Review of Rickman’s Philip K. Dick on Film

Review of Philip K. Dick on Film by Gregg Rickman

Terence Sawyers

Gregg Rickman. Philip K. Dick on Film. Arrow Books, 2018. Paperback. 176 pp. $29.95. ISBN 9780993306082.

Gregg Rickman is an established commentator on Philip K. Dick who occupies contradictory positions within the broad community of Dick fans and scholars. On the one hand, Rickman’s retrospective psychoanalysis of Dick in To the High Castle, Philip K. Dick: A Life, 1928-1962 (1989, repeated in truncated form on page 114 of this text) is treated with much suspicion within this community of fans and scholars. Yet he remains a trusted source of first-hand material and collector of Dick anecdotes. Furthermore, Rickman moves between the spheres of academic and non-academic publishing, a boundary that is traversed by only a select few Dickian commentators.

Rickman’s liminality is relevant when approaching his recent monograph Philip K. Dick on Film, as there is some slipperiness when trying to establish the best contextual frame from which to review it. Even the title is suggestively ambiguous. Is this a book about Dick’s attempts to make films and contribute to TV shows, Dick’s own opinions of film as an art form, or the adaptation of Dick’s work into film by third parties? Ultimately, all three of these positions are touched upon, though the latter represents the primary focus.

Rickman’s text can be divided into two sections, with the first comprising chapters one through five and covering Dick’s biography, a discussion of Dick’s major themes and an insight into Dick’s relationship with Hollywood and filmmaking more generally. These chapters offer a neat overview to the key debates in Dick studies as well as providing some keen insights from Rickman. The little over four pages dedicated to Dick’s biography succinctly introduces the reader to Dick’s biographical highlights as well as communicating the complexities and contradictions that make Dick’s biography so exciting. For a casual fan of Dick who is interested in why media organisations keep returning to his literature as a source for film and TV adaptations, these early chapters are a helpful roadmap. While the more dedicated Dick scholar may fail to find anything new in these chapters, they will appreciate both the chapters’ concision and the many suggested routes (trailheads) of further investigation.

However, chapters six through twelve discuss the direct adaptations of Dick’s fiction into film and TV, and for those interested in Philip K. Dick, film studies, or adaptation studies, these chapters will disappoint. This is due to three problematic positions that inform Rickman’s methodological approach. First, he engages in a comparative analysis that heavily favours Dick’s fiction as an originary source. Following this form of analysis, any adaptations must strive, and ultimately fail, to “live up” to the original. This tautological argument is not uncommon in cycles of fandom, and therefore is not unheard of within SF studies; the “original” is always best at being the “original.” The argument’s circularity makes it uninteresting and provides no opportunity for serious discussion.

Second, Rickman purports to be offering readers a juxtaposition of his own comments and Dick’s (hypothetical) opinions on the various film and TV adaptations. This interpretative strategy seeks to extrapolate the opinions of a deceased writer based on his extant commentary. As dangerous as this strategy is, and in the case of Dick it is fraught by added complications due to his well-documented capriciousness, one needs to ask whether it is at all interesting. This approach assumes the primacy of the star-author as a site of meaning-making and authority (at the expense of critics, scholars, readers, and fans) and by contemporary standards is an outmoded method of engaging with texts, adapted or otherwise.

Third, Rickman takes for granted that contemporary commercial filmmaking is in an “unhappy state” and he rests this reductive criticism on rather narrow shoulders (89). For Rickman, the formulaic nature of storytelling is the primary cause of a creeping mediocrity that has been developing within Hollywood since the 1980s. Rickman goes on to argue that, although there are many vectors via which these formulae have been disseminated, the primary method is via screenwriting manuals, and he reserves particular attention for the successful 2005 manual Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder.

There are many problems with this claim, and it reveals a writer who is not conversant in the history of film, the current debates in film studies, or the contemporary reality of commercial filmmaking. To tease out just one of these problems, it exposes a logocentrism that assumes films can be equated with their scripted antecedents, reducing the complexities of an audio-visual text to nothing more than its content or story. The irony here is that Dick’s fiction has highly repetitive qualities that often follow a generic formula. A reduction of Dick’s fictions to their story and a map of their plot points (“beats”) will emphasize sameness while overlooking what distinguishes Dick from other SF writers or Dick’s stories from each other.

Turning to the formal qualities of this monograph, the publisher, Arrow Films, has not helped here, with poor editing, formatting, and design choices. For example, an error where the wrong film is referenced and inconsistent use of footnotes, that sees some tangential anecdotes footnoted and others left within the text, should have been picked up on and corrected before publishing. From a formatting perspective, inconsistency is again the watchword, with the footnote superscripts switching between grayscale and salmon. While throughout the body of the work the font oscillates between grayscale and black, sometimes within the same sentence. These inconsistencies are very distracting for the eye while also undermining the legitimacy of the work.

As part of the design, cover pages from Dick’s published fiction are interspaced throughout the text. As nice as these are to see, they bear no relevance to either the overall aims of this monograph or to the specific sections that they are included within. This is an odd design choice that stands in contrast to the book’s cover, which includes an arresting panoply of icons from the various Dick adaptations under discussion. These cover pages highlight the confused focus of a text that seems trapped between what it sought to talk about, the film and TV adaptations of Dick’s literature, and what it couldn’t help talking about, how much Rickman likes Dick’s literature.

Review of Ransom’s I Am Legend as American Myth: Race and Masculinity in the Novel and Its Film Adaptations

Review of I Am Legend as American Myth: Race and Masculinity in the Novel and Its Film Adaptations by Amy J. Ransom

J.R. Colmenero

Amy J. Ransom. I Am Legend as American Myth: Race and Masculinity in the Novel and Its Film Adaptations. McFarland, 2018. Paperback, 231 pages, $45.00. ISBN 9781476668338. 

Although it misses some opportunities to engage more rigorously with theories of race and masculinity, Amy J. Ransom’s comprehensive book about Richard Matheson’s horror/sci-fi novel I Am Legend and its many screen adaptations is an eminently readable and useful addition to critical literature on the horror/science fiction genre, studies of Richard Matheson’s oeuvre, and the intertwined histories of literature, film, and mass media in twentieth and early twenty-first century texts. Before reading this book, I was mostly ignorant about the pervasive nature of Matheson’s 1954 text in structuring horror/sci-fi conventions of the late twentieth century. After finishing this book, I’m convinced that I Am Legend deserves an exceptional position as a reflecting pool for social concerns about masculinity as well as race and race-mixing in a United States context. 

The best part of American Myth is in its lucid treatment of the historical and cultural context for the series. Ransom is thorough in discussing literary and filmic antecedents for the “last man” apocalyptic narrative (such as M. P. Shiel’s novel The Purple Cloud [1901] and The World, The Flesh and the Devil [1959], written and directed by Ranald MacDougall). Historical details — of production and direction of the adaptations, as well as of Matheson’s response to those adaptations — are interestingly and usefully explained in an accessible way. Finally, Ransom’s overall argument about the most recent iterations of I Am Legend as conjecturing a “post-white” United States is persuasive (181). 

The first chapter, “The Trauma of World War II and the Decline of Western ‘Right’,” includes a thorough critical summary of the originary novel, situating Matheson’s work both historically — as a response to post-WW2 and Cold War fears — and generically, as the vampire novel Matheson intended it to be. Thematically, Ransom is most concerned with the figure of the protagonist and the different interpretations of the Robert Neville character. Even in the 1954 original text, Matheson’s Neville “problematizes the white male’s role as arbiter of right” with his erratic behavior and symbolic castration (being the only surviving human foreclosing possibilities for reproduction) (56). One of the interventions of the original narrative is its illustration of the “Last Man” post-apocalyptic narrative, one that is “symptomatic of the gravity of the national crisis in white masculinity and its traditionally perceived prerogatives” (82). Ransom’s use of “star” theory guides the second and third chapters, in which she analyzes the first filmic adaptations of Matheson’s book, the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s The Omega Man. 

Chapter 2 is a well-reasoned argument that reads Matheson’s two novels The Shrinking Man (1956) and IAL in order to establish Matheson’s thematic interest with depicting a “crisis of masculinity” (112). This claim is then used to examine the casting and performance of Vincent Price as the protagonist in the first film adaptation of IAL and how Price’s interpretation of the character makes clearer the more submissive and perhaps queered role of a bachelor being pursued by “lustful” vampires and locked in a passionate relationship with his vampire suitor, neighbor and friend-in-a-former-life Ben Cortman. The third chapter, “The Last White Man on Earth: Charlton Heston in The Omega Man,” intervenes in critical conversations about the film that have overly relied on the “star persona” (12) of Charlton Heston and his reinforcement of a strong, masculine protagonist (in contrast to the earlier film starring Price) to define their interpretation of the film. Indeed, Ransom comes to show that Omega’s messages regarding race and masculinity are more ambivalent than critics have historically argued, and that the film “retained the subversive core of Matheson’s novel and its interrogation of its white hero and his moral imperative” (127). 

While The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man register cultural fears about the Cold War and Vietnam respectively, Ransom situates the two most recent adaptations of Matheson’s text — two films produced in 2007, Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend and Griff Furst’s I Am Omega in their position as post 9/11 U.S. cultural productions. The section on Lawrence’s I Am Legend takes up the question of “what it means when the last man on earth is black” (160). Although it is Lawrence’s film that has garnered the most critical and popular attention in recent years, I also appreciated Ransom’s exegesis of its straight-to-DVD homologue, a more flashy interpretation of the original text — this time featuring cannibalistic zombies and martial arts — that nevertheless raises interesting questions about the future of an increasingly multiracial U.S.

While it’s a given that there is no single totalizing mythos that defines the history of the United States, reading race and gender at the center of U.S. horror/science fiction endeavors is a sound place to start. If anything, I wish that Ransom had engaged more with foundational theory about race and feminist theories of masculinity. Since the book already utilizes critical terms such as “star” theory and adaptation to inform the argument, I think a deeper engagement with critical race theory as well as theories about masculinity to inform her reading of the protagonists’ various identities throughout the adaptations would have been helpful.

Ultimately, Amy J. Ransom’s book is clever, well-argued, and accessible to lay readers interested in the horror/science fiction genre, movie adaptations, and 20th century film and “star” histories. Because of the nature of the subject matter (using a variety of theoretical lenses to study a text and its adaptations by different people at different times), it is also an ideal book for undergraduates to learn how to usefully compare and close-read texts and their adaptations. For the more serious scholar of Matheson, Ransom offers both a comprehensive introduction to literary criticism about I Am Legend, as well as lucid new readings of the significance of the text, reminding us that the barriers between “literature” and “mass media” are increasingly permeable, and best understood as the inextricable realities that they represent.