Wednesday 1 June 2011

Philip K. Dick: Total Recall and We Can Remember it for You Wholesale – the Movie vs. the Original Short Story (in The Preserving Machine and Other Stories)

Kicking off a short run of posts on novels and stories that begat very well-known movie adaptations, we have this:

The 1972 Science Fiction Book Book Club edition of Philip K. Dick's The Preserving Machine and Other Stories, published by Redwood Press. It's an anthology of short stories, all of which originally appeared in science fiction magazines like Amazing Stories, Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the 1950s and '60s, and which were then collected for a Gollancz hardback in 1969, which was then reissued three years later in this SFBC edition. (Still with me at the back?) I bought this copy in Much Ado Books in Alfriston, East Sussex on my birthday day out wayyyy back in March – and I still haven't blogged about all the books I bought that day, which'll give you some idea of how far behind I am on book-blogging. Still, the beauty of writing about old books is, there are no pressing deadlines on the buggers: they're already old, so it hardly matters when I get round to blogging about 'em.

Anyway, the reason this copy of The Preserving Machine and Other Stories caught my eye wasn't because it's terribly scarce or valuable in this edition – there are a few copies of the SFBC printing for sale on AbeBooks for around a tenner, although the original Gollancz edition goes for more like upwards of eighty quid – but because of one of the stories in it:

"We Can Remember it for You Wholesale", on page 129 there. Y'see, that story was the basis for one of the greatest (I'll brook no argument here) sci-fi action flicks ever made: Paul Verhoeven/Arnold Schwarzenegger's Total Recall (1990). Now, Dick's stories have, of course, provided the inspiration for many films – Blade Runner, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, to name but three – although not having read any of the stories that led to those films I can't offer any insights into how faithful any of them are to Dick's originals. But if the case of "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale" and Total Recall is anything to go by, they might not be as removed from their source material as I've been led to believe.

What's surprising about "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale" is how close it is to Total Recall – at least, up to a point. Both the story and the movie follow Douglas Quaid, an everyday guy in a loveless marriage who is inexplicably drawn to Mars. Realising that he'll never be able to go to the planet in person, Quaid visits the offices of Rekal, Incorporated (travelling there and back in a taxi driven by a robot – as in the film), where he elects to undergo a process that will insert the memories of a trip to Mars into his brain – a trip where he adopts the role of a secret agent. Trouble is, before the process can even begin, Rekal's technicians discover that those memories already exist in Quaid's mind: he is a secret agent, and he did go to Mars. Having now remembered his other life, Quaid finds himself pursued by shadowy security forces intent on killing him.

Where the short story and the movie part ways is directly after this point. In the film, Quaid/Arnie heads off to Mars and gets involved in a Martian revolution. All of that was bolted on to Dick's story by Verhoeven and his writers, Dan O'Bannon et al; Dick's tale ends with Quaid returning to Rekal voluntarily to avoid being killed, there to have another, more outlandish memory implanted to override the secret agent/Mars one – leading to a nice twist that's even more insane than what's gone before. But although the story and the movie diverge here, prior to this juncture they run along remarkably similar lines – right down to those robot taxis.

I always believed there was more depth to Total Recall than many people gave it credit for, and as it turns out, that's because it hews so closely to Dick's original tale, which is thought-provoking and just a little bit mental. Much like the film, in fact.

Next up, I have a book which inspired one film and has close ties with another – and the novel itself was inspired by a notorious real life murder case...


  1. There are two ways for a film adaptation to be faithful to its source material: in plot and in spirit. Unfortunately, I think critics focus too much on the former. If the movie doesn't have the exact same plot as the novel, they'll call it unfaithful, but it's the spirit that's more important. Death Wish was faithful to the plot of the novel but completely reversed its message, turning a condemnation of vigilante justice into an endorsement.

    It's no different with Philip K. Dick. You'll hear plenty of folks claim that films like Blade Runner and Total Recall have little in common with Dick's stories, but while they do alter the plots quite a bit, they're very faithful in spirit. The plots of "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale" and Total Recall go in completely different directions after about the halfway point, but from start to finish, the film is remarkably faithful to the story in spirit.

    I can also use my Tom Ripley obsession to illustrate this point. Take the two Talented Mr. Ripley adaptations. The 1999 film with Matt Damon is closer to the novel in plot than the 1960 film with Alain Delon, but the earlier film captures the essence of the character very well while he's nearly unrecognizable in the later film. Same with the two Ripley's Game adaptations. The 2002 film with John Malkovich is more faithful to the novel's plot, but it turned Ripley into a rude, smug psychopath who revelled in violence, while the 1977 film with Dennis Hopper preserved the book's calmly menacing but polite and friendly character who despised violence and considered it a last resort.

    And what of Naked Lunch, a book that David Cronenberg considered unfilmable, so he decided to make an "in spirit" adaptation that focused more on capturing the tone of the book than the plot? And speaking of Cronenberg, there's eXistenZ, which isn't based on any of Philip K. Dick's stories, but captures the essence of them better than any of the official adaptations? The list could go on.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Craig, and of course for the comments you've been leaving on the Tom Ripley post. If you haven't seen them already, my series of posts on Justified and the Elmore Leonard stories which inspired the show – beginning here, and climaxing with posts on Fire in the Hole and, latterly, Raylan, riff on some of these same themes...

  3. I've read your Raylan posts and I liked what I saw. Elmore Leonard is on the list of authors I've been meaning to check out for years but for some reason I've never gotten around to. (Richard Stark and Jim Thompson are there along with him.) I really should be watching Justified, since it looks great and I really like Timothy Olyphant. What the hell is wrong with me? I spend my time watching cartoon repeats and reading mediocre Sherlock Holmes pastiches when I should be checking out stuff like this.

  4. Right, well I hereby insist that you put down that Holmes pastiche immediately and get yourself copies of Richard Stark's The Hunter and Elmore Leonard's Pronto (or, even better, Get Shorty). You will not regret it.

  5. You'll be happy to know that I brought home a copy of Get Shorty after a visit to a bookstore last night. Several of the Raylan books were also there, but I only had enough money on me for two books, and there was another writer I felt I needed to check out. So I went looking for Stark's The Hunter, but couldn't find any Stark at all. (All I found was some novel I had never heard of before by this fellow named Westlake.) So I moved on to another writer I've been meaning to get around to, and my second purchase was Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me. It wouldn't have been my first choice, but it was all they had, and I felt that I needed to finally give something of his a shot. I'll have to go online for the Stark, apparently.

  6. Are you in the US or the UK, Craig? I know that over here in Britain, it's rare to see Stark or Westlake in a bookshop (even secondhand ones), but I thought the University of Chicago Press editions of the Parkers might be more widely available over in America. What was the Westlake novel you saw?

    The Killer Inside Me is pretty hardcore, and in many respects a complete mess, but the force of the prose carries it through. And let me know what you make of Get Shorty; it really is prime Leonard, so if you don't like that, you're not gonna get on with anything else he wrote.

  7. I'm in the US. I've looked for Stark before in the big bookstores and I've never seen him, aside from an occasional Westlake. Strange that they sometimes have an obscure Westlake that nobody's ever heard of but not the more popular Stark stuff. I can't remember the title of the Westlake that I saw; all I can say is that it had a long title, and looking at his bibliography, it looks like he wrote quite a few books with long titles.

    But it's no longer an issue, because just a couple of hours after posting that last comment, I bought a cheap used copy of The Hunter online with the few remaining dollars I had. It unfortunately has the Mel Gibson Payback cover, but I can live with that.

    I'm sure I'll like it more than The Killer Inside Me, which I'm not enjoying as much as I thought I would based on what I've read of Thompson over the years. I'm not offended by the violence like so many others have been; I'm not sure how I could be when it's so silly. I stopped taking it seriously as soon as Chapter 2, when the main character punches a woman repeatedly and she responds by practically begging him to fuck her. (Sure, Jim. Why not?) And the writing is so piss-poor in some areas that I'm wondering if the book even had an editor. I'll finish reading it, but I think it'll be a long time before I give Jim another chance after I do.

    I remember liking the film version of Get Shorty and Rum Punch (Jackie Brown), so if they captured even a little of Leonard, I'm sure I'll become a fan.

  8. I'm not sure "enjoyed" is the word I'd use to describe the experience of reading Killer either, Craig! Unforgettable, sure, unpleasant, uncomfortable, powerful, unsettling, twisted... take your pick. And you're right: it was evidently written in a hurry (like most pulp crime novels) and barely, if at all, edited, but that's part of what makes it so memorable I think. It's an oddity, quite unlike anything else I've read (although Dan J Marlowe's The Name of the Game is Death comes close).

    The movie of Get Shorty did a creditable job of capturing Leonard's "voice", so it should work for you. We shall see...

  9. Good lord, The Hunter is awesome. Fuck me for waiting so long to get around to Stark and Parker. I had seen Payback and sort of enjoyed it, but this is much better. I'll certainly be checking out the sequels.

    I'm also digging the Leonard as well. In addition to Get Shorty, I've also ordered copies of The Switch and Rum Punch. I'll give one of the Raylan books a shot at some point, but seeing as I now have three Leonards and only one Stark, I think my next purchases will go toward further Parker (mis)adventures.

    My opinion hasn't changed on the Thompson. It's interesting as an artifact of its time, an early Verhoeven-like attempt to overload the audience with violence to make them question why they read/watch this kind of stuff in the first place ("Oh, you like violence? HERE, HAVE SOME VIOLENCE, ASSHOLE.") but it feels like a first draft. I'll give Jim another shot in the future (I really should have read The Getaway by now) but I'll lower my expectations a little for next time.

  10. Well I'm glad you liked The Hunter, Craig (and Get Shorty). But as you find as you work your way through the series, there's even better to come...

  11. If any of the sequels are as good as or better than The Hunter, I'll become just as obsessive about Stark and Parker as I am about Highsmith and Tom Ripley. There's a line in The Hunter that's so good, I actually laughed out loud while reading it: "He stood only because he wanted to stand, not because it was possible." How terrific is that?

    I want to kick myself for waiting so long to get around to Westlake, but it feels good to once again have that excitement which was so common in my teens, of discovering new authors who really are as good as their zealous fans make them out to be. And I've also got the Dortmunder and Grofield stuff to look forward to...

  12. Don't expect too much from the Grofield novels, Craig: they're not bad, but they're nowhere near as good as the Parkers (I've got reviews of them scattered about EE if you search for "Grofield"). As for the Dortmunders, I've only read three of them thus far, but they're a different kettle of fish again to the Parkers – more comic in approach. Still, the Parkers alone will keep you busy for a while (I envy you your first reading of the likes of The Score and The Seventh), and Darwyn Cooke's graphic novel adaptations are well worth a look too.