Blade Runner vs. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

With the release of the film's 'final cut' and a new reprint of the classic book out
Jonathan Cowie takes time out to compare versions of Philip K. Dick's vision.


(1968 / 2007 edition) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick, Gollancz, pbk, 7.99. ISBN 978-0-575-07993-9
Blade Runner: The Final Cut, dir. Ridley Scott, DVD 15.99 from Warner.

(1968 / 2012 edition) Gollancz, pbk, 7.99, ISBN 978-1-780-22038-3

Jump to: The Book, The Film, Film Versions, and Conclusion.


With the recent releases of the film Blade Runner: The Final Cut (December 2007) and the book reprint on which it is loosely based Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the new edition from Gollancz published on the 25th anniversary of the author's death 2007) this is a good time to have a look at how these various portrayals of Philip Dick's vision compare.

Both the film and the book have been highly lauded. The original film (1982) won the Hugo Award for 'Best Dramatic Presentation' in 1983 and regularly features in 'best films' of all-time polls including top of Concatenation's all-time desert asteroid survey of European SF fans conducted in the late 1980s and the Blackwood/Flynn top SF film poll conducted among participants of three successive SF Worldcons announced in 2003 (see Essential SF). Meanwhile the book Do Androids Dream... has been similarly lauded and nearly two decades after its publication came 8th in the best book category of Concatenation's desert asteroid poll while Dick's books were the second most nominated of all authors' books in that same survey (ditto Essential SF).

The Book
It is easy to forget that Philip K. Dick's book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep came out way back in 1968 at a time when he already had well over a decade's worth of novels under his belt. Many of these earlier stories featured some of the themes re-visited in Do Androids including that of exploring the nature of self-identity as well as society in the aftermath of an Earth-changing event, not to mention incidental features such as air cars. Also similar to most of his other novels, Do Androids Dream... is quite short at just a little over 200 mass-market paperback pages. As such you might think it was an ideal length to be turned into a film without too much change necessary to squeeze it to a new, two-hour visual format. Yet Blade Runner director Ridley Scott (also noted for the Hugo-winning film Alien (1979) decided to strip Do Androids Dream... of much of its content.

The book begins with Rick Deckard and his depressed-with-life wife awaking one morning in their apartment. It does not help that she also clearly does not approve of his job as a cop cum bounty hunter who kills renegade android robots or 'andys'. Their waking mood can be altered if they wish by dialling on the 'mood machine', as part of their start the day routine, while the TV (and/or radio) blares out conversation from 'Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends'. The apartment block in which they live houses several families though, notwithstanding this, many of the apartments are empty. Humanity has largely left the Earth for Mars as well as beyond the solar system to planets around other stars. The reason for the mass migration is that World War Terminus (WWT) took place a little while ago. Nobody recalls exactly how WWT started and following the radiation there also came some mysterious life-threatening dust (from whence nobody knows) which as killed of much of the planet's animal life except in isolated areas such as deep in Canada's wilderness.

Rick leaves for work via the roof of his apartment block where his air (hover) car is parked. The roof also houses the pen of his sheep and he discusses his pet with one of the blocks few other residents. Animals and pets are highly prized given the dust-induced extinction event but, it transpires, that Rick's sheep is artificial. It is robotic, albeit realistic. He and his wife would dearly like to own a real sheep.

Meanwhile John R. Isodore is also preparing to leave for work. Isodore is a 'special', or 'chickenhead' in colloquial parlance, that is to say he is mentally challenged and so not considered fit enough to allow to emigrate with much of the rest of humanity off-world. Had he been able to leave Earth he would have been given a free andy (with its restricted lifespan of a few years) to help him settle on a colony world.

Isodore is a delivery driver for the Van Ness Pet Hospital. In reality the pet hospital is no such thing but a robotic repair service for electronic pets, but presents itself as a real-life animal service in part to raise the esteem of artificial pet owners and in part so as not to give the game away for those owners who pass their robot animals off as real to their friends and neighbours. Unlike the Deckards there is no one else living in Isodore's apartment block and these flats only contain 'kipple' (clutter). Indeed most of Earth's cities are now empty with only a few city centres seeing humans congregating in any meaningful numbers.

One thing J. R. Isodore has in common with Rick Deckard's wife is faith in Mercerism: the new religious cult. Mercerism works through an electronic interface that enables its adherents to share their mood with the rest of the world in exchange for the average emotion of all adherents plugged in. Mercerism therefore averages out individuality. Importantly, as far as andys are concerned, not even the most sophisticated androids can participate.

Arriving at police headquarters, Rick Deckard is told that eight Nexus-6 androids had killed their owners and then made their way to Earth. Dave Holden, the senior bounty hunter on the San Francisco police force, had 'retired' (killed) two but the third had lasered him. Now the job of tracking and retiring the remaining six Nexus-6 andys was being passed on to Rick. The problem was that the news Nexus-6 model was the most advanced type of andy made to date. Retiring them was evidently (given Holden being wounded) difficult. Rick Deckard's boss, Harry Bryant, wants Rick to go to the andy manufacturers -- the Rosen Association in Seatle -- to check that the Voigt-Kampff empathy test (used to distinguish andy's from humans) is effective. Aside from their restricted lifespan and enhanced prowess (such as strength but depending on the andy model), it can be difficult to distinguish andy's from humans especially the advance andys: some andy's even have artificial memories and think that they are human.

At the Rosen Association Rick tries the Voigt-Kampff empathy test on Rachel Rosen. It transpires that she is not human but a Nexus-6 andy up till then unaware of her robotic nature. Nonetheless she offers to help Rick retire the escaped andys as without her on his side he could end up being dead. Rick refuses (much later in the novel he accepts).

Back in California, J.R. Isodore discovers that someone else has moved in. He goes to introduce himself as her neighbour. She at first says her name is Rachel Rosen but then quickly changes it to Pris Stratton saying that that is her married name. It transpires later in the book that she is one of the escaped Nexus-6 group but John Isodore does not mind: to her she is a friend. Also, it transpires, Pris is the spitting image of Rachel: both did after all come off the same assembly line.

Having affirmed that the Voigt-Kampff empathy test does (just) work, Rick is back in San Francisco after one of the Nexus-6, Miss Luft, who is masquerading as an opera singer. However he has to meet up with another agent from the overall agency charged with protecting Earth from off-world crime. This agent is to assist Rick. Yet when they meet the agent tries to kill Rick but makes the mistake of doing this in Rick's hovercar which disables the agents weapon. The agent, it transpires, is one of the missing Nexus-6 whom Rick promptly 'retires'.

Shortly, finding Miss Luft, Rick administers the Voigt-Kampff empathy test but Miss Luft calls the police on the pretext that Rick's questions are obscene and that he is a pervert. The police arrive and, believing Rick's ID to be fake, take Rick to the police station. However the police station is not in central San Francisco but a comparatively deserted part of the city. As Rick Deckard is being interviewed by the police it dawns upon him that the whole station is a sham and is in fact staffed by andys...

This takes us up to about halfway through the novel and to summarise any more would constitute a spoiler for those that have yet had the joy of reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

The Film
By contrast the Ridley (Alien) Scott directed film is significantly different. Rick Deckard is not a regular cop cum bounty hunter but has retired. He is brought back to work freelance. Rick is not married. He does not own an electric sheep: indeed, pets and animals overall have a lower profile in the film and there is no 'pet hospital'. There is no new religious cult let alone one called Mercerism. Isodore is not a chicken head or a pet hospital driver but a bright -- albeit socially awkward -- technician in the andy industry. Indeed 'andy's are not andys but 'replicants. There is no andy/replicant staffed police station in a remote part of the city, and Rachel and Pris are not identical.

The similarities are largely confined to Rick being a bounty hunter who goes after replicants (andies). That there is a group of escaped advanced, Nexus-6, replicants from off-world on Earth who are hard to detect, and there is a Voigt-Kampff empathy test to do this. Rachel is at the Rosen Association and does think she is human but, it transpires on Rick's testing, that she is a replicant. Pris does turn up at Isodore's block and a couple of the other escaped andy's do join them.

The book's central theme of what is identity is very largely removed from the film (though echoes remain). In the book many humans submerse themselves in the communal experience of Mercerism and in this sense actively lose part of their self-identity. Paradoxically the andys envy this though they already -- being robotic -- have no detailed human identity to lose in any Merceristic experience. Yet if something/one has meaningful memories (irrespective of whether they were acquired through actual experience or programming) does self-identity follow? (This last is only briefly touched upon in the film.)

Having kept some of the book's key bones, but left out a considerable junk (and remember it is only a short novel), the film inserts new material. The replicants are on a mission to ascertain how old they are, how much time they have left, and to get the Rosen manufacturers to extend their lives. John Isodore, as a bright technician though socially awkward, has a chess-playing relationship with the head of the Rosen Association and the replicants use this to get to the head of Rosen. Finally there is the suggestion, far stronger in some versions of the film than others, that Rick Deckard may unknowingly be a replicant. In particular this is signalled by a memory sequence of Deckard's where he recalls a running unicorn: unicorns do not exists and so these memories must be artificial hence implying Rick Deckard is too.

Film versions
Of course unlike the book of which there is only one version (albeit for a while marketed as Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream...) there are many versions of the film. If one were to be pedantic and include the various formats (video, laserdisc etc, a number of which have minor editing, colour presentation an definition differences) there are getting on for a score of Blade Runner versions. A more sober number is seven. However take out the preview version and US broadcast version (censored for some very brief sciences of nudity and violence) you are left with just three: the International Cut (1982, 117 minutes), the Director's Cut (1992, 117 minutes) and the Final Cut (2007, 117 minutes). All of which means that if you really wanted to you could actually edit yourself a minute or two longer version from the fragments that are in one but not the others. However the main differences between the International and Director versions are the way scenes are presented. Most notably the 1982 International Cut has Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) doing a voice over as the feedback of the preview versions showed that some of the audience did not fully understand what was going on. This is typical dumbing-down of Hollywood who get a test audience who are not the audience of specific tastes who select themselves to pay to go to see a film. Personally I do not mind the voice over as it lends a noire 1950/60s detective film feel but the voice over has attracted unfavourable comment from some critics. The 1992 Director's Cut has no voiceover. The Director's Cut also has the unicorn memory sequence that hints that Deckard may himself be a replicant. Finally the Director's Cut has no happy ending. The original 1982 International version had a happy ending added following feedback from the preview versions. The 1982 happy ending consisted of Deckard and Rachel leaving the city, driving into the wilds with the Deckard (Ford) voiceover saying that Tyrell (head of the Rosen Association) told Deckard that Rachel was special and implied that did not have the time limitation: in short, they could live happy ever after.

The 'Final' Cut appeared in 2007. Back in 1992 not all the material was available for alternative shots and nor was there the computer technology to touch up with comparative ease some of the visual bloopers and tidy some of the special effects (such as add smoke from one of the street kitchens). Furthermore the original film's completion guarantors held some of the rights (the original film had its US$21.5 million budget overrun to US$28m) and there were many years of legal wrangling before Warner Brother regained sufficient control in 2006. The final version also has a few words of profanity and the violence is marginally worse (it had originally been censored). The Final Version is the version that director Ridley Scott wanted the public to get.

And so...
Naturally books and films are different formats. While novelizations of the latter are comparatively straightforward, film adaptations of the former are notoriously difficult. Films are typically around two-hours in duration so adapting even a short 200-page novel into film inevitably means that some aspects are left out. Arguably Scott's decision to leave out Do Androids Mercerism was understandable. Less so was the all but total removal of the idea of robotic pets. Meanwhile those into suspense might well regret the loss of the replicant-staffed police station chapter from the novel. Where Scott undeniably scored was his vision of Dick's future. Not only were Scott's images photogenic but Dick's vision (from many of his novels) of a future with a mix of old and new technology side by side was successfully conveyed: for example flying cars and billboard sized projection screens with old-style street food vendors and early twentieth century blocks of flats (condos). This and the question of identity (the replicants musing about their 'false' memories, or Rachel's status) was also successfully conveyed: identity and reality being a frequent Dickian theme. As such the film was bound to go down well with the public, though it needs to be remembered that its initial box office take was not as great as many at the time had hoped even if it has more than made up for this over the years.

Arguably what we are left with is Blade Runner being a good Dickian film but a poor adaptation of the original novel. In short, in one sense there is room for a proper cinematic version of Do Androids Dream. 'In one sense' because Blade Runner has been so successful that any adaptation would undoubtedly have to emerge from Blade Runner's shadow and that in itself would be a difficult feat to achieve. To do so many years would have to pass, and three decades is certainly not long enough. Yet, if you are reading this article in the second half of the 21st century, who knows what then may be being pitched in some studio boardroom. Meanwhile if you have seen the film but not yet read the book then you have a treat in store.

Jonathan Cowie

For a reference work on Blade Runner then there is Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner.


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