I have had an inkling for a while to make this a thing. There are two things I love in life: books and movies. Actually, there are a lot of things I love in life, but those two are really high up on the list. I’m especially fond of considering the translation of books into movies, and now that I have a public platform I can stop bothering my friends with this all the time.
So, to begin, we’ll throw in a third thing I love: dystopia. Thus we have our discussion of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?/Blade Runner. It recently occurred to me that I had never read Philip K. Dick’s book, which is reason enough for me to read most things. Coincidentally, just as I finished the volume the theater near my apartment started a classic sci-fi series with the opening film being Blade Runner and a discussion following the film. It was an electric dream come true!
I know that you can never get everything in the book into the movie, but I was surprised to find in the first paragraph that book Deckard has a wife. Unfortunately, she is inextricably linked to some other very big ideas that had to be omitted, like Mercerism, the religious treatment of empathy, and all the real animals. Though I understand their exclusion, it is a shame nonetheless. The religious aspects of the people left on Earth were fascinating. Empathy is the only thing that separates humans from androids and empathy, through Mercerism, is the only thing that most people have to get them through the day. The androids of the film seem to have genuine affection for each other and Roy shows Deckard mercy in his final living act, but the androids of the book are clearly lacking in this most human experience. Reading along as a book android methodically snipped the legs off a living spider to see if it could still walk with four was bad enough, I can’t imagine how John Isidore felt. Especially given the reverence of life and the importance of taking care of living animals that is present in the book.
The other, most noticeable (or troubling), difference between the book and the film is the treatment of the female android characters. In the book the character of Rachel comes to terms, more or less, with the fact she is an android and subsequently she seduces Deckard at the behest of the Rosen Association to take advantage of his empathy and undermine his ability to hunt androids. She even admits to doing it a number of times before. She has a clear control over her sexual agency and uses it to her advantage. This is especially damning for Deckard because it is stated numerous times that is illegal for humans to have sex with androids. And then there is the film…
Even before I read the book, there was always something very wrong about the scene the hallway when Rachel tries to leave Deckard’s apartment. It always seemed very rape-y to me. She has no power in that scene and no other recourse. She is just an android. Who would care if she claimed to have been raped? If anything, they may just kill her, considering she was added to Deckard’s to-do list. All she can do is obey Deckard and I guess try to make the best of it. And it’s not just Rachel. As Deckard is reviewing the stats on the androids he must retire one of the female andys is described as a “standard pleasure model for the troops”. It is almost a throw away line in the film, but it was a very clear and intentional change from the book where the female androids had a sense of personal agency. I find it troubling that that decision seemed like a good idea. If only because it was a much more interesting world where women, even synthetic women, had the forethought and ability to use their sexual prowess to achieve personal goals.
All in all, I think I like the book more. The events of the book take place approximately in the span of one day, but both the film and the book share a similar, weary and contemplative tone and pace. The book just gets to take the time to work through the ideas at the heart of the story: empathy, what it means to be human, etc. Though I suppose that isn’t surprising. And to answer the ultimate question about this story, I don’t think the book androids dream of electric sheep, but the film androids might. Or maybe a unicorn.