run trying to unravel the meaning behind a series of mysterious objects, surrounded by people who may be allies or enemies. In that sense, it shares many elements with the above two stories. It’s about an engineer named Jennings who accepts a secret contract with Rethrick Construction, under the condition that he will be given a fat paycheck in two years time, but will have his memories erased of his confidential work. However, when he wakes up, his paycheck is not the big wad of cash he expected, but a bunch of seemingly-useless trinkets.

The story revolves around Jennings using each of the trinkets one by one to get him out of various scrapes, all leading to a showdown with the owner of Rethrick Corporation. I won’t reveal the details of who gave him the trinkets and why, but it does involve many of PKD’s favorite themes. And while the story is well constructed, I thought it was a bit too predictable once the basic conceit was revealed. In addition, the resolution of the story wasn’t particularly impressive. Considering how many stories PDK has written, I’m not really sure why this was deemed film-worthy.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsPaycheck (2002) film — This was not a good SF film, unfortunately. More than anything, casting Ben Affleck as a whip-smart engineer who prepares an intricate series of clues based on knowledge of future events is just painful to watch. Affleck’s acting skills are abysmal (I think his directorial skills are infinitely better, based on Gone Baby Gone and Argo). Here his leading-man charisma was non-existent, and his chemistry with Uma Thurman was sometimes embarrassingly off. The other problem was handing this vehicle to John Woo, a HK director best known for super-high body count action flicks starring Chow Yun Fat. He’s made the transition to Hollywood, but only to make kinetic but ham-handed films like Face Off, Hard Target, Broken Arrow, and Mission Impossible II. So basically the film takes the basic plot elements of the story for the first 30 minutes, and then adds 90 minutes of mindless and fairly boring chase scenes and mayhem. Strangely enough, even the action scenes are quite tame when you think about the brutality of The Killer or Hard Boiled. Overall, this was a very forgettable film and shouldn’t really be associated with PKD.

“Second Variety” (1953) short story — This is one of PKD’s best, a surprisingly tense and chilling story about a future nuclear war which has reduced civilization to rubble, but the war continues thanks to “claws,” which are self-replicating robots that attack any human being and slice them to bits with whirring blades. They were made by the US against the Russians, but they have apparently begun to made newer versions of themselves to be more effective killing machines, including humanoid forms. The entire time I listened to this I was reminded of James Cameron’s TERMINATOR films, since the ‘claws’ ruthlessly try to infiltrate the remnants of humanity hidden in bunkers, and wreak havoc when they get in. The story focuses on several characters who are trying to identify the unknown “second variety” of humanoid robots, and we can see all the classic paranoia over who is human and who is robot, which would later be explored in greater depth in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsScreamers (1995) film — I didn’t know this film existed until I read up on “Second Variety,” and it looks like a low-budget, direct-to-video type flick released in 1995. The film stars Peter Weller, but it gets only 30% on Rotten Tomatoes, and having watched the trailer, it looks really, really bad, a typical SF B-movie with grainy cinematography, whirring blades, screaming soldiers, and cheesy music. I just can’t make myself watch this. However, some of our reviewers do like the film, so I’ve asked them to provide more insight.

~Stuart Starosta


Minority Report and Other Stories by Philip K. DickI seem to be in the minority, but I really like Screamers. I thought it really captured the tone of “Second Variety” — the paranoia, the oppressive fear, the inability to distinguish friend from foe. Peter Weller is a fantastic actor, and even if the other actors can’t quite match him, the cast is quite small and allows for great interaction. The setting is moved from Earth to Sirius 6B, and the conflict is between a mining company and a collection of former employees, but the intelligent self-replicating robots still provide the primary danger to any remaining humans. Sure, the dialogue is a little cheesy, and it’s pretty easy to guess what’s going to happen, but it’s an entertaining way to spend 100 minutes.

~Jana Nyman

Readers we’d love to hear your thoughts on PKD book-to-film adaptations in the comments! Any preferred movies, or short stories that you wish would get the Hollywood treatment?


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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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