Books that should be made into movies, but never ever will

We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick

Books that should be made into movies, but never ever will

** We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick**

Summary : A company that makes electronic instruments (something like a cross between a Mini-Moog and a Melotron, based on the description) decides to branch out into animatronics, and for an anniversary of the civil war, decides to produce autonomous androids designed to look and act like Lincoln and his secretary of state. Our protagonist, a salesman for this company, falls in love with the artist hired to build the faces; the artist starts off being represented as a manic pixie dream girl. (She sleeps with him, decides she doesn’t like him much, and disappears; he doesn’t get the hint.) Since these androids are autonomous and trained on the writings of the figures (along with records of their habits), they have no idea that they are robots, and they proceed to act as though they have been transported through time, leading to a plot where the salesman and robo-Lincoln go on a cross-country road trip looking for the robot version of the Secretary of State, during which robo- Lincoln tries and fails to give romantic advice. In the last scene, our protagonist is drunk in a bar with robo-Lincoln, coming to terms with the fact that he was dumped, while robo-Lincoln sinks into a deep depression and becomes essentially catatonic.

Why it should be made : This would make an excellent counterpoint to modern rom-com fare like Scott Pilgrim, in that it does a good job of subverting the manic pixie dream girl progression: an artistic and damaged woman ends up rejecting the protagonist who is obsessed with her, and that result sticks. By having animatronics with just enough AI to be unpredictable, this ties in thematically with the Westworld franchise, which of course has recently been rebooted to some acclaim. Lincoln biopics had a sudden popularity a few years ago, as well. But, the most interesting part about this story is that it doesn’t do what pretty much every other story about AI does: it never bothers to touch upon the idea of whether or not these machines are “really conscious”. The machines are clearly machines, because our protagonist’s friends built them, and the story doesn’t make them out to be particularly advanced or clever; at the same time, they act like people and are therefore treated like people by our protagonists. When robo-Lincoln goes into a deep depression, nobody questions whether or not the depression is “real”, because of course it’s real: he’s so sad that he can barely move. It’s a book that substitutes the turing test for the eliza effect, and succeeds.

Why it will never get made : Hollywood is really fixated on removing the lumps from PKD adaptations. Outside of the original Total Recall & a couple scenes from Minority Report, PKD adaptations basically reach for a streamlined hollywood ideal of what twelve year olds in 1995 would consider a mind-blowing sci-fi movie. This ignores the kind of fuzzy weirdness PKD embraced in his writing, and which characterized much of the draw of We Can Build You. If you took this and removed the lumps, you’d get a really uninteresting result. For proof of this, compare Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the book written immediately before We Can Build You , and one that is in many ways inferior) to its loose adaptation Blade Runner (which, while iconic for its cinematography and sound design, has removed so many lumps that it’s pretty much the closest thing to a science fiction cliche since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis).

** Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem**

Summary : A hardboiled detective story in a strange science fiction universe. In a world where the government supplies citizens with memory-loss drugs, uplifted animals form a servant underclass, and police enforce politeness with social credit chips, a private investigator tries to solve a brutal murder.

Why it should be made : A good adaptation will introduce audiences to the true power of science fiction to play with novel ideas. The plot proper is nothing special: it’s frosting on top of the world-building, but because it’s so cliche, it does a great job of leading readers through this world. A proper adaptation would be visually arresting and weird: uplifted animals retain their usual size but talk and walk on two legs; the same technology is being used on the infants of the wealthy, who develop into perpetually drunken and misanthropic superintelligent infants with oversized heads and a pathological inability to avoid making puns. Imagine if Jupiter Rising was actually twice as smart as it thought it was instead of half as smart, and you’re imagining a Gun With Occasional Music adaptation.

Why it will never be made : It’s unclassifiable. The only way we’d ever see this done justice is if Terry Gilliam or Don Coscarelli directed it; even then, with or without producer intervention, it’s an even bet whether this would end up being great (a la Brazil) or a top-heavy flop (a la Jupiter Rising). A lesser director would be tempted to try to play it straight and tone down the lumps. Unlike with We Can Build You , where the lumps are few and big and integral to the plot, Gun With Occasional Music has a million tiny lumps and an easily separable plot proper, but the only reason to bother with it is the lumps.

** Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson**

Summary : In an anarchocapitalist future where nation states have been replaced with franchises, a cable magnate tries to reintroduce an alien mind- virus to a swarm of refugees, and a master-swordsman journalist races against time to prevent a whale-riding knife-wielding sociopath from distributing it all throughout virtual reality.

Why it should be made : Snow Crash mixes big ideas with the most interesting excesses of VHS-trash spectacle. A proper adaptation would do for the 90s what Quentin Tarantino did for the 70s.

Why it will never be made : Snow Crash deals heavily in exploring weird political and racial dynamics, often explicitly. It uses the conflation of nationality with franchise preference to compare and contrast ethnic identity with branding. To do this, it engages in and plays with racial stereotypes. This is hard to do well, and risky even when it is; movie audiences will pretty much always contain somebody who takes things at face value, and with so much else going on, we’d probably see the same kind of missed-the-point fandom around a Snow Crash movie as we do around Scarface, Fight Club, Watchmen, Goodfellas, and Robocop.

By John Ohno on November 2, 2016.

[Canonical link]( movies-but-never-ever-will-5b86506b29ff)

Exported from Medium on September 18, 2020.

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