7/25/12

Philip K Dick: A Minority Report Report

One of the greatest advancements that the Internet brings to civilization is the ability to collaborate.  People can espouse their opinions on a blog or twitter feed and other people will give them immediate feedback.  Another way that collaboration occurs is by taking existing material and mashing it up with new tropes, leading to books like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”  This collaborating and mashing up occurs within a certain culture, often based on previously obscure subgroups, such as the fans of Philip K. Dick.  In fact, part of the concept of anothen Internet concept, The Long Tail, is that online stores (or repositories) can provide “small volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers instead of only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items.”  This allows for widespread cross-pollination of cultural artifacts, which are subsequently paired, revised, and redistributed.  In a way this is an age of revisionism, and what better story to consider in this light than Dick’s “Minority Report”?  As Wikipedia summarizes:
“"The Minority Report" is a 1956 science fiction short story by Philip K. Dick, first published in Fantastic Universe. The story is about a future society where murders are prevented through the efforts of three mutants who can see the future. Paradoxes and alternate realities are created by the precognition of crimes when the chief of police intercepts a precognition that he is about to murder a man he has never met. The story also touches upon the dangers of a powerful post-war military during peacetime. Like many stories dealing with knowledge of future events, "The Minority Report" questions the existence of free will.”
(Note: At this point I will reveal spoilers upon spoilers.  That is, if you consider plot points to be spoilers.  If, on the other hand, you are like the ancient Greeks and place more value in the telling of the story than in the plot, then read on.)
In the 2002 movie “Minority Report [Blu-ray],” Tom Cruise plays Chief of Precrime John Anderton, a man whose son Sean was murdered ten years earlier. As a result, he has separated from his wife, and using Neuroin, an illegal psychoactive drug, to dull the pain of his memories. Since his son’s death he has also thrown himself into his work at Precrime to the exclusion of any other activities. The program has successfully prevented any murders for six years and it’s preparing to go national when the system suddenly predicts that Anderton will kill a stranger called Leo Crow.  Predictably, Anderton goes on the run.  Eventually Anderton meets Crow, but avoids killing him.  Crow then commits suicide in such a way as to throw the suspicion on Anderton. This action makes Anderton to question the validity of the Precrime system.  Investigating the minority report – the dissenting vision of the future as it was produced by the precog Agatha – he discovers that Director Burgess used the existence of minority reports in Precrime to cover up his own involvement in the murder of the Agatha’s mother. When Burgess is exposed he kills himself, Precrime is disbanded, Anderton reunites with his wife and they decide to have a baby. The precogs are released to an undisclosed location where they can live their lives in peace.  It’s a fun, well-made movie.  Max Von Sydow is always a great villain and Tom Cruise shows some depth, avoiding a reprise of one of his “Top Gun” personas.  But the most interesting part of this movie is when you compare it to the original short story.

In the 1956 story by the same name, Precrime Commissioner John A. Anderton is an older man who lives with his younger wife and no children.  He goes on the run when the Precrime system predicts he will commit a murder.  True to the paranoia and shifting reality of PKD, at first Anderton reads the victim’s name as Ed Witwer, his successor.  He suspects that his wife and Witwer are having an affair and are conspiring to frame him for murder to get him out of the picture. Then his wife, also a police officer, confronts him and tells him the true victim: a stranger called Leopold Kaplan.  Anderton goes undercover and learns that the man he is supposed to murder is a retired Army general and a member of a secret organization working to destroy the Precrime program.  The Army wants to end Precrime because it has taken power and funding away from the military, so Kaplan framed Anderton for pre-murder to create a situation where the military can stage a coup.  If Anderton avoids killing Kaplan then that undermines the Precrime system. In order to save Precrime, Anderton kills Kaplan, avoiding all crises except his own personal one.  The government shows leniency and deports him to the space colony Centaurus X (“Centten”).  His decides to accompany him on his interstellar exile.

In Dick’s short story the precogs are mumbling idiot-savants who channel bits of the future.  They are barely functional and are recognized only by their names given to them by the technicians: “Donna”, “Mike” and “Jerry.”  Precrime is a comprehensive system that includes petty crimes such as income tax evasion, assault, extortion as well as cutting “felonies by ninety-nine and decimal point eight percent.” Rather than the brain death in the movie, precriminals are sentenced to detention camps.  Anderton explains that he has been working on the Precrime system for thirty years – so it’s evident he’s not a young man.  The original reason for three precogs was to have a system of checks and balances.
“…the system of three precogs finds its genesis in the computers of the middle decades of this century.  How are the results of an electronic computer checked? By feeding the data to a second computer of identical design. But two computers are not sufficient. If each computer arrived at a different answer it is impossible to tell a priori which is correct. The solution, based on a careful study of statistical methods, is to utilize a third computer to check the results of the first two. In this manner a so-called majority report is obtained.”
Given the same premise, the themes of the short story and the movie could not be more dissimilar.  In the book, Anderton strives to save the status quo, which means he must submit to fate, lose his free will and kill Kaplan as predicted.  After the killing he accepts exile as a punishment.  The movie, however, espouses a more hopeful theme.  When Anderton confronts Burgess with his crimes tells the Director “You know your own future, which means you can change it if you want to.”  At which point Burgess turns the gun away from Anderton and kills himself.  Anderton, who never kills anyone during the course of the movie, reunites with his wife and starts his life over.  In the short story the precogs are merely machines in a system while in the movie they become realized characters with a future (in a shack somewhere in the San Juan Islands, I’d guess from the final shot).  So, how did these two different visions of the same story come to pass?

But wait! Since this is about the “Minority Report”, there’s still another vision: the film script.  In adapting the short story to the film there’s an intermediate step: the film script.  Where the story is thought, and the film is action, the script is the voice that puts the words into the characters.  Where the story is the intent and the movie the result, the script describes the plan for executing the action based on the intent.

No doubt there were multiple revisions of the script before they DreamWorks arrived at a shooting copy, but I will use as my source the one labeled “Aug 15th 1997 rewrite by Jon Cohen.”  This script raises some new ideas that eventually make it into the movie. Instead of just going undercover, as in the book, Cohen comes up with the idea of the eye-scans and the invasive police crabs, forcing Anderson to undergo eye-replacement surgery in a shady motel room.  Unlike both the movie and the story, the script follows some dead-end pathways.  Anderton’s name is changed to Anderson, and his victim isn’t a stranger, but Ed Witwer.  In the script Witwer is the driving force behind the conspiracy to frame Anderson, but the precogs themselves are fighting for their own freedom by providing uncertain futures to both Witwer and Anderson.  The precogs work together to provide evidence of Witwer’s betrayal to Anderson because they want to be free of the Precrime system – it physically pains them.  In this script the precogs have different names: Rose, James, and a third unnamed brother who dies at Witwer’s hand.  In the script the themes deal with questioning the righteousness of an oppressive paternalistic society. In an aside that also comments on the cinematic tendency to frame PKD scripts in terms of film noir, one character mentions that “it’s 2040 and we’ve wrapped ourselves up in the 1950’s like a big security blanket.”

So, what do we have in the end but life imitating art? Three versions of the “Minority Report,” one feeding into another, being altered slightly, and then producing a new result.  Each revision of the narrative becomes its own “Minority Report.”

Coming soon: "Philip K. Dick and The Fractal Nature of Reality"
Read the first part of this essay, "The Revisionism of Philip K Dick."

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The Revisionism of Philip K Dick

"What is wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote."- E.M. Forster

Sometime in the early ‘80s, when “My Sharona” sounded fresh and “big hair” meant a beehive hairdo from the ‘50s, I wrote my practice AP English paper on the topic of false perceptions in Philip K Dick’s novel “A Scanner Darkly.”  I’ll never forget the look on Mr. Collar’s face as he handed back the paper, admitting it was well-written, but not the kind of essay that would get me a good score on the actual test.  The people grading the exams were looking for more literary topics and science fiction just wasn’t literature.

At the time I had discovered PKD only a year earlier with “Dr. Bloodmoney or How We Got Along after the Bomb ,” and nearly every other book I read for the next twelve months was by Dick.  I’d devoured “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” and the Starlog articles about “Blade Runner,” which was still in pre-production, had me jabbering with excitement.  Dick himself was still alive, although he’d die of a stroke a few months before the first movie ever based on his work was released.

There was a certain sad irony to his death because the early 80s were both his best and worst times, his star was simultaneously rising and falling.  The back of his short story collection “The Golden Man” proclaims it as “The first major science fiction book of the 1980’s!” (It was published February, 1980).  “Philip K. Dick may well be the next SF writer to follow Bradbury and Vonnegut in being ‘discovered’ by the mass audience!”  Along with the movie “Blade Runner,” plans were in the works for movies based on “We can remember it for you wholesale” and “The Second Variety” (you may know them as “Total Recall” and “Screamers”).  Yet, according to interviews he had a distrust of many people who admired him, and in the midst of all this still had money problems.  According to the introduction of “Golden Man” in one month in 1977 he made only nine dollars.

Yet, the troubles of the author himself barely registered to me.  I only knew that I had found someone who could take the world, turn it inside out, make me feel for the characters, and then invert everything again, all the while telling a dang good story.  Given that, how could the works of PKD fail to be literature? I had read other science fiction in school: “Brave New World,” “1984”, “Animal Farm”, short stories like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” and Shirley Jackson’s stories “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts” and “The Lottery.”  As we were taught in class these stories had themes, symbolism, and strong characters, and they were worthy of study. As far as my high school intellect could discern, Dick’s works were on par with these stories.  They also had another draw: the suggestion of a shifting reality, a realm where the world could suddenly change our viewpoint, where one illusion was torn away like a wet Kleenex to be replaced with a new illusion of reality.

It’s obvious why a high school kid might be interested in shifting realities: as I graduated I was about to experience a similar shift – moving away from home, going to college, meeting new people.  But those changers are minor from the perspective of 30 years later.  The technological changes the world has undergone are even more massive and amazing: on demand entertainment, the birth and evolution of the home computer from a suitcase-size lump to a palm-top screen, the existence of the Internet, and the development of online virtual communities with the promise of instant communication anywhere on the planet.  Those thirty years have brought quite a few of the tropes of science fiction into reality, and so quickly that the Kleenex is hardly ripped away before there’s a new reality bursting through.

Dick liked to refer to the I Ching, the Book of Changes, quite a bit in his stories.  Perhaps by looking at how the world has changed, and how change came to the work of Philip K Dick we can determine whether it can now be considered literary.
Continue reading with "A Minority Report Report."
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