In this corner: the Book. A collection of words that represent ideas when filtered through the lexical systems in a human brain. From clay tablets to bound collections of wood pulp to units of stored data, the book has been around in one format or another for some 3,800 years.
Book vs. Movie vs. Movie: Total Recall
By Russ Bickerstaff
August 7, 2012
And in this corner: the Movie. A 112-year-old kid born in France to a guy named Lumiere and raised primarily in Hollywood by his uncle Charlie "the Tramp" Chaplin. This young upstart has quickly made a huge impact on society, rapidly becoming the most financially lucrative form of storytelling in the modern world.
Both square off in the ring again as Box Office Prophets presents another round of Book vs. Movie.
In April of 1966, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction published a compelling little piece of sci-fi by author Philip K. Dick. We Can Remember It for You Wholesale featured the twisted, existential funhouse of implanted memories in a brief, highly readable package. The short story was nominated for a Nebula award. Perhaps it was the Nebula award that managed to attract some attention from Hollywood some years later. In the early 1980s, there were rumors that Disney Studios was going to option Total Recall - a script that had been adapted from the story. After languishing for several years, the property was finally picked-up in the late '80s and turned into a big-budget early '90s Arnold Schwarzenegger film directed by Paul Verhoeven. In spite of its many flaws, that film went on to become a sci-fi classic that has now been remade into a second big-budget motion picture. How does the original 1966 story compare with the two movies that have been loosely based on it?
The Short Story
Over the course of the early 1960s, Dick went from being an author of short stories in obscure sci-fi magazines to an author of some acclaim in the genre. His 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle won him a Nebula Award. In addition to regular novels, Dick continued to write short stories. Not having to kick out quite as many as he had early on in his career to make ends meet, his short stories ended up being a bit more novel - a bit less typical of other work in the genre. Not that Dick's work was ever as weak and derivative of much of what was being published at the time, but his short stories in the latter half of the '60s showed a spark of originality that his earlier stuff didn't. We Can Remember It for You Wholesale was one such story.
The premise had a future man named Douglas Quail waking up from dreams of going to Mars. Evidently working as a clerk for a government immigration office, he could never afford the trip, but he'd always wanted to go there, so he went to a place that made a business out of neurologically implanting memories of exotic vacations. They offered Quail the opportunity to remember working as a secret agent on the Martian colonies. Though the memories never actually happened, he would think that they did. And he would be given souvenirs to prove that he'd been there.
Of course, things got a little mixed-up when they actually went to implant the memories. Evidently Quail had, in fact, been a secret agent who took a secret mission to Mars to assassinate a rather important political figure there. Now his cover had been blown. The government didn't want him remembering what he'd done and now they had to kill him. A chase ensued that resulted in negotiations between him and the agency - he would agree to have more desirable memories planted in his mind - memories of being something of an intergalactic Don Juan having sex with various things all over the galaxy - and in exchange for willingly having these memories implanted in his mind to erase the very real ones he'd had of being on Mars as a secret agent, the agency wouldn't kill him.
The punchline for the story is remarkably clever. The memory implant company is searching Quail's brain for fantasies that would be strong enough to override Quail's subconscious desire to go back to Mars. It had been that longing for Mars that had triggered the dreams of Mars in the first place. If they merely wiped out the memories he already had, those dreams would return and he'd go straight back to the memory implant business and the whole headache would start all over again. Thus, they had to find fantasies strong enough to override those desires to go back to Mars.
They found them in the form of a childhood fantasy that has mid-'60s overtones of a Dick version of E.T. Quail's childhood fantasy is running across tiny aliens that had come to take over the Earth. His boyhood fantasy is that he shows them kindness and they agree to spare the earth because it is home to such a remarkable boy. So long as he is alive, they will not invade the earth. It's kind of a twisted childhood fantasy, but it's a very powerful one, so they agree to use it. They go to implant the childhood fantasy, only to discover that it is actually a repressed memory of childhood. He actually did save the world from alien invasion as a child, and the alien race that spared the earth because of him caused him to forget those memories. It’s kind of a cute ending to a story that toys with reality a bit more than the initial premise. It's a clever funhouse of a story, and it’s not hard to see why it got nominated for a Nebula.
The Original Movie
The long and torturous process of working on the screenplay for this film has been relatively well-documented. The film hard spent the better part of a decade in development hell. It passed through a lot of different creative hands in those times. Legendary filmmaker David Cronenberg went on record as saying the producer Ronald Shusett had told him that a version of the script he had been working on looked too much like the short story. When Cronenberg told him that he was under the impression that they were doing an adaptation, Shusett told Cronenberg that he wanted "Raiders of the Lost Ark on Mars."
The final screenplay was credited to Shusett, Dan O'Bannon (with whom he'd worked on Alien) and Gary Goldman (who also wrote Big Trouble in Little China.) The film opens more or less in a kind of sync with the original story and mutates gradually from there based on little plot elements that get implanted into the narrative pretty early.
We see the Martian landscape of the main character’s dreams transform into a nightmare for some reason. Also, his name is Quaid in the movie rather than the Quail of the short story. Quail wakes up in bed with Sharon Stone. This is perfectly okay and nothing to be ashamed of, because he is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Once again we have a bureaucratic Philip K. Dick hero played by an overly masculine Hollywood star, but this is only the second time that's ever happened as of 1990, so it's still a novelty. There's an establishing conversation between the mesomorphic Quaid and his beautiful wife as they talk about how he would like to go to Mars. She's concerned with his obsession with the red planet. He heads off to work and sees the commercial for the memory implanting company. He's interested in the idea of going to them to go have memories implanted. Quaid brings the subject up with a co-worker, who warns him against it. In appreciation of the male lead’s physical prowess, we see him working with a jackhammer in a rock quarry rather than a menial office job. After work he goes to get some more information about the procedure.
It is at the office where we are first treated to a late '80s idea of what a Philip K. Dick-style future office would look like. Rather than a secretary with "melon-shaped breasts" that can be spray painted different colors based on fashion, the receptionist is using a stylus to change the color of her fingernails as though they were in Photoshop. It’s kind of cute. The office computers are predictably huge for sci-fi of this era. Weird elements of a late '80s conception of the future aside, the film proceeds more or less the same way as was outlined in the story from here. The initial consultation with the memory salesman is fun and it would be a lot more satisfying if Schwarzenegger had anything more than the most primitive and rudimentary acting skills. The wholly incompetent screen actor mugs his way along the best he can, but the subtle end of the dialogue is completely lost.
As in the story, the memory implant doesn't take because of pre-existing memories that had been wiped-out earlier. Things get weird from there, but they take a completely different tack than they had in the story. Admittedly, if they were to be as true to the original story from there on in as they had been up until this point, the film would be over in a half an hour or so, but the direction that the plot takes from there is pretty typical direction of an action film. It’s a simple, formulaic premise that never manages to capture the twisted existential wonder of the story.
Total Recall briefly picks-up on some element of the existential ambiguity towards the end as it is uncertain whether the bulk of the film is him having the adventure or merely the scenario implanted at the memory office. The ambiguity is fun, but it's not carried out perfectly and it's really only a minor side light . There’s a nod to some of some of the surreal questions about truth and reality that fit prominently into Dick's work without actually getting into it in any kind of substantial way. About 75% of the film is stupid action; the other 25% is a fairly faithful adaptation of some of the themes found in the short story. More than anything, Total Recall is another Schwarzenegger sci-fi action vehicle.
The New Movie
Rumors had been circulating on a remake of the 1990 action film. A slightly bizarre rumor had it that Schwarzenegger had expressed interest in starring in the remake. It was announced fairly early on by eventual star Colin Farrell that the film would not be "the same" as the original short story.
And indeed it is not. The story is credited to four people (including the original writing team) with another two getting credit for the screenplay. The new script saddles the premise with a heavy back story, including World War III and a massive gravity elevator that passes through the core of the Earth. The film opens by revealing some of the back story in terse, small text over the image of the Earth. Life is crammed together in tiny little space. And rather than awakening from an idyllic dream of Mars, Farrell's version of Quaid awakens from rather violent dreams involving him trying to defend himself and Jessica Biel from some kind of an attack.
That first conversation between Quaid, (here a factory worker) and his wife (Kate Beckinsale) has a bit more weight to it than that found in the original film because Farrell is actually a decent actor. The production design of the film is respectably run-down without being dazzlingly shadowy. There's a definite nod to work done on genre classics like Blade Runner, but the grungy, multicultural metropolitan decay doesn't come as much of a revelation here and it adds little to the overall premise. Tired of monotonous life in the decay, Quaid is persuaded to try memory implants of something sexy - memories of being a secret agent. Quaid is tested for compatibility with the system, but fails. He is accused of being an actual secret agent - something he does not remember. He returns home. His wife attacks him and the chase is on.
From there, the film takes the kind of path that the original film did, only without the whole business of Mars and all of the silliness that took place there. This aspect of the film is a bit more true to the original story, but it's the only aspect that draws it any closer to that story than the original film.
The remake preserves the tricked out, "is this real or is it an implanted memory," thing that was going on in the original film, but the central drama here is one of a man on the run. The problem with this film, as with the previous one, is the fact that the action slows down the central appeal of the story rather than playing with it as it could.
It's refreshing to see decent acting in an action film again, especially when the film focuses on it as much as this one does. Director Len Wiseman does a really good job of blending that drama with the action (far better than Verhoeven did with the original.) The problem is, without a script that embraces the themes that make the story so interesting, it's just another competent blockbuster. It lacks the spark of originality that saw it nominated for a Nebula award. It's a competent sci-fi action film, but that's not enough to make this a terribly memorable film. And in a summer like this one, that may not even be enough to see this film breaking even at the box office.
While far from his best work, Dick's We Can Remember It For You Wholesale is a fun twisting of reality dealing with repressed and artificially implanted memories that was fresh and novel enough when it was written to get it published in one of the most prestigious anthologies in the genre and subsequently gain quite a bit of critical acclaim. Borrowing a few elements of that story, the 1990 film Total Recall took those elements and added them into a Schwarzenegger sci-fi action blockbuster that had a bit of cerebral punch to it. Lacking the kind of novelty that the original film had in 1990, the action remake with a vague interest in the nature of reality lacks enough appeal to be all that resonant in 2012. The truly weird thing here is that 2012's Total Recall is actually a much better film than the original. It just happened to come along a couple of decades too late.