Canadian director David Cronenberg is best known to cinephiles for body horror of a particular kind of yuck. Whether it’s a parasitic relationship or a medical kink, his use of practical effects could make any gore-hound squirm. Others are drawn to Cronenberg’s cerebral adaptations of unfilmable literature. The not-too-distant dystopian unrealities of J.G. Ballard and Burroughs were brought to the big screen with Crash and Naked Lunch. Yet David Cronenberg’s amalgamation of technological unrest and quivering gristle may best envision the fictional worlds of sci-fi guru Philip K Dick.
The producers of Alien had been trying to adapt a short story by Phillip K Dick since the 70s. “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” became the basis for Total Recall with David Cronenberg as the first director considered. Spending a year working on 12 different drafts, Cronenberg kept the script as close to Dick’s novel as he could.
Remaining dark and paranoid, he contributed the concept of mutants and his own on-brand yonic imagery. But studio executives were looking for “Raiders of The Lost Ark goes to Mars” — something much different than what he was willing to give. He eventually left the project.
Despite this, the stories of Philip K Dick would always have an influence over David Cronenberg. His pessimistic futures of isolation and counterfeit realities blended well with the director’s affinity for perversions of science. The foundations of Dick’s novels continue to manifest within the films of Cronenberg. Here we examine the similarities between their three most popular novels and films.
Hollywood continues to try and develop a film version of Philip K Dick’s Ubik. David Cronenberg was at one point involved in discussions of an adaptation, even directly contacting the writer’s daughters. Though the director’s idea fell through, themes from the novel remained prevalent in another film. Through a combination of Cronenberg’s scripts for The Sensitives and Telepathy 2000 came the movie Scanners in 1981.
It’s a story of a mentally ill vagrant named Vale, captured by a private military company. They cure him of the voices in his head with their drug Ephemerol and then inform him of his super mind powers. As a “scanner,” he is recruited to stop an underground ring of rogue scanners through infiltration. He then uncovers a plot of mass distributing Ephemerol to pregnant women and mutating the unborn, transforming a new generation of scanners to overthrow the world.
Philip K Dick’s Ubik gave us the same gritty timeline where psychic powers are used for corporate espionage. Another downtrodden protagonist is employed by a company managing “precogs” and cyberpathically securing their clients’ private information from telepathic hackers. A rival organization of psychics engages in guerrilla style combat to eliminate business competition resulting in a liminal plot of time travel.
Between life and half-life, the present or 1939, the characters become trapped Schrodinger cats, doomed to deteriorate without the widely accessible store-bought product, Ubik. Both Scanners and Ubik would broadcast a faint warning of warring corporate entities and their disregard of consumer casualties.
Videodrome/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is an acclaimed 1982 film adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Though an excellent piece of cinema, the 1968 novel contained more complexities than a single film could possibly capture.
David Cronenberg would expand on Philip K Dick’s story beyond android bounty hunters with 1983’s Videodrome. A retro portrait of post-humanism, the movie pokes fun at the idiot box and media identity. A sleazy cable TV president becomes obsessed with a snuff channel broadcast out of Pittsburgh. The addictive signal induces a brain tumor that causes hallucinations. These visuals are recorded and marketed as television programming, all under the guise of a false media prophet, Brian O’Blivion, founder of the Cathode Ray Mission. Existing only within video tape recordings, humans are reprogrammed into an analog hell — LIVE!
Dick’s novel, Electric Sheep, gives us another society of stifling technology mimicking the organic. He literally dictates every human emotion with Penfield Mood Organs and a tech-based religion called Mercerism. It utilizes “empathy boxes” to simultaneously link users to a virtual reality of collective suffering and is centered on a Sisyphean, martyr-like character who eternally climbs up a hill while being hit with crashing stones.
eXistenZe/The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
The David Cronenberg film most referenced in regard to Philip K Dick is 1999’s eXistenZe, a film that takes gaming beyond hobby or addiction and into a complete lifestyle alignment. Popular on the market in eXistenZe are fleshy VR pods that connect on a bio level with consumers. Gamers are surgically fitted with a spinal port that plugs into the console.
Dueling game companies compete for control of the market while fending off an underground movement of “Realists,” domestic terrorists that disapprove of these games distorting reality. A failed assassination on a game-developer’s life has her on the run with the only copy of her latest game creation. To ensure it isn’t corrupted, she plays through with her bodyguard, only to enter a deeper level of virtual reality filled with assassins and spies.
The addiction to escapism reflects Philip K Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a novel about the miserable existence of manual labor where citizens are drafted to colonize other planets. Draftees self-medicate with the illegal drug, Can-D. A hallucinogen allowing a controlled simulation of a Barbie doll figure, “Perky Pat.” Continuing with the element of opposing business giants, a famed bio-modified merchant has discovered a better alternative called “Chew-Z.” Double agents fall through the looking glass into their own hallucinations as the battle of drug patents ensues. Both Cronenberg’s eXistenZe and Dick’s Three Stigmata have ambiguous endings that leave the audience wanting more.
Brandon Cronenberg: Like Father Like Son
David Cronenberg’s son, Brandon, follows in his footsteps as a director and screenplay writer. He also derives inspiration from alternate consciousness and the universes created by Philip K Dick. His debut, Antiviral, takes celebrity worship and his father’s signature “venereal horror” to another plane. Using familiar tropes of misuse of medical technology and quarreling corporate giants, the movie reveals a black market of genetic souvenirs from celebrities. It is reminiscent of Ubik by way of a manufactured afterlife wrapped around the consumer market.
Brandon’s 2020 film Possessor references Dick’s frequent use of imposters and multiple identities. An assassin tale where public persona meets shadow, it shows that all sense of identity is lost in a role. Similar themes arise in Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and The Simulacra.
Long Live The New Flesh
Philip K Dick was afraid of how technology would transform humanity, and that fear aroused something within David Cronenberg. He is the grimy lens of our mind’s eye that shows us a broken society closer than not-too-distant, a world where body horror is loss of autonomy when flesh melds with tech. A world where humans become fake versions of themselves living in fake story lines. Philip K Dick warned that this was going to happen, and David Cronenberg rubs our faces in it.
“There are about a hundred movies that could be made from Dick’s stuff, but I think people are afraid of it still, which is a testament to the power that his work has.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2022.