Monday, 20 February 2017

Adaptation: We Can Remember It For You Wholesale

The A-word.
It's the bane of cinephiles, everywhere.

That book you love; the comic you remember; the show you used to watch; the game you lost an entire summer playing? Oh, someone's adapted it and it's getting made into a movie! Whether a cause for pre-emptive celebration or foreboding caution, it leads to only one thing: expectation. And expectation is the death of the 'clean' movie-viewing experience; no matter how closely the film sticks to its source material, or how much it tries to distance itself, it will be faced with the hurdle of comparison.

And while the movie industry loves the pre-built marketing buzz of 'now a major motion picture!', they loathe the comparative references which will be made from the first review onwards. Because many punters will expect to get exactly the same reaction from a completely different medium, to a story they already know. And therein lies the problem.

In this monthly series, we'll look back at some of the most respected and best-loved properties which have made the perilous journey to the big screen; often with some controversy, and almost always with far too much hype. This isn't so much a review of the films themselves, more an appraisal of their suitability as an adaptation.

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale
We Can Remember It For You Wholesale
Philip K. Dick (1966)

As initially feared, the problem I had with WCRIFYW is that I've seen the (first) subsequent movie a fair few times, but haven't read the book. So my brain had to overcome the hurdle of retcon-adaptation. Now, after Minority Report I wasn't expecting to read a detailed screenplay, but Dick's short story (23 pages in the edition I have) is barely even the idea of what it later became on-screen, let alone a compacted version of it.

But I'm here for what is written, not what I think should be. The story centres around one Douglas Quail, a low-level office worker who can't afford a trip to Mars (which, in the context of the book isn't yet fully colonised, so is only populated by government-types or the extremely wealthy), so pays a visit to Rekal Incporated, and then pays an extortionate amount of cash for the memory of being a secret-agent there. So far, so good. The implant doesn't fully take, however, when the laboratory staff discover the memory they're trying to insert is of events which actually happened to Quail, and have been subsequently wiped. All hell breaks loose, Doug is very confused and nobody actually goes to Mars (within the duration of this story, at least). In fact, the entire narrative basically occurs in two locations, albeit back and forth between Doug's flat and Rekal Inc. And the taxi which ferries Doug around, if you want to make it three.

As with the last tale of Dick's I did, this is still accessible enough for the average non sci-fi reader, even if it's perhaps a little too 'presented'. Not so much "here's an intriguing story to make you think about perception and the validity of human recollection", but more "here's a novella crunched down so tightly that I can't focus on the central conceit of the story and have you finished with it yet I haven't got all day you know come on hurry up hurry up".

The golden rule of 'show, don't tell' is disregarded almost completely as characters explain to each other what's happened in Doug's life (I assure you this matters just as much on paper as it does on-screen), and the plot device of a previously undisclosed telepathy implant only makes this more obvious. It's never badly written in itself, but feels like Dick got bored of the story he initially set out to write when he was only halfway through. That said, at least our Phil takes the time to mention that the receptionist at Rekal is topless. Twice. So it's not like he's paying no attention to his own universe. Oh, and in this future-Earth, I noted that we can ostensibly settle on Mars, but Quail spends one moment in the book looking for carbon-paper for his typewriter. Ah, the curse of speculative fiction…

Anyway, when I said that Minority Report was crying out for expansion, it turns out I didn't know the half of it. Not unlike Douglas Quail, in that respect...

Total Recall
Total Recall
Paul Verhoeven (1990)

It may have a date-stamp of 1990 on the outside, but rest assured that Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall is a towering monument to the late 80s. The Dutch director's own version of future-noir is implemented through constant paranoia and garish consumerism, and borrows thematically from his work in 1987's Robocop. The opening titles feature an "Inspired by" card, rather than the more direct 'based on', making some concession to the fact that you'd be unable to fashion an entire film out of the 1966 story. That said, Total Recall opens with Arnold Schwarzenegger's Doug (Quaid this time, rather than the original's Quail) dreaming about Mars, with his wife Lori trying to brush aside his growing obsession with the planet (expertly played here by Sharon Stone). As the movie quickly adds on Doug's nagging mistrust of his wife and his paranoia blurring the perception of what's even real, this becomes a pretty solid expansion of what was written over twenty years earlier. Arguably moreso than Philip K Dick managed.

After this setup of course, the film branches out into its own story and sub-plots. And in the context of An Arnold Schwarzenegger Sci-fi Movie Featuring Michael Ironside And Ronny Cox As Bad Guys™, it's more than acceptable.

Credit where it's due (and I admit I've been overly snarky about this film in the past), Total Recall has a vision that's way broader than the original story. It's just happens to be a vision which is an action-adventure, since the film is incapable of being any kind of cerebral conundrum while Verhoeven's at the helm. Schwarzenegger pretty much plays himself of course, being at once both the saviour and nemesis of the film. And sure, the model/prosthetics work on display has aged about as well as the vision of future society, but it all adds to the charm. Not to be outdone by Dick's aforementioned typewriter, we can establish a mining colony on Mars here, but all the computers have external flashy lights and CRT monitors. I cannot wait for the future, I've still got a 14" portable TV upstairs. That said, the tactless editing-in of stunt-double shots during the fight scenes is sadly timeless, yet ironically gets worse every time I watch this.

Best dialogue exchange:
Melina: Where'd this reactor come from?
Quaid: Aliens built it.
[the subject is then changed]

But, perhaps most importantly from a storytelling point of view, this is a movie about a secret agent who goes to Mars, and which features a secret agent who goes to Mars. Given the scope of the original story, I think we shouldn't lose sight of that. Although only an actioner of this pedigree would feature two hit-men watching their quarry get into a taxi, and then have them get out of their own car to pursue on foot…

And when even Paul Verhoeven makes sure the receptionist's got her top on, you know your source-text has issues…*1

Total Recall
Total Recall
Len Wiseman (2012)

A different year, a different approach. 2012 saw Underworld director Len Wiseman trying his hand at revitalising WCRIFYH for a new generation of moviegoers, still under Sony's watchful eye (Tristar produced the Arnie flick, Columbia managed this one). Despite its lukewarm reception, the film still takes a decent stab at adapting and expanding Dick's original story and like its predecessor quickly becomes its own thing (although like its predecessor, that's because it has to).
No-one travels to Mars in this version of the tale, indeed the planet is only even mentioned in the script-equivalent of a cameo appearance. If there's a stand-in for interplanetary travel here, it's the daily commute from Australia to the South-East of England*2.

A short series of film-opening captions brings the audience up to speed with the world we're stepping into. The aesthetic this time around is far more post-apocalyptic cyberpunk, and the film is looks closer to Ridley Scott's vision for Blade Runner, albeit with the pacing and stunt-work of Minority Report. This is definitely closer to an action-movie than a sci-fi one, although the film's seven (seven!) writers take the time to quote and reference the original book as much as they do Paul Verhoeven's interpretation of it.

Character-names tend to stay close to the previous movie, with Doug Quaid being surrounded by wife Lori, accomplice Melina, and Harry, McClane and Cohaagen*3. In terms of the quality of the film itself, I still largely stand by the words I wrote upon its release in 2012. A decent enough movie which turns into an extended chase-sequence in lieu of story-development. Although it's neither the first nor last film to be made in that category.

Was this what Philip K Dick had in mind for We Can Remember It For You Wholesale? I shouldn't imagine so. But Len Wiseman's version has narratively-irrelevant boobies in it as well, so I'm sure he'd have signed it off…

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale / Total Recall…

Is the original thing any good, though?
Well, it's good in a 'sketched out on the back of a beermat to be expanded once I'm back in my study and the hangover's gone providing I don't forget all about the beermat in my pocket and just start working on something else' sort of a way, yeah.

Is the film-version any good, though?
Both Total Recall adaptations are solid expansions of the initial premise, and both in ways which reflect the times they were made in.

So, should I check out one, both or neither?
The two movies themselves definitely bear comparison, but you probably wouldn't lose too much by skipping the book (not that you'd need much time to read it anyway).

Oh, is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Didn't hear one in either movie and no-one was quoted as saying "AIE-E-E-E!" in the written version.

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: The 1990 film's got Weechee the Ewok in it; the 2012 one features the voice of Admiral Raddus.

*1 Although that apparent act of cinematic chivalry is undone once the action moves to Mars, of course. And if anything, it back-pedals by 150%… [BACK ]

*2 Okay, I know I touched on this in my full review of the film, but my estimate of 2,000 miles per hour was way off. I missed it first time around, but it's actually stated in the script that the journey from England to Australia known as The Drop™ will take 17 minutes. Now, the diameter of the planet is 7917 miles. Which means that the drop-shuttle has to travel, on average, at a speed of 27,942 miles per hour. That's a cylindrical object which is pretty much flat at each end, shooting through a tube which doesn't appear to allow for wind-resistance (terminal velocity's not going to help with that shape or the required speed). So, in the future, it's more efficient to build and operate a machine that's capable of reaching almost 28,000 miles per hour within the Earth's atmosphere and gravity (and there's apparently only one of these vessels in operation, remember), than it is to just build labourers some slum housing underneath the factory they all work in. Assuming the passengers would even survive the journey. Apparently. Glad we got that straight. [BACK ]

*3 Incidentally, the hero's alter-ego carries the same moniker here, too. In both movie versions, he goes by the names Douglas Quaid and Carl Hauser. Which suggests that if you were to smash his two personalities together in the Large Screenplay Collider™, you'd get Dougie Hauser [BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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