With the impact of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep in the field of science-fiction, an adaptation was inevitable. How far it would stray from the theme of empathy for your fellow man was up to director Ridley Scott, who helmed Blade Runner, the Electric Sheep adaptation. Rick Deckard has the titular job, where he retires replicants after a mutiny declared them illegal. It is incredible how much subtext and backstory you can break down into twenty seconds of scrolling text. It is also astonishing to see how much of that can be lost to busy, cluttered scenes that boil the rich worldbuilding of the book down to their basic, core essentials.
From the written page to the big screen is not an easy transfer. We often lose things along the way. In the case of Misery, what was lost from the book was to the advantage of the film. With Blade Runner, what is lost here is the prose of Philip K. Dick. That clambering doubt of what humanity really is, and whether or not Deckard is carrying out an ethical life, retiring replicants who are human to those they pass, but potentially fake when put through the Voight-Kampff test. Visually stunning, but what lies beneath these neon lights and memorable scenes is little more than the writing Dick provided, just without the meaning. Scott is lucky he has Ford at hand, for without that dependable powerhouse, he would struggle to get his own meanings across, which are of little interest when stood up alongside those found in the book.
There are slight issues that come forth with adapting the book, but the leading problem is the need to show, rather than tell. Holden is a theory in the book, he is the man Deckard is taking over from. All we know is that he is shot and in the hospital. That is all we really need to know for that first act. We never read of that incident, nor are we given any major detail to what has happened. Blade Runner does not have an intense trust in its audience, and feels the need to guide us through the narrative gently and with a forthright focus on style, rather than substance. Such a shame is fine, and Blade Runner does have all the necessary scenes ripped from the book to provide a competent enough narrative, but Scott wishes to show his flair for direction and his knowledge of technical merits.
He does and does it well. But the trade-off for this is a lack of depth. His set design is extravagant, his science-fiction buildings and space-oriented iconography is different enough from the heavy-hitting Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi release date Blade Runner would fall between. That is the necessary change to be made, but it never delves deeper. We are never diving into the poetic justifications of such a shoddy way of life. There are never moments that will appeal to the ideas of a wider universe beyond this crammed city. It is all there, ripe for the picking in the book, but it does not transfer to the big screen. It is one of the many poor decisions made, and one of the crucial differences between the literary piece and movie.
That niggling issue of difference between book and film never ebbs away, though. Blade Runner and its fresher ideas are not superior to Dick’s work and therefore make for a weaker project. It is expected, to use an established piece of art, and to subsequently spin it into your own thoughts and meanings, but Scott’s thoughts are so similar to that of Dick, that these changes are not particularly necessary. He cannot offer anything new, yet tries to do so anyway. The thoughts of Scott are also the identical themes of Dick, but without the depth and mystery that is explored so well within Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Where the book goes a long way convincing us such an answer is not necessary if we lead a justified life, Blade Runner hopes to avoid it, and the many other questions posed by Dick, entirely.