The release Mar. 4 of The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, will send some movie-goers back to their sources to review author Philip K. Dick’s oeuvre. They should. This seminal author’s 46 books and 121 short stories have been adapted to 10 films. (Confession: I have 13 Dick books on my shelves and one e-book collection of stories.)
It wasn’t always this way, in the 1950s and ‘60s when Dick was writing for pulp science fiction magazines. Jonathan Lethem notes in the foreword to The Philip K. Dick Collection that Dick worked to gain recognition and usually failed. He also takes note of Dick’s “remarkably personal vision of paranoia and dislocation.”
Laura Miller, an editor at Salon.com, amplified this: “Dick has his share of champions, ranging from rock musicians to French postmodernists. Since his best work was published as pulp science fiction, they've had their hands full just trying to win him a little credibility. Meanwhile, almost unremarked, Dick's sensibility has seeped wide and deep into contemporary life.”
Some writers rise like Roman candles before fading, their books relegated to flea markets and used-book bins. Fortunately, Dick has heirs and a literary executor maintaining his reputation, and I presume merchandising his work beyond his death in 1982. In lieu of a seeing his works reissued, there are always new and used bookstores, and his official site, http://www.philipkdick.com/, to keep his work alive.
The plot of The Adjustment Bureau isn’t material here. (A man confronts the fact that he doesn’t have free will in the face of the Bureau that guides his decision-making process.) In any case, it was extensively rewritten by Writer-Director George Nolfi. Key to the storyline of both book and film, however, is Dick’s existential question of what is human and real.
The other films were adaptations as well, often surprassing the original story. You’ll remember Blade Runner (based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"), Screamers (based on "Second Variety"), Total Recall (based on "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"), Confessions d'un Barjo (French, based on "Confessions of a Crap Artist", Impostor, Minority Report, Paycheck, and A Scanner Darkly. King of the Elves is set for release in 2012.
Dick wrote of made-up worlds: a farmer on Mars, or a police agency that arrests criminals before they commit a crime, or an alternative history in which the Axis powers won World War II. Often, he posed the questions of what is human and what is real. This might also have been Dick’s own cri de coeur for never being recognized as a “real” literary writer.