Philip K. Dick presents an interesting challenge for studying adaptation. While several popular films have been based on his short-stories and novels (SF touchstone Blade Runner, Schwarzenegger classic Total Recall, Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly), it often seems as if these films and the literature they’re adapted from exist in totally different universes. Darkly paranoiac, sparsely detailed, and rife with high concept, Dick’s work would, at first, seem to resist easy adaptation. And this is confirmed by Brian J. Robb in his book of essays, Counterfeit Worlds: Philip K. Dick on screen, as he maps out the difficult (notoriously so, in Scott’s Blade Runner’s case) paths film teams had to take in order to create the few Dick adaptations there are.
When Steven Spielberg set out to make “The Minority Report” into a Hollywood blockbuster, one of the first things he did was enlist several scientists, architects, and authors who could create a plausible future setting for the film – imagining the innovations of an almost-familiar world of tomorrow that resisted any high science fiction utopia/dystopias common to the genre. This struck me as remarkably similar to Ridley Scott’s labeling of Syd Mead as “Visual Futurist” during the production of Blade Runner, as if these designers are really prophetic seers, helping the movies capture some “true” future look. It’s a very Dickian move. And indeed, I would argue that most Dick adaptations are indebted to Scott’s film as a visual/thematic template; even though nearly all of Dick’s stories that have been adapted are scifi police procedurals, it’s interesting that each subsequent film adds a similar undercurrent of cyberpunk grit and body-mod culture, confirming, or perhaps establishing, Blade Runner as the model Dick adaptation.
Illicit eye surgeries and shady under-cities notwithstanding, Spielberg’s Minority Report largely sanitizes Dick’s tale, making Tom Cruise’s Anderton into a familiar character-type, the attractive cop anti-hero with a dark history. Anderton’s broken family and his hard-drinking align him with Rick Deckard, and the film noir detectives of Hollywood’s past; gone is the self-serving bureaucrat protagonist of Dick’s tale, who, in many ways, shares more similarities with the film’s villain, Director Burgess. Spielberg also excises Dick’s pessimistic ending, with preservation of Pre-Crime leading to Anderton’s planetary exile, and the pre-cogs continual exploitation instead transformed into Anderton’s clearing of his name and reintegration of his family, with the liberated pre-cogs as apparently adopted children. We can contrast this with Dick’s works, which clearly establish a strict human hierarchy, with his chicken-heads and “deformed and retarded” pre-cogs inhabiting a kind of gene ghetto, from which there is no escape or redemption. Spielberg’s pre-cogs are missing children sensitives; the film’s ending shows them living a life free from a system that abuses their powers, but Dick does not grant his “idiots” such respite. A large portion of Dick’s work exhibits this same kind of disabled prejudice, with little apparent criticism of a future built upon the backs of indentured neurodiversity (but, I suppose Disability Studies and concepts like neruodiversity were not concerns of Dick’s time.)
I want to focus mainly on the pre-cogs and the definition of “minority report”, as this seems to provide the most interesting example of difference between the two texts. In Dick, the pre-cogs are described as “vegetable-like”, with “enlarged heads and wasted bodies” who lack the ability to speak or move but generate, with the help of a machine, flashcards with prophetic details written on them. Anderton explains that most of their information is useless, but all federal agencies have a set of predictive “monkeys” (named so for seeing, hearing, and speaking no evil). The Minority Report, it is revealed, is not a single dissenting prophesy, but is instead a kind of infinite regress, with each “prediction” altering the timeline, and thus creating a new prediction from the next pre-cog. So, the more pre-cogs there are, the more versions of the future there will be, as each pre-cog is changing the course of history, and thus, nothing is really “pre-determined”, but the future is instead, in a way, adapted from each previous prediction. Anderton ultimately commits the crime he was first predicted to in order to protect this secret, as he feels the benefit provided by Pre-Crime outweighs the potential evils of it. In the film, the Minority Report is generated by the stronger psychic, named Agatha (for Agatha Christie) and is a possible alternate future different from the future predicted by the other two pre-cogs. Not every situation generates a Minority Report, and the pre-cogs visions, which are in fact displayed by video screens as indistinct visual images that must be made sense of by Anderton, are only related to murderous crimes (something about murder as creating psychic backlash that can be picked up by sensitives). It is eventually revealed that the entire Pre-Crime unit came about through an accidental discovery during a research project by a benevolent scientist that is quickly corrupted by a militaristic police force – reinforcing a theme of science unbound as harmful in the wrong hands. Anderton makes it his additional mission to free the pre-cogs, who are not mentally or physically disabled at all, and look relatively normal once removed from their oppressive prison.
Contrast this image from the book cover, with the pre-cogs as dis-enlimbed chess pieces (literal cogs) with this image of the hairless young “sensitive” girl, Agatha (looking like Charles Xavier from X-Men), from the film.
The nature of precognitive power in the Minority Reports is most clearly reflected by the medium that it’s in. In Dick, the predictions are text-based. They are largely useless, but every now and then a flashcard displays useful text that is neither ambiguous nor “false”, as every pre-cog is predicting an alternate but possible future on account of the previous predictions. In Spielberg, the predictions are literally visions, but it falls on the observer to interpret the video images, with questions over correct interpretation becoming a major conflict of the film. The Minority Reports are rare, but they are repressed by the agency and hidden, even from Anderton, creating a ranked Gaze, an echelon of who is allowed to see and who isn’t (eyes being an important theme in this movie as well; another call-back to Scott?). This hierarchical Gaze is ultimately undone by the film’s conclusion, instating a happy, or Hollywood, ending. In my experience, Dick rarely writes a happy ending. Does the nature of Hollywood necessitate a happy ending, even at the sake of unfaithfulness to a source, or impracticality to a story (Cruise’s Anderton does still appear to commit murder, but is completely let off the hook!)? Robb reports Spielberg as saying that his movie isn’t a “true adaptation”, and indeed it seems that Dick is often changed in similar ways by the movies that are based off his work, but is there a point when we can definitely say that something like Minority Report absolutely isn’t an adaptation? That maybe the Dick film adaptations adapt more from themselves then from their source works?