It’s been reported that some kind of remake and/or prequel is in the works for Ridley Scott’s 1982 cyberpunk film Blade Runner. As a fan of both the film and the original novel I find this somewhat troubling but also rather amusing. It seems that no other story has had such a complicated history with the freedom of creative expression, and now it seems they want to open this can of worms yet again.
Ridley Scott’s saga with Blade Runner most pointedly illustrates, in both content and in form, the journey of screenplay adaptation. A bit of background, (those of you who are familiar with the story can skip a couple paragraphs): In 1968 sci-fi author Philip K. Dick writes a book called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In the late 1970’s, screenwriter Hampton Fancher writes a few different drafts for the story with very imaginative titles—“Androids” “Mechanismo” and “Dangerous Days” before finally settling on “Blade Runner.” Ridley Scott joins the project as director, doesn’t like Fancher’s script (which was a pretty faithful adaptation of the PKD story) and brings in another writer, David Peoples, to edit him.
They shoot the flick, cut it up and release a “workprint” edition that they use for test screenings with audiences.
However, after a couple less than favorable showings in Denver and Dallas the studio forces Ridley Scott to change some things up, add a voiceover narration track and a happy sunny ending.
This is called the U.S. Theatrical Version. The International Version doesn’t have the voiceover, but does have the sunny ending and three scenes with extra violence. 10 years later, someone finds the original workprint, the studio fixes it up and releases it as a “Director’s Cut” (but without the director’s input). Annoyed, Ridley Scott releases a real “Director’s Cut” a few years later. And then just for the heck of it releases a “Final Cut” in 2007.
And now they want to do this all over again!
What I like about looking at Blade Runner as a study in adaptation is that the presentation of the story, in film, script, and novel forms, is evocative of the story’s central themes—replication and imitation. As you’ve probably noticed by now, interiority is a prominent problem that a screenwriter runs up against, especially when dealing with adaptation. This is why so many films based on books will resort (as the US Theatrical Cut of Blade Runner shows us) to voiceover narration to tell us directly what a character is thinking. But this is often clunky and boring (again, like Blade Runner).
The struggle of the Replicants to adequately breach the inner most core of humanity and learn to externalize emotions is the same thing that a screenwriter must do. How do you translate the emotional core of a novel into a visual story when you don’t have access to the main tools of either medium?
Those of you who have read Philip K. Dick’s original novel Androids and have seen Blade Runner recognize the numerous places where the stories diverge. There’s an entire back story involving world wars, nuclear radiation, empathy boxes, and electric animals that just doesn’t make it to the screen. Instead, the writers of Blade Runner choose to present their own take on Dick’s world in a different way.
What Dick’s world leaves us with is a society fueled by its dedication to being able to connect with another living creature on an emotional level—empathy. A hierarchy develops based on who can afford what level of animal, the more fortunate can purchase living creatures while the less so must make do with robotic equivalents. This is a world that values life above everything else.
In lieu of empathy boxes and the obsession with artificial animals in the film, this devotion to life instead becomes channeled into Roy’s quest to extend his “expiration date” so that he will be able to live longer. In the novel, Roy’s role is so small as to make him a minor character. In the film, an entire plot line is dedicated to his journey.
The relationship is especially poignant for the screenwriter who recognizes that in some ways their script will always only be a Replicant, a supposed copy of a higher form with an expiration date that comes too soon. Like Roy, screenplays strive for more life. It is my hope that one day they will be able to obtain it.