Monday, December 23, 2013

"Blade Runner," "Blade Runner (a movie)," and "The Blade Runner"

I was in the library last week, when I came across a surprising title.  Blade Runner (a movie) by William S. Burroughs.  It turns out Blade Runner (a movie) has nothing to do with the movie Blade Runner, which is based on the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Elecrtic Sheep?  No, Blade Runner (a movie) is based on the novel The Bladerunner, which has no connection to Blade Runner or its source material.   Perhaps some background will help.  

In 1968, Philip K. Dick published one of his most famous novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Fig. 1.1: Electric Sheep

In the novel, Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter, must 'retire' six escaped androids.  The biggest difference between the androids and humans is the androids' complete lack of empathy.  In a plotline that didn't make it into the film, the humans on the largely depopulated Earth all need to care for some kind of pet, to prove to their neighbors that they have empathy.  However, due to nuclear war, most species are extinct, and those that remain are incredibly expensive, prompting many, including Deckard, to own an electric animal, one that behaves exactly like, and appears identical to, a real animal. (Which leads to the question: if taking care of the animals is a matter of conformity/self-preservation, does empathy even apply, which leads to further questions about the possibly self-serving nature of empathy).  Deckard has an electric sheep. The term "blade runner" does not appear anywhere in the novel.

In 1974, Alan E. Nourse published a dystopian novel titled The Bladerunner.  The backstory: Medical science has managed to prolong life and allow people to live with previously fatal conditions.  A rapidly aging population that needs medical care, along with an aging government, increase taxes on the proportionally smaller youth demographic, which is itself producing less, until the economy is on the verge of collapsing (A strangely prescient premise).  The solution to the problem ends up being free healthcare for life, on the condition that the recipient be sterilized.  This leads to an underground medicine industry, with suppliers, doctors, and bladerunners, the latter act as go-betweens for the doctors, suppliers, and patients.  Although it gets a little bogged down with medical specifics and some of the exposition can be clunky (especially in the second part of the novel), it's a relevant, thought-provoking sci-fi novel.  

Well, in 1979, William S. Burroughs was commissioned to write a film treatment for The Bladerunner.  Although no film was made, the treatment was published as Blade Runner (a movie).  I'd recommend reading the novel before the Burroughs treatment.  The treatment, as it goes on, gets more and more disjointed and surreal, and bizarre imagery starts taking more and more precedence over coherence.  There are considerable differences between the film treatment and the novel.  There are more "throbbing phalluses" than in the source material.  A lot more

In 1982, Blade Runner, the famous sci-fi film starring Harrison Ford, was released.  One problem the filmmakers encountered was picking a good title.  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a) not catchy and b) nonsense, since there were no electric sheep in the film.  One of the screenwriters, Hampton Fancher, had a copy of Burroughs's treatment, and suggested the title Blade Runner for the film.  Ridley Scott bought the title rights for The Bladerunner and Blade Runner (a movie).       

So, if anyone ever decides to make a film adaptation of Alan E. Nourse's The Bladerunner, they're going to have to call it something else.  May I suggest Ubik?


  1. Wonderful and thoughtful post. I have read many times that the entertainment industry, as a whole has a big issue with titles as you mentioned. Many times the titles conflict with another popular or not-so-popular book/movie/song or even person (David Jones changed his name David Bowie so he won't be confused with Davy Jones from The Monkeys).

  2. I loved Blade Runner (the movie) and the Philip K. Dick novel. I had no idea where they got the title for the movie. Fascinating!