Adapting Screenplays: Blade Runner

As part of English 408A, Media Writing at the University of Waterloo, I have been doing some extra reading regarding screenwriting. While movies are clearly a visual art, where they excel is clearly in the narrative performance. Due to the compressed length, a screenplay is far shorter, and thus the narrative must be compressed. This is one of the reason why many movie adaptations are so very different from the original novel. Complex subplots which stray from the main plot are cut loose, perhaps replaced with shorter subplots which provide a quicker payback.

I’ve occasionally wondered exactly why it is that the short stories of Philip K. Dick are so frequently adapted by Hollywood. Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford is a prime example, and is also a film classic. There are a number of themes from the novel which were dropped from the film. The most obvious of which is Mercerism, and the empathy boxes. The shared artificial reality, designed to allow users to share pain in a spiritual manner, can be read as a critique of our modern media culture. There’s also an interesting parallel to the video screens in Fahrenheit 451. Dick was critical of modern media, in a way that wouldn’t necessarily carry over into a commercial film.

Sadly, this and several other themes are left out of the film. In the case of Blade Runner, I think these changes were justified. Film emphasizes the visual, and while I believe that Philip K. Dick was an exceptionally visual writer, many of the themes in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep just wouldn’t translate well into film. Where in a novel, the author can show the thoughts of the protagonist, where in film, this can only be achieved artificially, such as through a narrative voice over.

By trimming down these themes, Ridley Scott was able to emphasize those that remained, and to emphasize the new form of visuals. The world of Blade Runner is very different from that of the original novel. Where Dick’s world was a post-nuclear wasteland, depopulated through emigration, the world shown in the film is a dark, densely populated melting pot of American and asian cultures. This visual style later came to embody the cyberpunk aesthetics.

It’s interesting to consider some of the other adaptations of Dick’s work, especially those from short stories. Where in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? themes were removed from the screenplay, when adapting his short stories, the stories are fleshed out. Not every adaptation remains true to even the core plot of Dick’s original story. Often, the main elements which remain include the name, those of the major characters, and the key plot point of the story. Others, like the Minority Report, follow the path of Blade Runner, weaving together many of the strands of the original narrative, keeping “mostly true” to the original tale, which in some ways, becomes a minority report of its own.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation

Ray Bradbury’s classic tale of firemen who burn books has become an emblem for those who oppose censorship. I was quite intrigued when I saw the graphic novel adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, illustrated by Tim Hamilton.

Like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 is a science fiction classic, recognizable to fans of science fiction, as well as the general population. Bradbury’s book is not as widely read as Orwell and Huxley’s novels, which is a shame, as the fear of creating an illiterate society seeking hedonistic pleasures in electronic entertainment appears as relevant today as it did in 1953.

What can be said about Tim Hamilton’s illustrated adaptation of Bradbury’s classic work? It’s a sharp looking graphic novel, at 149 illustrated pages, in addition to Bradbury’s new introduction. Hamilton’s artwork is a good backdrop for the story of Guy Montag. Individual pages are confined to several shades of similar colours. Much of the story is shown in shades of browns and blues, evoking the drab dreariness of Montag’s life. The fire hall is shown in slightly brighter colours, but the spark of energy explodes in the yellows and reds of the scenes where the firemen set fire to books.

A graphic adaptation for this work seems quite appropriate. Just as in the story, where Montag and the other outlaw academics memorize works of literature, holding new versions in their minds, Hamilton still presents the key features of Bradbury’s original. Like most graphic novels, most of the text is dialogue, while most of the description is now visual in nature. This again seems quite fitting for a story where literature is banned. However, this also presents a form of hope, as the images in this adaptation are equally capable of evoking pathos.

Bradbury’s tale is still relevant today, and this new adaptation is a good reminder. It would be nice to think that it might see use in some high schools, as the subject matter becomes much more accessible than the original text. Sadly, I suspect that it will not be deemed “Literature” by many school administrators and educators.