08
Oct
17

Movies > Books: Blade Runner

I’m willing to bet a lot of people aren’t aware that seminal sci-fi noir film Blade Runner is based on a novel. The awkwardly titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep forms the basis for the 1982 film. The film is a loose-ish interpretation of the book. The two entities are similar, yet different enough to make comparisons difficult. Even so, I’m going to give it a whirl.

Blade Runner is a film I didn’t initially like. I had seen the theatrical cut twice, and wrote it off as a failure. I ignored the international cut and director’s cut, because why would I watch additional cuts of a movie I didn’t like? Then, the final cut came out in 2007, and was much ballyhooed. So much so, that I decided to give the film one more chance. This time, I was blown away. Director Ridley Scott had perfected his dark, futuristic vision. What he had in his head when he filmed it was finally conveyed to the audience without studio tinkering. I liked it so much, I now consider it a masterpiece.

But what about the novel? This, too, I had actually read a long time ago, when I was a teenager, and unable to appreciate the nuances of it. I thought it was a weak-ass sci-fi novel which had been completely overhauled and improved upon in every aspect by the film. Even though I didn’t like the film at that time, I still considered it a vast improvement over the novel. I didn’t give it much thought in the years since. But with the release of the sequel film, Blade Runner 2049, I thought I’d revisit the source material. My intent was to write up what a piece of shit the book was compared to the superior film. But what I found was that the book was surprisingly great, too.

The core story of the film and book are the same. They are both about a bounty hunter/blade runner named Rick Deckard who is assigned to kill androids/replicants on Earth. A lot of the characters are the same, such as Rachael Rosen, the female android Deckard falls in love with, Roy Baty (Batty in the film) who is the leader of the androids, Bryant who gives Deckard his assignment, Dave Holden who is a blade runner (and Deckard’s mentor in the book), and J.R. Isidore (changed to J.F. Sebastian in the film) who befriends the androids. In both versions, Deckard hunts down the androids and kills them one at a time.

There is divergence in how the specific events unfurl. You see, there is a whole back story, a weighty subtext about empathy in the book that was almost completely excised from the film. In the book, people are obsessed with empathy. The world’s only religion, Mercerism, is about feeling empathy for a man who climbs up a hill while rocks are thrown at him. People use a special device to feel Mercer’s physical and emotional pain. This is how the humans of the novel know they are still human, still alive, still able to feel things, because they can empathize with Mercer. None of this appears in the movie. Except it kind of does…

In both versions, the bounty hunters use the Voight-Kampff test to determine if someone is an android. The questions are all emotional in nature, designed to tell if someone can feel empathy toward another living creature. All of the questions are something along the lines of, “If you received a calfskin wallet, what would you do?” (implying someone killed a cow to make it) to see if the testee feels empathy for the living/dead creature. It all makes sense in the context of the book. But the film does nothing to explain any of this. In the film, it’s just like they’re asking a bunch of random questions, but in the book it is quite clear. In fact, the questions in the movie came verbatim from the book.

Empathy is further expanded upon by ownership of animals. In the novel, Deckard’s greatest desire is to own a real animal as a pet. In future Earth, there is so much radiation that most species have become extinct. Ownership of a real animal is possible, but prohibitively expensive. Also, people strive to own animals to see if they can feel empathy toward another living creature. Deckard doesn’t make a lot of money, so the best he can afford is an electric sheep. This pops up in the movie, too, in a line where Deckard asks Zhora if her snake is real, and she replies, “If I could afford a real snake, do you think I’d be working in a place like this?” From the film alone, the line is up for interpretation, but in the context of the book, it is quite clear; if she had enough money to own a real, living animal, she’d be wealthy, and wouldn’t be working at all, she’d be living in a swanky colony on Mars. All of this is kind of a moot point, since Zhora doesn’t exist in the book, she is Luba Luft, an opera singer who doesn’t own a snake.

My point in going through all this is that the subtext of the book is actually there in the movie. I wonder if it had been more deliberately expounded upon in the film, but was cut out for any number of reasons. Reading the book before watching the film (which is what I did after finishing the novel), shed so much of the story in a new light. So much more made sense, and there was nothing contradictory in the slightest between the two versions.

So, with empathy being a key part of the story, this is what dogs Deckard the most as he goes about killing the androids. They are identical to humans. Impossible to tell the difference. So, to Deckard, it looks as if he is killing humans. He begins to feel bad for them, to question what he is doing, and ultimately decides he is going to quit being a bounty hunter after he finishes his assignment. Interestingly, when he is pushed almost to the brink in the book, he manages to stuff his emotions away, and completely hardened himself so he finishes the job – and effectively blocks out his own empathy. In the movie, this isn’t really conveyed. Deckard kills them, but we don’t see him Deckard grapple emotionally with this. He’s simply detached from the beginning. His character in the movie is far less interesting, and goes on little emotional journey compared to the book. People have complained that Harrison Ford’s acting was bad in this movie, but I’d argue against that. He is perfectly portraying someone who is completely detached from their emotions. In the big finale, when his life is in danger, he effectively conveys true fear. I’d say Ford’s performance was excellent.

While the film may not feature any discussions of empathy, the viewer certainly feels empathy for the androids. Pris and Roy seem more human than the humans. As Deckard mercilessly hunts them down, the viewer can’t help but feel pity for them. They are trying to live out their lives quietly, and for that they are brutally killed, even unarmed. In the book, the androids don’t have emotions, and are incapable of empathy, which is brilliantly shown in a scene where Irmgard cuts the legs off a spider, and the reader doesn’t feel much for them, because they are clearly not human. The film takes the opposite tack. It doesn’t beat the viewer over the head with a morality play, but shows the androids feeling and caring, and the viewers immediately know they have emotions, and identify with them. This is one of the film’s greatest strengths.

What also works in the film’s favor is how the androids are presented as simply existing. They aren’t inherently good or evil. The movie does not pontificate on how machines are like humans or have a soul or other shit you see in today’s works like Westworld. The androids simply ARE, and the viewer can interpret them any way they want.

The film’s greatest strength, undoubtedly, is its atmosphere. It is a grotesque, overbuilt neon-nightmare. The cities are teeming with people, completely overpopulated. There are inescapable electric advertisements everywhere. There is also a ubiquitous Asian influence. The production design of the film is nothing short of stunning. It has influenced nearly every future-set film made since. Film in general owes a great debt to Blade Runner, as it set the standard for what a dystopian future should look like. And nothing else has ever surpassed it. It is completely engrossing, and feels like a real, plausible, lived-in world.

The film also turns the tale into a noir. Deckard is downbeat detective working in a dreary world. If you changed the setting to 1940s Los Angeles, and all the characters to humans, little else would be different. It feels just like a classic, black-and-white, noir movie. And this is absolutely a blessing. It engages the audience in a way that a more straightforward telling would not. In the book, this noir angle is nowhere to be found, leaving the actual telling of the prose a bit bland. Changing it to noir was the right choice, and elevated the material to the next level.

In both versions, I enjoyed how relatively low-stakes the story was. It was basically Deckard vs. the androids. There was no conspiracy, no fate-of-the-world hanging in the balance, no giant battles, no cities toppling. Whoever wins doesn’t matter, the world will go on as usual. This is a refreshing change of pace from many sci-fi movies (and books) that try to up the ante to ridiculous levels. It happens so often in our media that it has lost all effectiveness.

The movie again excels in the finale. The showdown against Roy is a delight, both terrifying and exciting all at once. There isn’t a showdown in the book, which is intentional, but in a film you’ve got to have a showdown against the “villain,” right? The way it ends is so much more satisfying in the film. In both book and movie, it is stated that androids only have a four year lifespan. In the book, this is never used or mentioned again. In the film, the ending hinges upon it. Roy realizes his time is up, uses his remaining moments to “teach” a human what is like to live as an android, to live in fear, and then dies when his time is used up. As a finale, it is visually striking and emotionally powerful.

Lastly, there is the famous argument as to whether Deckard of the film is a human or an android. This is a full-fledged subplot of the novel. Deckard meets another bounty hunter who doesn’t know if he is really human. He turns this suspicion around on Deckard, stating he may be an android too, and all his memories may be implants. In the novel it is resolved nicely, and it is quite clear that Deckard is indeed human. In the film, it seems like the only person hell-bent on questioning if Deckard is an android is Ridley Scott. The theatrical cut didn’t mention it, but the final cut features a couple of clues. But they don’t really make sense. Deckard has a vision of a unicorn, another blade runner makes an origami unicron, and suddenly Deckard is an android? It goes against the grain, seemingly tacked on, especially in light of Deckard helping Rachael at the end. It’s more powerful that a human helps an android rather than an android helping an android. Besides, if Deckard is not human, then Roy’s “lesson” makes absolutely no sense. The movie stumbles on this one, while the book handled it with finesse. If Scott had wanted to include this as a subplot, he could have done a much better job of it, the blueprint was right there in front of him. Although, apparently, he never read the book…

Author Philip K. Dick didn’t live long enough to see the film upon its release. He did, apparently, get to see some footage of it, and he raved about it. They brought his vision of a dreary future world to life. He predicted, correctly, that Blade Runner would set a new standard for science fiction. Almost every sci-fi book, film, or comic since owes some debt to this incredible movie.

After having finished the re-read of the book, I came away from it feeling it was an incredibly strong piece of literature. Philip K. Dick created an interesting world, and brought forth sincere questions as to what it means to be human, and what it means to have emotions. The film expands on these themes and elevates them. It takes the DNA of the novel, and expands it into a living, breathing world. This is really the definition of a perfect adaptation. It takes what works, and redefines it for a new medium.

While the original intent of this blog post was to claim the movie is better than the book, I can’t follow through with that. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is every bit as powerful as Blade Runner. Both are phenomenal, and both are masterpieces. They are equal in stature, and both will undoubtedly stand the test of time (in fact, they already have). Be sure to experience both.

Verdicts:

Blade Runner (Movie): Awesome

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Book): Awesome

Check out these other entries in the Movies > Books series:

Frankenstein

Naked Lunch

True Grit

Casino Royale

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3 Responses to “Movies > Books: Blade Runner”


  1. 1 Cowboy Dev
    October 8, 2017 at 7:55 am

    I’ve never read DADOES. I might check it out one day. Blade Runner on the other hand is a masterpiece.


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