Sunday 27 July 2014

Do Androids Dream of Accurate Scripts? (Part 2)

I posted recently about a radio adaptation of  Philip K. Dick's sf classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the book which provided the basis of the film Blade Runner. The great thing about the radio play is that it finally motivated me to read the original novel. And I was seriously impressed.

I have a confession to make. I'd always regarded Dick as a second rate writer. Or rather (quick, before I receive hundreds of enraged comments) a second rate stylist. I thought he had great ideas but his prose was crude and clumsy. This impression was largely based on reading his book Galactic Pot Healer, back when I was at university and living in sin in a damp freezing flat in Clapton with Linda Simpson (Hi Linda!) who was a big fan of that novel, and of Philip K. Dick in general. Well, Linda was right and I was wrong. Galactic Pot Healer may or may not be a dud (I must re-read it). But Dick is the real McCoy.

True, there are some clumsy moments in his prose, even in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Instead of saying his characters disembarked from an elevator, he says they "disemelevatored"(!)... But there are also moments of considerable beauty. 

Here is a description of what it was like before an apocalyptic war denuded the world of animals (the owls were the first to go, hence the emphasis on owls in the movie and on the book covers): "the entire peninsula had chattered like a bird tree with life." 

Or when bounty hunter Rick Deckard is performing the Voigt-Kampff test on Rachael and discovers she's an android. The billionaire Eldon Rosen (Tyrell in the movie) who manufactured her, and expected her to pass as human, "regarded him with writhing worry." The book is often startlingly well written, and peppered with odd and intriguing observations. In a discussion about what it really means to be alive, ants are referred to as "chitinous reflex-machines". 

The novel is surprisingly witty, too. The Voigt-Kampff test involves questions designed to provoke an emotional reaction, and in a world where animals have almost disappeared and are sought after and priceless, these questions often focus on cruel and inhumane treatment of animals. 

It's a sign of Dick's prescience, and his compassion, that these are things we callously take for granted today, or at least did when the book was published in 1968: calf skin wallets, bullfights, killing jars for butterflies, deer heads mounted on a wall, lobsters dropped in boiling water, bearskin rugs. When Rachael is about to go to bed with Deckard, she declares her love for him by parodying the test questions, "If I entered a room and found a sofa covered with your hide, I'd score very high on the Voigt-Kampff test."
Voigt-Kampff is a great name and it survived intact into the film, as did the test questions. Dick had a knack for names, great, unusual, ludicrous, hilarious. We have a Milt Borogrove (a common mis-spelling of "Borogove") in this book. But what is really characteristic of Dick is the unsettling sense of reality about to give way under the reader like a tattered spider web. Here it arises in the uncertainty of who is an android and who isn't. In a spectacular scene, not replicated in the movie, Deckard is arrested and taken to an entire parallel San Francisco police department who have never heard of him or his branch of the police.
This is deeply disturbing stuff. Suddenly you don't know whether Deckard is the android passing itself off as human. And here Dick is at his best. Deckard is interrogated by a police officer called Garland. As they square off we're no longer sure which one is a real person. An uncertainty which even infiltrates the prose. As Dick puts it "Neither man — or rather neither he nor Garland — spoke for a time." 

It's impressive how Dick zeroes in unerringly on the most interesting aspect of his material — what it means to be human. There are weaknesses to the book, though. The whole religious element, concerning a cult called Mercerism, is something which I could have done without. Especially when the prophet Mercer pops up out of nowhere to arbitrarily help Deckard in the climactic final shoot out. Very sensibly, this aspect was entirely dropped from the movie.
Nevertheless, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a striking, profound and often slyly well-written novel. If you are only familiar with the film it is very much worth checking out the original.

(Image credits: All are from good ol' Good Reads where I was spoiled for choice. There are more editions of this book — with more good covers — than any other title I have researched. Look at that great Greek one. Look at that totally irrelevant robot (!) cavorting with naked chick one.)

Sunday 20 July 2014

Edge of Tomorrow by Christopher McQuarrie and the Butterworths

What a fantastic movie. I was expecting just another sf-action summer blockbuster, but it really is outstanding. It's a substantial hit, too, so by the time you read this it will still be hanging on in cinemas. Or, at worst, it will be available on DVD, Blu-ray or for download. Well worth seeing on the big screen, though.

As you may have heard, it's a kind of hybrid of Aliens and Groundhog Day, but that doesn't begin to convey what a splendid experience it is. It's an expert piece of work by the director Doug Liman, who did the first Jason Bourne thriller The Bourne Identity, and Jumper — not a film about knitwear, but instead another inventive science fiction thriller.

The script is credited to three writers.  Christopher McQuarrie previously won an Oscar for his screenplay The Usual Suspects  and wrote and directed the excellent Jack Reacher and worked on the script of Jack the Giant Slayer.

Jez Butterworth is a distinguished stage writer who wrote the stage plays Mojo and Jerusalem and previously worked with Liman on the thriller Fair Game in collaboration with his brother John-Henry Butterworth, who is the third credited writer on the script.

It's based on All You Need is Kill, an amusingly titled Japanese novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka which was later adapted into a manga (a Japanese comic book).

It's a beautifully written, engrossing film and the time-loop structure allows for some very interesting character development. Most refreshingly, Tom Cruise does not begin the movie as a square jawed hero with nerves of steel. Instead he's a kind of craven, draft-dodging PR man. Only through the iterations of the story does he transform, very gratifyingly, into a square jawed hero with nerves of steel. Indeed Cruise is great in the film. He has never been better.

And Emily Blunt is just wonderful (be still my heart) and adds tremendous emotional depth to the story. Only an utterly ungallant and churlish fellow would point out that it's not her doing that difficult yoga posture in the long shot.

Blunt and Cruise are really only the tip of the iceberg in terms of acting talent on display here. Brendan Gleeson is first rate as the sceptical commanding general and Noah Taylor from Game of Thrones (looking eerily like Ben Mendelsohn) is fine as the movie's resident scientist. 

But special mention has to be made of Bill Paxton as a deep fried Southern master sergeant ("You're American!" exclaims Cruise, delighted to find a compatriot. "No suh!" sax Paxton. "I'm from Kentucky.")

The time loop structure also allows (as in Groundhog Day) for much comedy. Wait for the beautifully choreographed sequence in which Cruise and Blunt infiltrate the military headquarters.

There is great use of London locations. And I had the oddly moving experience of watching the film — which hinges on a bloody beach head invasion of the European mainland — on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

 Writing this makes me want to see it again. Where's my local movie listings?...

A delightful, terrifically exciting, deeply moving movie. Watch. Enjoy. Repeat.

(Image credits: rather surprisingly thin pickings at the usually reliable Ace Show Biz for this major movie.)

Sunday 13 July 2014

Do Androids Dream of Accurate Scripts?

Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep was, of course, the basis of the film Blade Runner. It was also recently adapted, in two parts, by Jonathan Holloway for BBC Radio 4 as part of their Dangerous Visions project, a season of science fiction audio dramas. Dangerous Visions is a prestigious and highly enjoyable enterprise, but I can't quite overcome my irritation that they've stolen their great and evocative title from Harlan Ellison's milestone series of science fiction prose anthologies without so much as a nod in Ellison's direction.

The radio adaptation of Dick's novel was immensely intriguing. It resembled Blade Runner, but was also radically different. The effect was so fascinating that it prompted me, after all these years, to dig out my copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep and read it.

Now that I've read the book I realise that Jonathan Holloway's energetic and inventive radio version departs considerably from Dick's text. For example, in the radio play Rachael is a tragic loss to Deckard. In the book she gets his goat — literally. Holloway's dramatisation also fixes some structural weaknesses: in the book Roy Batty turns up way too late.

In fact, the radio adaptation is almost as different from Dick's original concept as the movie was. Indeed, continuing the 'Dangerous Visions' tradition of, ahem, borrowing material without full acknowledgement, the radio play is based not just on the book but also on the screenplay of Blade Runner by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples.

For example, the whole film-noir private eye Chandleresque gumshoe approach which informs the radio adaptation originated in Blade Runner, and is completely absent from the novel. In keeping with this, Luba is changed from Dick's opera singer to a night club torch singer in the radio play. (The equivalent character in the movie is an exotic dancer.) I can quite understand why this was done, given how profoundly Blade Runner overshadows Dick's book in the public imagination. 

Still, there was no credit given to the film writers in the radio version, nor presumably any money paid to them for the use of their concepts...  a dangerous, if not visionary, course of action given how litigious Hollywood film companies can be.

Nonetheless, Holloway's radio version is a notable piece of work and well worth catching if you get the chance, and I'm grateful to it for getting me to finally read Dick's classic novel which I'll be writing about — if all goes according to plan — in my next post.

(Image credits: The photos of the actors in the radio adaptation, Jessica Raine and James Purefoy, are from the BBC Radio 4 web page. The movie poster is from Geeky Nerf Herder.)

Sunday 6 July 2014

Come to Grief by Dick Francis

By now I've read quite a few thrillers by Dick Francis, but this outstanding novel is by far the best of them. It had the remarkable quality that I both couldn't put it down and was afraid to pick it up.

It concerns hideous mutilation of young horses by a psychopath, which accounts for my perpetual trepidation about reading the next page. But of course I was utterly swept up in Dick Francis's account of his hero trying to stop this nutcase.

One of the brilliant things about this book is that it is not a whodunnit. Reversing the procedure of most of his other novels, Francis tells us who the guilty party is on virtually the first page. 

This is a stroke of genius, and it in no way diminishes the suspense of the tale, because our hero has to battle to make himself believed. The villain is a well known and beloved public figure, so it's an uphill battle and the good guy is vilified and attacked (both figuratively and literally) for exposing the truth.

The hero in question is Sid Halley, the one-handed former jockey turned detective who also figured to splendid effect in Whip Hand. In Come to Grief he sadly no longer has the services of his likable sidekick Chico Barnes, a resourceful fellow with useful judo skills. Indeed, Chico was so savagely beaten in Whip Hand that he's now retired from private detection.
Instead Dick Francis cleverly introduces a new helper for Sid, and a very unlikely one at that. It's in the dialogue of this teenager that we find the only false note in the book: "He's Establishment, man."

A very minor quibble though, concerning a book which is a masterpiece. It is also extraordinarily dark  — and startlingly complex. 

Even at the end, after all the suffering which has been inflicted on him, Sid can't bring himself to hate the villain. Indeed he still feels some affection for this monster, a fellow jockey and former friend of his.

Quite unforgettable.

(Image credits: The blue glove image, which is the edition I read, features a cover photo by Leslie Howling and is taken from the website of Jan-Willem Hubbers, photographer and fellow Francis devotee. The others are all from Good Reads including the main picture which is the only one which has any real relevance to the plot of the book.)