A Comparison of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the movie Blade Runner
It is awkward to tell friends that you are reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The title is long and complex, and besides, few people outside of the small, particular community of science fiction fans are familiar with it. Much easier is to tell friends that you are reading the book that Blade Runner is based on. Why not? The publisher even uses this shorter title on the paperback reissue editions, remembering to include Philip Dick's original title only in parentheses. The 1982 movie Blade Runner was a critical success upon its release, and its reputation has grown since then. Special effects technicians point to this movie as a turning point in cinematic design. The Library of Congress has listed it with the "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" films on the National Film Registry. Fifteen years after the movie's release, a video game based on it has become a best seller, introducing a new generation to the Blade Runner idea.
The problem is that the Blade Runner idea is not the same thing as the complex examination of humanity's goals and weaknesses found in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The film does have its virtues, but, as is almost always the case with cinematic adaptations, the book is better.
The emphasis of the movie can be found in its title, which uses a phrase for bounty hunters that never appears in the novel. The words "blade" and "runner" suggest weapons, action, fighting, hunting, and, by extension, survival. Rick Deckard is played by Harrison Ford as a familiar movie type, a man of few words, the lonesome, weary private eye slogging through the filth and hopelessness of a corrupt society. Rather than taking place in a deserted San Francisco, the film moves the action to jam-packed Los Angeles, where the street scenes are dominated by twin influences of advertising and Asian design: aspects of today's Los Angeles projected to an extreme. This setting keeps the viewers' eyes busy and realistically projects the social changes that Southern California is expected to undergo in the decades to come. It has less to do with Dick's novel, though, than with the detective movies of the 1940s and 1950s that spun off of Raymond Chandler's fiction. In the film version Deckard struggles against the dehumanizing effect of the corrupt culture that he lives in, which actually is a different thing than the book—Deckard's struggle to retain his humanity. Only his growing respect for android life is presented in the film, dramatized by Rachael Rosen's simplified role as a traditional love interest and by Roy Baty's touching sacrifice of his own life at the end.
While the film is able to insinuate the ways in which humans and androids are similar (very convincingly, since the androids in the film are played by humans), it is unable to come near the book's intricate understanding of the many ways we humans relate to the world around us. Focusing our concentration on hunting and killing the androids invites the viewer to think of them as objects, to focus on the ways that they deserve to be found and destroyed, and this draws viewers away from the empathy that is at the core of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and that is found throughout most of Philip K. Dick's works.
The quasi-religion Mercerism, based on empathy with the struggles of Wilbur Mercer, is just too complex to convey to a motion picture audience with sounds and images. Introduced in Dick's 1964 short story "The Little Black Box," Mercerism is a well-conceived religion for modern times, offering a touch of the spiritualism that has been pushed aside by technology throughout the twentieth century. Dick shrewdly gave Mercerism the structure that a post-apocalyptic society will require only slightly more than our own: its focus is away from moral laws and toward unity, but it achieves unity, as our society increasingly does, via the shared experience of an image on a screen. Mercerism is a believable practice in the novel because it represents the struggle against the forces that try to isolate us from each other. So convincing is it at fulfilling a human desire that readers tend to empathize with Deckard and ignore the evidence that Mercer is a fraud, a character played by an old drunkard, and to accept Mercer as being more real than ever when he mysteriously, supernaturally, appears to Deckard.
Unfortunately, the only way to include the practice of Mercerism in the movie would be to waste precious screen seconds showing Deckard, Iran, or Isidore staring at a video tube. Dick did suggest a cinematic quality to Mercerism by having the empathy that is felt by its practitioners show up as physical bruises and...
(The entire section is 1930 words.)