Blade Runner explained: why is it so different from the book?

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This article reveals the explained plot and the detailed events in Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner, revealing its meaning and storyline. We recommend you to read it only after watching the movie, and not before, in order to preserve the pleasure of the first vision.

The case of Blade Runner is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating to analyze when one is interested in understanding the transition from book to film: a film based on a “minor” novel (as it was considered before 1982) by one of the greatest authors of the second half of the twentieth century, a movie that not only twisted completely the literary starting point by keeping only the skeleton, but that also managed to rework the elements retained by the novel and to incorporate new ones, to the point of arriving at surpass in popularity the book and become a mainstay of science fiction cinema and the main visual reference for all futuristic films (and not only) released after.

But let’s start from the beginning. Philip K. Dick writes the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? during 1966 and published it two years later, in that 1968 made of utopias in which it seemed impossible to imagine a world so bleak and desperate.

The novel is not a great success but since the 70s Hollywood has sensed its potential (even Martin Scorsese wants to adapt it) and the project passes from hand to hand up to Ridley Scott, fresh from the triumph of Alien.

Dick is a man of words, Scott is a man of images from the world of advertising, made up of expensive projects, with a short processing and a great aesthetic impact. Scott’s task is to translate into images the nightmares of the American writer, in the meantime already extensively reworked by screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, giving them a more suitable appearance for cinema. The result is a reduction in the truest sense of the term: literally fewer things happen in Scott’s film than in Dick’s novel, but what is lost in the plot returns to the background, to the unspoken part, to the new elements acquired compared to the novel, in the changes of perspective and characterization. For Dick’s fans the original novel will always be better, for cinephiles the film will always be better: we are more simply interested in understanding how the two works are similar and what they diverge.

The plot

Blade Runner (1982) Official Trailer - Ridley Scott, Harrison Ford Movie

A bounty hunter named Rick Deckard is tasked with withdrawing some artificial men (the Nexus-6s) who have escaped from a terrestrial colony in the solar system, where they were employed to help colonize emigrated humans. This is the heart of Do Androids… and of Blade Runner. In the course of reading Dick’s novel (or watching Scott’s film, if this happens after reading the book) it can be seen that the two works maintain numerous passages in common: Deckard is commissioned to hunt down the Nexus-6 after a better bounty hunter (Dave Holden) is seriously injured by one of them (in the novel he is happy to deal with it, thinking about bounty money, in the film he is reluctant); we see Deckard go to the headquarters of the company that produces the Nexus 6 and meet the unwitting android Rachel, with whom he will fall in love; we witness the elimination of the first androids on the street (three in the novel, two in the film); we see the group of surviving androids (also three in the book and two in the film) taking refuge in the home of a human, where they are eventually found and eliminated by Deckard.

The similarities end there: in the film there is no trace of one of the most fascinating parts of the novel, located about halfway and concerning Garland, a Nexus-6 that managed to form an organization of androids capable of managing a police structure. parallel to the official one (complete with a human bounty hunter!), which even goes so far as to arrest Deckard to briefly make (first to him and then to the other bounty hunter, Phil Resch) doubt his nature as a human being.

At the same time, in the novel there is no trace of some of the moments that made the film immortal: the androids are eliminated relatively easily, none of them have fled to try to live longer, Deckard’s human nature (a apart from that short section already mentioned) is never questioned as it happens in the film (where the eternal question “Is Deckard replicant or human?” contributed greatly to creating the halo of legend that surrounds Blade Runner) and above all the legendary monologue by Roy Batty / Rutger Hauer is missing.

All versions of the film end with Deckard and Rachael’s escape, while the novel ends with the protagonist returning home after his crazy working day, during which he finds out he is doomed to do the wrong thing for the rest of the his days.

The setting and the world building

One of the biggest differences between the two works is in the setting. The 2019 Los Angeles of Scott’s film, the result of the extraordinary work of the visual futurist Syd Mead, is an overpopulated retro-futurist megalopolis that seems to have always existed: an ancient and future world at the same time, constantly wet by a dirty rain, a prelude to a new universal deluge is now upon us; the 1992 San Francisco imagined by Dick is instead much more similar to Las Vegas as we find in Blade Runner 2049: a semi-desert city covered by a blanket of radioactive dust that prevents you from seeing the sky and that is devastating the physique and mind of the few inhabitants who have not yet fled to extra-terrestrial colonies.

The most unfortunate of these individuals are the specials (divided into chickenhead or anthead) or those individuals who have lost part of their mental abilities due to dust, as happens to JR Isidore, in effect a second protagonist of Dick’s novel. In Do Androids… we also find space for elements completely eliminated from the film: humans who can afford to use a Penfield Modulator, an electronic machine capable of altering moods and producing euphoria when one is sad, for example; the television broadcasts for twenty-three hours a day the talk show Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends, conducted by a tireless showman who throws continuous arrows at Mercerianism, the new religion (without the concept of redemption) born after the Last World War and based on the figure of Wilbur Mercer, a sort of guru with whom the inhabitants of the earth come into contact through the use of Empathic Boxes (a mechanism that connects the minds of all the people who are connected to them at that moment).

In the ending it will emerge that Buster Friendly and his guests are droids who manage to unmask the scam of Wilbur Mercer, who is actually a former Hollywood actor named Al Jerry. Despite this, however, Mercer will continue to appear in both Isidore’s visions and Deckard’s, who eventually discovers that he has completely merged with him. From reading we also discover that, before the war, the world was experiencing a phase of unbridled consumerism and now of that era only waste remains, called Kipple. In the film version of Blade Runner we discover that beyond Los Angeles there is a world that is still untouched, while the one imagined by Dick is a hopeless desert world.

The protagonists

Blade runner - I've seen things you people wouldn't believe... Time to die (HD)

The Rick Deckard of the novel is very distant from the Harrison Ford / Philip Marlowe of the film: first of all he is not a blade runner, because this term does not exist in the book. He is an unattractive, meek man, married to a woman named Iran, with whom he manages to experience a few isolated moments of happiness. Compared to the cinematic Deckard, the literary one begins to feel more and more empathy towards the droids he has to hunt and is constantly haunted by thoughts about his economic and family situation. We can therefore say the Deckard of Do Androids… is little more than a technician specialized in the withdrawal of a particular type of household appliance, while the one in the film is a full-blown noir detective.

John R. Isidore is instead the character on which JF Sebastian is based in the film (modeled on the figure of Jack Isidore, Dick’s alter ego in his Confessions of a Crap Artist): in the novel he is a chickenhead, who is prevented from reproduce or emigrate due to impaired mental abilities, he earns his living by taking electronic animals to take for repair in Hannibal Sloat’s workshop (who is Hannibal Chew, the eye maker in the film); the film equivalent of him, on the other hand, is an engineer designer of replicants suffering from Methuselah’s Syndrome which leads him to age prematurely. In the novel Isidore feels love for the droids because he himself is considered a rejection of society, while in the film the connection between Sebastian and the replicants is given by his illness. The novel’s Rosen Association becomes the Tyrell Corporation in the film, and replicant builder Eldon Rosen appears in a single scene in the novel, unlike the film’s Eldon Tyrell.

For a good portion of the novel, Rachael Rosen’s appears to be the character who has undergone fewer changes in the cinematic transition: a Chandlerian dark lady, initially unaware of being a droid and later Deckard’s accomplice and lover. The difference between the two characters explodes after their amorous encounter: the Rachael of the film will stay with Deckard and run away with him in the final, the one of the novel instead (following his own cold mentality) will take revenge on Deckard and his wife by killing their beloved goat.

Completely eliminated from the film is the character of the bounty hunter Phil Resch, protagonist together with Deckard of the most surreal moment of the novel.

The animals

In both works we find discourses related to the nature of animals: are they real or electric? In Dick’s novel the discourse is more in-depth than in Scott’s film, but the situation seems to be the same for both stories: nuclear war has caused the extinction of numerous species of animals and the consistent reduction of all the others. The doctrine of Mercerianism requires people to take care of an animal, keeping the exercise of empathy alive. In practice, however, the possession of a real animal has become a status symbol: something to aspire to in order to show off with others. Anyone who has lost their pet (such as Deckard, whose sheep died) must be content with an electronic surrogate that he is deeply ashamed of. In Blade Runner, although the problem is never directly addressed, it is understood that the situation is very similar since all the animals in the film are surrogates.

Droids and Replicants

Blade Runner - Deckard Meets Rachel Pt 1

The difference between the two types of artificial surrogates of human beings is already all in the name. The droids designed by Dick are also exact copies of a human being (with minimal differences) but, unlike Scott’s “more human than human” replicants, they are simple machines, which reason according to their exclusive convenience and therefore they are totally unable to feel empathy. The difference is also given by the context in which the works were created: Dick writes his novel inspired by Ford to shape the Rosen Association, Scott (after more than a decade) decides to rejuvenate that idea, totally eliminating the stupidity of Dickian droids (on which it is often not even necessary to use the Voight Kampff test, which is important in the film) making them also emotionally indistinguishable from human beings. In the novel, the droids also tend to be perfect manipulators, such as when Rachael accepts a sexual relationship with Deckard in order to induce him to stop chasing the remaining droids, even going so far as to take revenge in a cruel way in the finale. All this is the simple result of his programming: it is not she who acts, but the Rosen Association that first wants to corrupt Deckard and, subsequently, take revenge on him.

The replicants are quite another thing: the Luciferian Roy Batty (unlike the paper counterpart Roy Baty) is a fallen angel in search of more life: a Prometheus / Oedipus who first kills his father / creator and then, on the verge of death , decides to spare Deckard’s life realizing how precious it is. A completely different character from the giant droid of the novel, who lets himself be fooled with a trivial trick and dies with a gunshot. The Polokov droid of the novel becomes Leon in the film and the same with the droid Luba Luft, opera singer, who in the film becomes the lethal stripper Zohra. The work on the Pris replicant is more complex, to create which the characters of Pris Stratton (an exact copy of Rachel Rosen) and Irmgard Baty (Roy’s wife, absent in the film) were merged.

Despite the notable differences in both plot and philosophical readings between the two works, Philip K. Dick (who died before he could see the final result) was enthusiastic about Scott’s tech-noir project, coming to affirm after a visit to the set that that was no longer science fiction but futurism. Today, after the total re-evaluation of the film and the writer’s entire bibliography, knowing both works is almost a duty if you want to (re) discover how much the same story, told in a different way, can completely change and give life to different interpretations. .

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