Note: I originally wrote the following as a thesis paper in May 2016. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I’ve decided to share it on the main site, with slight modifications for clarity. The piece contains spoilers for both the novel and the first Blade Runner film. It does not contain any spoilers for Blade Runner 2049, which did not premiere until 2017.
Attempting to analyze the thematic connections between novelist Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and filmmaker Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner comes with its own set of built-in challenges. Here is an example of book-to-film transition in which the latter rendition has, if anything, outstripped its source in terms of popularity. There are in fact a great number of people who are at least somewhat familiar with Scott’s 1982 blockbuster yet relatively in the dark about the 1968 novel which inspired it. (To an extent, it may help that the film has a less cumbersome and more professional-sounding title. But I’ll get to that later.)
One thing I’ve gleaned from conversations with people who’ve seen the film is that those who come into it without real familiarity with the book tend to enjoy it a great deal, whereas those who had read Do Androids Dream…? beforehand leave the film unimpressed. To a degree, this is to be expected – fans of any popular novel or series will likely be split on whether a film adaptation does the source material justice. Yet partaking in several such discussions about Blade Runner allowed me to understand the many ways in which the book and the film stylistically and thematically diverged.
Let’s start by discussing the book. Do Androids Dream…? can most easily be defined as a philosophical allegory masquerading as a science-fiction novel. The story is simple enough on paper – in a futuristic society, a bounty hunter is hired to track down and destroy a group of dangerous androids. But Dick uses that basic premise to launch us into a series of questions about life, consciousness, and post-apocalyptic dystopia.
The androids, we are told, possess no sense of empathy – they are soulless products designed for human labor. Do Androids Dream…? has some cruel fun with this idea, centering its story on a variety of characters with varying levels of reader-based empathy, taking advantage of its printed form to describe these characters without plumbing their depths too deeply. The story is told from a shifting third-person perspective between Deckard (the bounty hunter) and a “special” man named Isidore, and what’s most interesting about the book’s balance between these characters is how they reflect on us emotionally.
Deckard, at the start of the book, appears to be the generic “hero with a chip on his shoulder.” We don’t learn much about him, but given the futuristic sci-fi setting and overall plot, it’s easy to accept him as a stoic action-based protagonist. But the book soon uses Deckard’s tough, cold demeanor to suggest a new possibility – that he may unwittingly be an android, just like the ones he is so determined to hunt down. It’s an unsettling question that keys us into just how blurred the lines in this world are between humanity and artificiality.
Isidore is a different story. He initially appears to be the strangest, most aloof character in the book – a brain-damaged loner with no apparent bearing on the overarching narrative. Yet as the plot deepens, Isidore becomes the story’s most compelling character – that he is considered “sub-human” by his people due to his defects reflects poorly on this futuristic state of humanity. People in this future strive for idealized living, to the point that many own robotic domesticated animals.
There’s a level of irony to it all, in that hunting down deadly androids is such a difficult and uncertain process. Mankind constructed these androids to be as lifelike as possible, and now that sense of realism has come back to haunt them. Do Androids Dream…? plays with that irony, straight down to its very title. It’s an odd and off-putting title, one that feels completely out of sync with the dark and disturbing story it labels. But once we read said story, we realize that the world of Deckard and Rachael is so fully-formed in its artificial intelligence – it houses not only androids, but electric sheep as well – that the titular question no longer feels so tongue-in-cheek.
Nevertheless, Hollywood chose to adjust the title to the shorter, more marketable Blade Runner when Ridley Scott decided to film an adaptation of the book. Would that this title change be the greatest divergence from the source material, but Scott, in attempting to deliver themes of artificial intelligence in his own way, made several other adjustments as well – some beneficial, others less so.
Now, Scott is certainly a talented director, and he has proven himself adept when it comes to literature adaptation. (Most recently with his take on Andy Weir’s The Martian.) But Do Androids Dream…? does not easily lend itself to the visual medium, and Blade Runner shows just how difficult the book-to-film transition can be.
In the past, I’ve commented on the difficulties of making character motivations appear ambiguous when the audience can plainly see what’s occurring onscreen, as opposed to simply reading the words of an unreliable narrator on the printed page. Those difficulties are on display in Blade Runner, only to a more problematic degree. In trying to blur the lines between humans and androids, Scott downplays Deckard’s humanity, to the point that the character is not emphatically relatable in the slightest. Even the charismatic Harrison Ford, at the peak of his game at the time of the film’s premiere, can only do so much to liven up the character, who never feels engaging enough to be successfully subverted as unengaging.
Still, Scott does manage to compensate by taking advantage of the supporting cast. The androids themselves, for example, play a more prominent role in the film than in the book. In Dick’s original novel, the androids never feel like fully-realized characters – due to the limited perspectives, few characters outside of Deckard or Isidore feel prominently integral. But in the film, characters like Batty and Pris have more personality, and end up feeling more palpable as both threats to this futuristic society and as non-humans in an inhumane world.
This is how Blade Runner, despite its flaws, succeeds. By putting more emphasis on the androids, it lowers our defenses against anything not inherently human. In spending more time with Deckard’s targets and having them channel a wider range of emotions than he does, we become more open to the idea that Deckard may not, in fact, be human himself.
Moreover, the fact that the film allows us to see this futuristic society draws us in more readily than a mere description could. Scott takes full advantage of the visual medium – the world he crafts is not especially pleasant, but the dark tones and colors add dramatic weight to any scene. Scott may take a different route to explain his messages than Dick does, but in a way, his methods are just as effective.
Do Androids Dream…? and Blade Runner exist in different mediums, but they compensate for their dissimilarities by approaching the thematic material from different angles. And this, I suspect, is why so many fans prefer the version of the story they first experience – the end results are very similar, so it’s the way the story works its magic that will leave its greatest impression on reader or viewer.