Your complete guide to the films of Philip K. Dick

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:31 PM EST

Have you seen the trailer for The Adjustment Bureau yet (it's below)? That's the one starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt as two people—a candidate for the U.S. Senate and a ballerina—who meet, fall in love and run smack into a mysterious organization that controls the flow of history. Looks pretty trippy, right? Almost like a story by late science fiction legend Philip K. Dick. Well, that's because The Adjustment Bureau, which comes out Sept. 17, is loosely based on a Dick story called "Adjustment Team," although it seems little of his original story remains.

The works of the enigmatic and eccentric Dick—who died in 1982 at the age of 53, leaving behind 44 novels and more than 120 short stories—are collectively the gift that keeps on giving to Hollywood. Eight feature films have been adapted from Dick's novels or stories in the past 28 years; three of those have been hits, and one is now considered a cinematic classic. Yet most of the time Dick's name is not even used to promote the films—probably because, for the most part, mainstream audiences don't know who the guy is.

Dick has not always fared well on the screen, either. His stories often deal with dense metaphysical and sociological ideas that don't always translate into big-budget crowd-pleasers. So it really becomes about whether the movies can capture the flavor of the man's writing—arguably a harder task. With The Adjustment Bureau just a few months away and even more Dick adaptations in the works, here's a quick look at his movie scorecard so far. (We've left out TV adaptations and minor films, as well as movies in development.)

Blade Runner (1982)

Based on: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (novel)

Filmmakers: Ridley Scott (director), Hampton Fancher, David Webb Peoples (screenwriters)

Cast: Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Edward James Olmos

Synopsis: Bounty hunter Rick Deckard (Ford) must track down and kill six androids who want to outlive their expiration date. He begins to question everyone's humanity—including perhaps his own.

Does it work?: The first and still the best of the movies adapted from Dick's work is hugely influential in its own right, embodying many of Dick's themes. The Chicago Reader called it "the most remarkably and densely imagined and visualized SF film since 2001: A Space Odyssey," while the BBC simply declared it "one of the most extraordinary films ever made." Scott tinkered with the movie years later, getting rid of Ford's voice-over and revising parts of the story to make it even more ambiguous and closer to Dick's original idea. (And, yes, Deckard's a replicant.)

Total Recall (1990)

Based on: "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" (novelette)

Filmmakers: Paul Verhoeven (director), Ronald Shusett, Dan O'Bannon, Gary Goldman (screenwriters)

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Rachel Ticotin

Synopsis: Mild-mannered construction worker Quaid (Schwarzenegger) learns through the discovery of hidden memories that he is actually an undercover agent on the lam from Mars. Or is he?

Does it work?: Dick's story was turned into a high-octane action spectacular for star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Surprisingly, the core idea—which of our memories are real and which are not?—survives the transition and gives the movie a "Dickian" flavor in spots. The New York Times called it "a vigorous, superviolent interplanetary thriller," although the Washington Post wasn't happy with the movie's violence, saying, "The overall effect is like wading through hospital waste."

Screamers (1995)

Based on: "Second Variety" (short story)

Filmmakers: Christian Duguay (director), Dan O'Bannon, Miguel Tejada-Flores (screenwriters)

Cast: Peter Weller, Roy Dupuis, Jennifer Rubin

Synopsis: At a mining colony on another planet devastated by war between the miners and the corporation they work for, robotic killing machines called "screamers" are introduced to screw up management-worker relations even more.

Does it work?: We still think Screamers is an effective post-apocalyptic thriller with a nasty central menace. The setting, the characters and many aspects of the plot are all altered from the short story, but since the original material itself was pretty straightforward for Dick, it makes for a cool little sci-fi/horror B movie. USA Today disagreed, however, calling it a "pile of recycled space junk."

Minority Report (2002)

Based on: "The Minority Report" (short story)

Filmmakers: Steven Spielberg (director), Scott Frank, Jon Cohen (screenwriters)

Cast: Tom Cruise, Samantha Morton, Colin Farrell, Max von Sydow

Synopsis: An experimental police force called Precrime uses three human mutants with powers of precognition to stop murders before they occur. But when they predict that Precrime head Anderton (Cruise) will kill someone himself, suddenly Anderton doesn't like his job so much.

Does it work?: Spielberg and Cruise expand Dick's original short story, changing much of the plot and adding more action (Dick's protagonist, Anderton, doesn't exactly look like Cruise either—think 50ish and balding). Still, the result is one of the better sci-fi films of the '00s, except for Spielberg's patented "keep the movie going 15 minutes after the story ends" routine. Empire magazine noted the movie's third-act problems, too, but still called it "hugely ambitious and wildly successful," and it scored some of the best reviews of Spielberg's career, earning a "92 percent fresh" score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Impostor (2002)

Based on: "Impostor" (short story)

Filmmakers: Gary Fleder (director), Caroline Case, Ehren Kruger, David Twohy (screenwriters)

Cast: Gary Sinise, Madeleine Stowe, Vincent D'Onofrio

Synopsis: Spencer Oldham (Sinise) must prove he's not an android replicant sent by aliens to destroy Earth, although he's not exactly sure whether he is or not.

Does it work?: Sort of a low rent Blade Runner, the movie was originally supposed to be a 40-minute segment in a larger anthology. It suffers from being stretched to feature length, adding an endless chase that's nowhere to be found in the published story. The Hollywood Reporter didn't mind it, but added that it was "nowhere in the league of such Dick-inspired films as Total Recall and Blade Runner."

Paycheck (2003)

Based on: "Paycheck" (short story)

Filmmakers: John Woo (director), Dean Georgaris (screenwriter)

Cast: Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, Uma Thurman

Synopsis: Michael Jennings (Affleck) finds his memory wiped after working on a three-year secret project and has only a handful of objects to help him find out what happened.

Does it work?: Another Dick short story is puffed up to feature length with disastrous results, although the central plot is relatively true to the short story. Mindless, uninspired action ensues, which is even more surprising considering it was directed by Hong Kong great Woo. Critics were especially hard on Affleck, while the Sacramento News & Review noted that it was "hard to imagine Dick ever writing anything as empty as this."

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Based on: A Scanner Darkly (novel)

Filmmakers: Richard Linklater (director and screenwriter)

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson

Synopsis: Undercover agent Bob Arctor (Reeves) questions reality and his own identity as drug abuse, paranoia and surveillance run rampant in a near-future U.S. that's become a police state.

Does it work?: Director Richard Linklater shot this movie with live actors and then rotoscoped animation over it, giving it an otherworldly feel that's perfect for Dick's award-winning story. This is perhaps the most faithful of all the movies made from Dick's works. Critics responded pretty generously, calling it "the first film to capture the author's transience and his art" (Houston Chronicle) and a "joyful wedding of medium and message" (Arizona Republic). Entertainment Weekly, however, called it "maddening to sit through."

Next (2007)

Based on: "The Golden Man" (short story)

Filmmakers: Lee Tamahori (director), Gary Goldman Jonathan Hensleigh, Paul Bernbaum (screenwriters)

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Jessica Biel, Julianne Moore

Synopsis: Cris Johnson (Cage) is pursued by a Homeland Security agent (Moore) who wants to use his ability to see into the future to stop a nuclear terrorist attack.

Does it work?: Sadly, we end with one of the shabbiest adaptations, riddled with drastic differences from the short story. The "golden man" of the original tale is a unique, truly unsettling new kind of mutant, while the character here is portrayed by Cage in a bad haircut and a worse performance. While a few critics enjoyed it (it does have a 29 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so somebody out there liked it), most said "Next," with The New York Times sniping, "It's too bad that Mr. Cage couldn't tap into those powers to save himself from another bad choice in roles."

Which is your favorite? OK, Blade Runner. Which is your next favorite?

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