Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Blade Runner, a Movie

William S. Burroughs Blade Runner, a Movie (1979)
When Ridley Scott made a film based on certain plot details of Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? there was a problem with the title, which Ridley believed would mislead members of the public into believing they were watching a film about robotic shepherds on the space farms of the future. He felt it didn't seem sufficiently exciting to sell the tale of a man who catches naughty robots from space in the future only to discover that robots have feelings too. Ridley had just been to see The Great Gatsby, and was discussing it with a film man who told him that the name had come from a famous book. This seemed very clever, Ridley decided, and so gave his project a title chosen by this ingenious method of giving something a name. It was to be The Grapes of Wrath. Unfortunately the problem with this new title was, so Ridley realised, that it would mislead members of the public into assuming they were watching a film about genetic mutants with giant grape-crushing robo-feet in the space vineyards of the future. The name was changed again to The Caves of Steel, and then The Time Machine before finally settling on Robots Have Feelings Too; which is how it all came to be.

I had assumed this slim volume to be the source of the title, but oddly it turns out to be a film treatment written by Burroughs and based on a 1974 novel of the same name by Alan E. Nourse, and from what I gather of the original version, there's neither connection nor even any theme in common with Han Solo punching women to the romantic sounds of a distant saxophone before realising that robots are sort of like people when you really think about it. I'm not sure I've ever read a film treatment before, so I couldn't say whether this is typical of its kind, although I suspect possibly not because it's certainly typical Burroughs. It's more or less as though one of his novels has been forced to keep going in a straight line for a hundred or so pages, with dystopian material from The Blade Runner intercut with Burroughs' customary descriptions of men's bottoms, boys on rollerskates, and those conspiracy theories which chime with the medical theme of Nourse's novel. The themes in question equate to Jello Biafra's more recent observation that America doesn't have a health industry so much as a disease industry, with corporations effectively holding us all to ransom, all exaggerated into a traditional dystopian narrative; so you can sort of see how Burroughs might have warmed to this undertaking. Typically he brings his fair share of preposterous horseshit to the party, the usual cures for cancer which they don't want us to know about and so on; but Burroughs usually manages to say something interesting even when he's talking out of his arse.

Blade Runner, a Movie is probably too short, and too much of a novelty to quite rank as life-changing, but its message - that authority figures are inherently untrustworthy - is always worth repeating, particularly now that western capitalist society can no longer even be bothered to lie about its agenda; and it features Doctor Benway, albeit with the serial numbers filed off, meaning that the novella is at least funnier than the more famous special effects showreel with which it shares a title and nothing else. I can see why this version maybe wouldn't have worked so well as a film, as was someone's original intention, or at least not as a mainstream film, but, you know, not everything has to be a movie.


  1. I've always been interested in reading this book but never have. Apparently Michael Deeley, who produced Blade Runner, paid Burroughs a modest sum for the name and that's the only connection it has with the film. It's one of Burroughs' lesser known works which again is quite strange as I would have thought the publisher would have done all they can to cash in on the film's fame, even though the book has nothing to do with the film apart from the shared title.
    As an aside, according to Michael Deeley, Gregory Peck was a very early supporter of Blade Runner and felt the script's themes of moral crisis and urban pollution were vitally important, so did all he could to help get it made. Which I always found to be an interesting insight into where Gregory Peck was at.

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