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Adapting Classic Sci-Fi part 2: PKD and Aristotle—Sci-Fi Adaptation and the Golden Mean

Note: This is part 2 of my two-part series on adapting classic science fiction for contemporary audiences. If you missed part 1, which focused on HBO’s new Fahrenheit 451 adaptation, click here.

The road to adaptation is fraught with peril. The sci-fi-nerd community is a nostalgic bunch, and demands that adaptations be as true to the original as possible, yet, to be viable, a certain amount of updating is usually needed. There are a seemingly infinite shades along this spectrum, ranging from completely faithful remakes, about which one could argue “why bother even making remaking the original story if it’s going to be so close to the original, to nearly unrecognizable “inspired by” pieces that bear little resemblance to the source material, which might make one wonder why the writer did not just write an original story. Either way, the adaptation, and by extension its creators, are open to criticism from the very audience they are trying to attract. Last week, we examined how HBO’s new Fahrenheit 451 adaptation tries—and ultimately fails—at this balancing act. This week’s article covers the myriad of other strategies a writer can take when adapting classic science fiction.

Electric Dreams, the Amazon Video/Channel 4 series of 10 short films inspired by the short fiction of Philip K. Dick, provides a fascinating case study in science fiction adaptation. Dick’s writing has, historically, been a fertile ground for adaptation. Some of the remakes of his works, Blade Runner is probably the best example, are considered groundbreaking classics in their own right, while others, Paycheck, for example, failed miserably. Many others have fallen somewhere in between. What makes Electric Dreams so interesting as a vehicle to explore the art of adaptation is not just the ability to compare adaptations by different writers and directors in the context of a loosely unified series which features big-budget production and star-studded casts, but also the ability to compare the thought processes of the writers themselves.

Recently, I watched the series while reading Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams: The Stories That Inspired The Original Dramatic Series (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), the companion book that not only collects the original stories which inspired each of the ten short films, but also contains a brief essay by the screenwriter of each episode, each of whom had to grapple with the issues raised above. While each writer, to some extent updates the story for modern times, the adaptations generally fall into three distinct categories: Those that are basically faithful to the original, those that make major changes to the original story or premise for the purpose of using the story to directly criticize contemporary issues, and those that fall somewhere in between. While there are stronger and weaker episodes in all of these categories, ultimately, I find those that follow the golden mean between the two extremes to be the most successful.

Below, I will briefly examine each episode and its approach to adapting classic science fiction. I will be following the Amazon Prime Video order of the episodes rather than the Channel 4 order, which is different.

Note: The cited page numbers come from the above-mentioned book.

Episode 1

Episode Title: Real Life

Story Title: Exhibit Piece

Screenwriter: Ronald D Moore

“Real Life” presents the dichotomy inherent in adapting classic science fiction starkly. As a PKD fan, I was extraordinarily disappointed in it because it changes the original story as much as any other episode in the series. If I hadn’t been committed to participating in a roundtable about the series in which I had to discuss each individual episode, I might have given up on the series after one episode because of the way that it messed with the source material. The other members of the roundtable, however, generally liked the episode and a couple of them cited it as their favorite in the first half of the series. I can only imagine that they are unfamiliar with the source material. Herein lies the problem—the episode was effective at attracting new viewers and hooking them into the show, however it alienated fans of the original short story. Now, the first group is admittedly much bigger than the latter, but I feel that if one is going to present something under the mantle of an adaptation, one takes on an obligation to remain somewhat true to the source material.

In the PKD story, a man who is a curator of a museum exhibit on 20th Century American life becomes trapped—either literally or mentally—in the very exhibit he curates. He begins to live within the exhibit piece and neglects his life in the story’s present, which is our future. It could have been adapted easily by updating the exhibit to be about 21st century life, and by keeping the premise otherwise true to the original. Instead, Moore changes the story, making it about a rich man who gets lost in a virtual world. To me, it was more “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (the story that inspired Total Recall) than “Exhibit Piece.” Moore said that he “was attracted to the underlying theme of losing oneself in another reality.” (1) While it is true that “Exhibit Piece” addresses this theme, there are a myriad of other PKD stories that do as well. Moore admits that “very little of remains of the original story remains in the show” (2), which, I feel is unforgivable in an anthology show claiming to adapt some of the great science fiction stories ever written. He does say that he hopes the “heart” and “brain” of the original story remains, although, if they are there, they are difficult to find. “Real Life” is quality science fiction. The reaction of the other participants in the round table speaks to that, but it is barely connected to the source material, and, in this context, it fails for that reason.

Episode 2: Autofac

Episode Title: Autofac

Story Title: Autofac

Screenwriter: Travis Beacham

“Autofac,” in contrast to “Real Life” provides the paradigm for a successful PKD adaptation. While there are definitely elements that are updated for contemporary audiences—and even plot points that are changed—the story remains authentically true to the source material both aesthetically and thematically. The updates are smart and apt, and the theme of remaining human in an increasingly automated world is even more relevant today than when PKD wrote it.

Both the story and the episode follow a community of humans who attempt to rebel against the automated factory that runs their lives in a post-nuclear-apocalyptic future. Beacham said that “you always see stories about malevolent artificial intelligence rebelling against its programming and trying to destroy its creators…And this story follows that path but in the end is something completely different. What’s brilliant about Autofac is that the factory isn’t a machine running amok. It’s a machine doing exactly what its ingenious but irresponsible creators had built it to do” (181). In a world that is becoming increasingly animated, Beacham finds the premise “more realistic than the traditional robot rebellion yarn” and a “more timely technological parable” (181). His understanding of this relevance is, perhaps, what leads him to the authenticity of this adaptation.

“Autofac” is adapted brilliantly. The basic premise is that of the PKD story, and there are certain details like lifting certain prominent lines of dialogue directly from the story that lend the adaptation authenticity. That said, it does change/update certain elements as well. One example is the use of delivery drones in place of the robotic trucks of the original story. The drones speak to where the technology of our world is headed (and are especially creepy when watching the story on Amazon) and the general computer tech is updated as well. The ending is slightly different than the original story’s but the theme, which is, according to Beacham, that “we’re fighting ourselves, we’re fighting our own nature” comes across just as powerfully (182).

“Autofac” strikes the perfect balance between the old and the new. It is not only a great adaptation, but one of the best sci-fi films I’ve seen in years.

Episode 3

Episode Name: Human Is

Story Name: Human Is

Screenwriter: Jessica Mecklenberg

“Human Is” is another successful adaptation. Even more so than “Autofac,” “Human Is” remains true to the original tale. The episode follows the plot almost exactly. It is told from the perspective of a wife whose husband may or may not have been possessed by an alien life form. The setting is changed slightly—it is a more militaristic future—and the names of the characters have been changed, but all of the key plot points and scenes, including the chilling final conversation between the wife and her maybe-husband are there, almost exactly as they are in the book. Mecklenburg does change the names of the characters, which is unnecessary, and adds a weird sex scene that takes place in an underground subsection of the society, which seems like just an excuse to show some skin on the screen, but only the most staunchly old school Philip K. Dick fans (Dick-Heads?) could complain about the authenticity of this adaptation.

Human Is is probably one of the easier stories to adapt because, as Mecklenberg says, “it has a timeless quality,” but Mecklenberg should still be commended for recognizing “how relevant, if not crucial to our understanding of today’s world”(164) the story feels. The fact that she understands “it’s astounding how essential Philip K. Dick’s work feels” makes her the perfect writer for this particular adaptation (164). If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Episode 4

Episode Name: Crazy Diamond

Story Name: Sales Pitch

Screenwriter: Tony Grisoni

According to Grisoni, “PKD voiced his worries about the tale in 1978: ‘I really deplore the ending. So, when you read the story, try to imagine it as it ought to have been written’” (75-76) Grisoni took this as statement as license for changing not only the ending but the characters and basic premise of the story as well. More than just an adaptation, this almost feels like a continuation, an “inspired by” piece about the further development of the company that created the original Farsad, the sales robot which sells itself. The original Farsad is name-dropped in the story, but the products that the company sells are way more advanced than the ones in the source material. That’s all well and good, and I could buy the changed ending knowing Dick’s feelings about it, but I have a larger problem with the change in the characters and their motivation. While Steve Buschemi is brilliant as Ed in “Crazy Diamond,” he is not the Ed of “Sales Pitch.” Changing his escapist motives from tangible ones—to get to a new planet—to fantasy ones alters his character significantly. Ultimately, “Crazy Diamond” shows the dangers of altering one part of an adaptation. Because of Dick’s statement about the ending, changing it is legitimate. The changes necessitated by the specific altered ending, and the way they change the characters and the plot are worse sins, however, and ultimately undermine this adaptation.

Episode 5

Episode Name: The Hood Maker

Story Name: The Hood Maker

Screenwriter: Matthew Graham

One of the reasons that the book version of Electric Dreams is so fascinating is that it gives insight into the screenwriter’s mind. This is especially so for “The Hood Maker.” When Graham read the story as a boy, he imagined the eponymous hood as a full cowl that covers the wearer’s head and protects them from mind reading. In actuality the hood is a concealed metal headband. Graham preferred the hood to the band because it was “at once a brave act of public defiance” and “a way to hide one’s personal identity, to remain aloof and secretive. It spoke to the theme of the story—what secrets do we have the right to keep? Should all our thoughts be sacred, even if they are dark and dangerous ones? Do I have a right to read your mind if I believe that it’s in the national interest? Can I hide? Is that wrong?” (115) Ultimately, despite recognizing his boyhood error, Graham decided to include the full hood in his adaptation. It is a choice that works well for exactly the reasons he describes. Other than that, “The Hood Maker” has a similar attitude toward the source material as “Autofac.” It is successful for the same reasons, though not as well executed. It is also a reminder of an important point about adaptation. We all love the source material, but we each have a different experience with it. What may be authentic for one reader is not necessarily so for another.

Episode 6

Episode Title: Safe and Sound

Story Title: Foster, You’re Dead

Screenwriters: Kalen Egan and Travis Sentell

This episode suffers from the same issues that I discussed last week in part 1 of this series: It attempts to take a piece of classic sci-fi and apply it to a current political issue. In fact, it takes those issues and multiplies them tenfold.  Although the screenwriters claim to be big PKD fans, and even to have met each other through his work, they admit that they “wrote [their] adaptation of Electric Dreams during the ascent and election of a man riding a new wave of American populism and found [they] couldn’t escape at least half a dozen unintended resonances” (136-137). To this viewer, even if those resonances are ‘unintended,” they are too dominant. The allegory is heavy-handed and hits of over the head with its relevance to today’s political and social climate. Egan and Sentell claim to be taking the cold war paranoia of the original story and updating it to reflect the jingoistic paranoia of the contemporary period. In the process, they change the setting, the characters, and the story until they are unrecognizable. If I wasn’t told that this was an adaptation of “Foster, You’re Dead” I wouldn’t be able to figure it out. Other than the surname of the protagonist, little remains of the source material.

Episode 7

Episode Title: The Father Thing

Story Title: The Father Thing

Screenwriter: Michael Dinner

Much like “Human Is,” “The Father Thing” is virtually, a faithful adaptation, until the last minute that it is. The screen story is told in much the same way as it is written, and the writer and director even play off the campy aspects that come with so faithful of an adaptation. At the end of the episode, when the child-protagonist, types #resist, the echoes of the current political climate are reflected in the episode, but, unlike, “Safe and Sound,” the message feels authentic because of the faithfulness of the adaptation. It retains its timeless aspect, which is what allows it to be timely.

Dinner’s summarizes his attitude toward adaptation as follows: “I wanted to preserve the emotional core while firmly placing it in my own world” (97). This, he does successfully. The setting is contemporary, but the characters, conflicts, and themes remain true to the original. Even the double-political message at the ends works, partly because of the credit Dinner has built with the viewer by remaining otherwise true to the original material. The episode successfully navigates the dilemma at the core of adapting classic sci-fi as well as any episode in the series.

Episode 8

Episode Title: The Impossible Planet

Story Title: The Impossible Planet

Screenwriter: David Farr

“The Impossible Planet” presents a different type of challenge as the subject for adaptation. It is a very short story, and there is probably not enough there to sustain a full, hour-long film. Expansion is necessary for the story to fit the format. Farr does a good job of staying true to the “timeless themes” in one of PKD’s “simplest stories” (39) while fleshing it out enough to not only sustain the run-time, but also provide the kind of mind fuck ending that is reminiscent of the best PKD adaptations. It ends with the same type of uncertainty as the endings of the original Blade Runner movies. Overall, a job well-done.

Episode 9

Episode title: The Commuter

Story Title: The Commuter

Screenwriter: Jack Thorne

On the surface, “The Commuter” takes a similar approach to adaptation as “The Impossible Planet.” Certain scenes from the original story are performed virtually identically in the show. However, the attempts at addressing more contemporary issues fall a bit flat in this one, partly because they are done in a straightforward, obvious way. In fact, the entire thing is more concrete, as the lines of several characters are telescoped into the protagonist, and the fluid timeline is straightened out a bit. While in his essay, Thorne praises the “twists and turns of the story” (22), ultimately, this episode felt like a simpler version of the original, almost as if it’s dumbed-down  for a mass, tv audience.

Episode 10

Episode title: Kill All the Others

Story Title: The Hanging Stranger

Screenwriter: Dee Rees

Much like “Safe and Sound,” “Kill All The Others” was written in “the throes of the 2016 Presidential Campaign.” When there was a “blind, chanting jingoism” according to screenwriter, Dee Rees (54).  As such, it is subject to the same weaknesses. There is little in this story that follows the source material. In fact, the most PKD elements actually come from the story, “Sales Pitch,” which is, theoretically, the inspiration for the episode “Crazy Diamond.” Much like the other episodes that attempt to be timely, this one changes too much about the original in pursuit of timeliness.

Looking back at these adaptations, I am reminded of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle. This might seem a strange association, since Aristotle was a man who advocated for the concrete and the real over the esoteric philosophies of his teacher, Plato, but his theory of the “The Golden Mean” is particularly relevant to this conversation. The Golden Mean is the sweet spot between two extremes where, Aristotle believed, the truth lies. Those who wish to adapt classic science fiction, like that written by PKD or Ray Bradbury should re-read their Aristotle. While, as we discussed last week, it is important to update the source material to fit a future the original authors could not foresee, the adaptation is still beholden to the original to some extent. Balancing these aspects, finding the golden mean, is essential to creating a successful adaptation. Episodes like “Autofac” and “The Father Thing” provide the perfect counterbalance to the type of adaptation done in Fahrenheit 451 and the perfect template for being both timely and   and timeless.

 


A. A. Rubin lurks in the shadows. You may have thought you saw him in the back of the bar, or going into the subway station, but when you looked back, he was gone. His fiction has appeared in Pif MagazineScrivener’s Pen, and The Hopper Review. His short story “White Collar Blues,” which originally appeared in Skyline, was nominated for The Carve Magazine/Mild Horse Press Online Short Story Anthology Award by the editor. His debut graphic novel will be released by Golden Bell Studios next year. He can be reached at: birdman33@gmail.com and on twitter as @thesurrealari .

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