Roberto Bolaño, a writer who cultivated his own tangled style, was a fan of Phillip K. Dick, writing that he was “Thoreau plus the death of the American Dream.” I don’t know what the fuck that means, and I bet Bolaño didn’t either, trusting a jingle like that to be catchy enough to find its own meaning somewhere down the line. But it illustrates how flexible Dick’s themes are, so much so that an ambiguous comparison between a New England naturalist-philosopher and a transplanted southern Californian psychonaut just works. That malleability is why Dick’s writing is some of the most widely adapted science fiction. Like Thoreau’s body of work, you can find almost anything you want in PKD’s stories, picking and choosing themes or ideas or images that you like while ignoring the rest, articulating your own concerns with a language provided by Philip K. Dick.
All the movie adaptations of Dick’s work reconfigure his stories into a new context (a very Dickian thing to do), but John Woo’s Paycheck (2003) is the textbook example. It’s a goofy-as-hell movie based on “Paycheck”, a short story published in the June 1953 issue of the seriously pulpy Imagination. Where PKD’s story deals with the existential dilemma of Lockean consciousness and the problem of personal continuity in the context of cultural amnesia, John Woo has made a movie about some Bostonian lunkhead punching and shooting his way across a post-9/11 landscape. Also, I suspect that John Woo has heard about your “John Woo drinking games,” and is enacting his revenge by making a movie that will give you alcohol poisoning.
Broadly, both the story and the movie deal with the adventures of Jennings, a man suffering voluntary memory loss in order to make a living. In the story, Jennings is simply an engineer, one of many technicians hired by Rethrick Construction, whose non-disclosure agreements mirror Apple’s in that they burn out parts of your brain so you can’t remember what work you did for them. In the movie, Michael Jennings is a REVERSE engineer, hired by companies to pull apart competitor’s hardware so that they can build their own versions. Why they get Paul Giamatti to come in and wipe Ben Affleck’s memory is a mystery, since presumably his illegal activity on their behalf would ensure his silence. Maybe everyone he’s worked with is just tired of having to hear about Crossfit or the Red Sox, and they cook his brain so he won’t recognize them at parties.
The movie engages in some expository nonsense to let you know that Affleck is good-looking, technically proficient, and has perfected a workout routine that focuses heavily on whomping things with a stick while Paul Giamatti times him. The memory loss must make it difficult for him to update his CV, so it’s lucky for Jennings that his ol’ school chum James Rethrick (played by Aaron Eckhart’s chin) wants to give him a job. However, rather than just a month or three of memory loss, this job would, at the end, result in a three year gap. Movie Jennings agrees, and gets the grand tour of Rethrick’s Allcom campus, where he meets the Queen of Air and Darkness (Uma Thurman), a biologist that, for some reason, has aquaculture tanks and a wind machine that she uses to engage in flirty hijinks with poor meatheaded Jennings. He agrees to the job anyway, and WHAMMO, it’s three years later, which is where the movie catches up to the beginning of PKD’s story.
Both Story-Jennings and Movie-Jennings are venal, acquisitive assholes, which is why both are dumbfounded when, following their years-long memory wipe, they find out that their past selves waived their fabulous fee in favor of an envelope of junk. In the story, this is a collection of seven mundane items, including a parcel receipt from two days in the future. In the movie, the confusing nature of the assembled objects is conveyed via a subtle visual mechanism, whereby Jennings lines the crap up to look like a big ol’ question mark. Because, you see, Jennings doesn’t know why his past-self gave his present-self all this stuff; he is “questioning” why he did this. Get it?
After some serendipitous escapes using the objects, however, Jennings realizes the truth; somehow, his past-self had seen the future while working for Rethrick, and apparently found something more important than the money in doing so. Armed only with the objects and the confidence that this past-self knew what he was doing, Jennings has to wrestle his way through the world, trying to figure out what his past-self wants him to do. In the movie, this involves fighting an evil corporation that would abuse the powers of a Magic Time Window to bring about WWIII. In the story, Jennings wants to blackmail Rethrick into letting him join the company as a well-paid executive with, presumably, access to the company car on weekends and a solid dental plan. Rethrick ALSO has a Time Scoop in the story, which is like those claw game things at the super market, except this one violates causality.
From here, the movie and the story diverge dramatically, and not just because PKD forgot to add in all the tense mutual-gun-in-the-face-standoff scenes that John Woo lovingly crafted. (As an aside, I think John Woo and Tom Stoppard should collaborate on a play where everyone, at all times, point guns at each other’s faces while slowly circling around, trading tough-guy talk for two-and-a-half hours. The NRA would back the shit out of a play like that, and they would make twenty million dollars.)
The story “Paycheck” focuses on how we are different people from our past-selves, in Jennings’s case literally since his past-self has been erased from him, leaving him incapable of interrogating his own motives. Story-Jennings operates in a milieu where a tyrannical government and huge corporations are duking it out over control of the world. Part of his motivation of blackmailing his way into the upper echelons of Rethrick Construction is for the protection afforded to the cogs of a Corporate Person, rights largely taken from private citizens. Story Jennings, identifying his past-self as a separate person so much that he refers to him as in the third person, comes to trust him (and himself) completely.
The movie doesn’t really interrogate this idea much, relying on an external moral enforcer (stopping WWIII) in order to motivate the action. Of course, Eckhart’s Rethrick is such an over-the-top, smarmy, tailored-suit-wearing villain that it’s hard to blame him; obviously he’s up to no good, and must be stopped. Additionally, the government in the movie is more benign, simply (and rightfully) suspicious of Rethrick and Allcom, a definite change from PKD’s original McCarthy-era vision. The movie also has the additional context of preemptive war to play with – the time window provides all the excuses needed for the whole world to pretty much go to war immediately. Unfortunately, this is a John Woo action movie, which means that all that stuff gets only the briefest nod before getting back to chase scenes, gunplay, and slow-motion doves.
The story, pulpy as it is, frames a meditative exploration of identify in Dick’s trademark noirish urban sci-fi. Story-Jennings is much more of an ambiguous character, a little guy just trying to get along in a world of Multinational Corporations and Fascist Government. Movie-Jennings is a man motived by a need for revenge that folds comfortably into a moral responsibility to right a wrong that he himself inadvertently made happen. It just so happens that, in a John Woo movie, the best way to do that is to kick the shit out of a bunch of faceless goons for ninety minutes.