Top 10 Films Based on or Inspired by Philip K. Dick Stories

Blade Runner came out just after sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick died in poverty in 1982. Ironically, the film brought Dick popularity he never knew while alive. Dick published 44 novels and more than 100 short stories, predominantly in the sci-fi genre. He tackled political, sociological, and metaphysical issues in stories about big brother governments and ominous corporations. His stories dealt with altered states—stemming from drugs, paranoia, or schizophrenia—and the shifting nature of reality. Here's a list of the best adaptations of Dick's work as well as the best Dick-inspired films.

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Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner film poster

© Warner Bros

Based on the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Philip K. Dick is quoted as saying: "You would have to kill me and prop me up in the seat of my car with a smile painted on my face to get me to go near Hollywood." He never lived to see a film made from his work, but before he died in 1982, he did see a portion of Blade Runner and was supposedly pleased. Blade Runner is far from faithful in adapting Dick's novel, but it brought the sci-fi writer to a broader audience and made Hollywood sit up and notice him. So while it's not the most accurate adaptation, it is the best-made film taken from one of his works.

Ridley Scott’s dark, dank, claustrophobic vision of the future has informed much of the cinematic science fiction that followed and colored Japanese anime from Akira and Ghost in the Shell on. The Final Cut version—which removes Harrison Ford's film noir-style voice-over narration and restores a dream sequence—is the version that comes closest to Dick's themes about the fragile nature of reality and how it defines one's personal identity. In this case, it involves characters whose perceptions of reality change when they discover who is a replicant.

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A Scanner Darkly (2006)

A Scanner Darkly
© Warner Independent Pictures

Based on the book A Scanner Darkly.

Writer-director Richard Linklater delivers what is probably the most faithful adaptation of Dick's work, and maybe that's because it's animated. When Linklater was making Waking Life (see below), he raised this question: How do you make a film about something that most likely happens entirely in the mind? That question led to Linklater adapting Dick's A Scanner Darkly. To convey the dream-state of Dick's world, Linklater shot on digital video and then put it through a computer animating process called "interpolated rotoscoping." The process creates a very impressionistic style of animation in which colors, objects, and brush strokes float from frame to frame. This free form, slightly unstable visual look is perfect for the surreal, altered-states of A Scanner Darkly.

Based on Dick's own drug experiences, the film conveys the highly subjective perspective of the main character Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves). Linklater sought approval from Dick's daughters before making the film and he displays sincere respect for the material. He effectively taps into the paranoia, perceptual distortions, and hallucinogenic ambiguities of the book.

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Total Recall (1990) and (2012)

Total Recall
© Columbia Pictures

Based on the book We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.

The 1990 film is not the best adaptation of Dick's work, but it is one of the most financially successful (Minority Report is the other box-office hit). The mind-bender here has to do with memory, and whether the memories of the main character, Douglas Quaid, are real, implanted, or erased. Dick's themes of paranoia and greedy corporations are addressed here as Quaid discovers that the people he worked for may have messed with his memories... or did he willingly submit to it as part of his job? It's like looking down a hall of mirrors and trying to figure out what Quaid's real memories and identity are. But one character suggests, "A man is defined by his actions, not his memories." The notion of what reality is is carried to the bitter end.

The 1990 film ends with Melina looking out over Mars and saying, "It's like a dream." To which Quaid responds, "I had a terrible thought, what if it is all a dream?" Arnold Schwarzenegger played Quaid in the 1990 film directed by Paul Verhoeven; Colin Farrell takes on the role in Len Wiseman's 2012 remake.

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Screamers (1995)

© Sony Pictures

Based on the book Second Variety.

This adaptation makes a number of changes but keeps the basic premise of Dick's story the same. What happens if you create technology to fight a war and then the devices start to self-replicate and continue to fight long after they need to? The film has a similar sense of paranoia as John Carpenter's The Thing. It's hindered by an extremely low budget but displays B-movie smarts and benefits immensely from Peter (Robocop) Weller as Hendrickson, a commander who believes the fighting has been deemed irrelevant by those above. The movie is underrated and worth checking out.

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The Adjustment Bureau (2010)

The Adjustment Bureau
© Universal Pictures

Based on the book The Adjustment Team.

What appears to be just a fleeting romance between a politician and a ballerina turns out to be a crucial cog in the machinations of the universe as the men of the Adjustment Bureau work to keep them apart. Clever and imaginative, the film raises questions about fate, free will, and pre-determined destinies. Matt Damon and Emily Blunt play the lovers trying to unite, but it is the stiff and slightly awkward men of the Adjustment Bureau—with their hats and maze of doors—that prove delightful. Not an entirely successful film, but ambitious and often fun.

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The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix
© Warner Bros. Pictures

The Matrix is not based on a Philip K. Dick story but it feels like it is. It captures his themes as well (if not better than) many of the films directly adapted from his works. The story involves a computer hacker recruited by rebels who reveal the true nature of his reality and the role he's to play in the war against the machines. It has all of the classic Dick elements—paranoia, an ever-shifting reality, questions about free will and personal identity, a futuristic world where people are being controlled. The Wachowski Brothers create a visually stunning sci-fi world filled with breathtaking action and impressive effects. They also deliver a darkly cerebral sci-fi tale about how reality can be manipulated.

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Dark City (1998)

Dark City
© New Line Cinema

Equally good but less flashy is Alex Proyas' Dark City. Both this and The Matrix came out just before the new millennium as fear and anxiety over Y2K was at a premium. Riffing on the themes of Total Recall, Dark City gives us a man struggling with memories of his past, including a wife he can't remember. The world of Dark City is like a noir nightmare, existing in perpetual darkness and controlled by creepy "strangers" with telekinetic powers. A narrator tells us of these strangers: "They had mastered the ultimate technology. The ability to alter physical reality by will alone. They called this ability 'Tuning.'" There are also lines like these spoken by the main character John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) that sound like they could have been lifted from one of Dick's books: "I know this is gonna sound crazy, but what if we never knew each other before now... and everything you remember, and everything that I'm supposed to remember, never really happened, someone just wants us to think it did?"

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eXistenZ (1999)

© Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

The dawning of a new millennium seemed to spur a wave of Dick-inspired sci-fi, this one comes from David Cronenberg. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a game designer fleeing from assassins. Her latest virtual reality creation could net her company millions but the game might have been damaged during her escape so she has to test it with a lowly marketing employee (Jude Law) to determine if it is still intact. Realities are layered on top of realities until you don't know which end is up. Cronenberg ratchets up the tension and the discomfort to create an uncertain world of ever-shifting realities that Dick would be proud of.

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
© Focus Features

Director Michel Gondry and writer Charlie Kaufman did not use a Philip K. Dick story as a cited source, but Dick was obviously an influence. Kaufman had written a screenplay adapting A Scanner Darkly but it was never used and then Linklater took over the project. Kaufman's script here, as well as his scripts for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, all reveal the influence of Dick.

Kaufman raises questions about how reality is defined, how we define ourselves, and how realities can be altered. In the case of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it's a young woman who wants to remove the memory of an ex-lover. The couple agrees to undergo a procedure to erase each other from their respective memories but along the way the man (played by Jim Carrey) changes his mind. Trippy, imaginative, poignant, scary, and engagingly metaphysical. Kaufman may be the screenwriter most in tune with Dick's knack for bending the rules of reality.

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Waking Life (2001)

Waking Life
© Fox Searchlight

If Kaufman is the writer most in sync with Dick's style, Linklater may be the director most willing to tackle the ideas and themes that fascinated the late author. Dick's work honed in on the fragile nature of what is "real" and on how we construct our personal identity. In Waking Life, he asks: “Are we sleepwalking through our waking state or wake-walking through our dreams?” And all the characters we encounter in the film seem to have an answer or an opinion on the matter. Like one of Dick's characters, all the characters in Linklater's film start to ponder the nature of reality and ask if their everyday world might just be an illusion stemming from an altered mental state or something constructed by powerful external entities. Fellow sci-fi author Charles Platt noted, "All of his work starts with the basic assumption that there cannot be one, single, objective reality. Everything is a matter of perception." None of these films contemplates those ideas more fully than Waking Life.