This paper is aimed at discussing the short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale written by Phillip Dick and its screen adaptation Total Recall that was directed by Paul Verhoeven. In particular, it is necessary to explain why this film achieved critical and commercial success. Overall, one can argue that the film-makers decided not to focus on the main theme of Phillip Dick’s novella, in particular the contrast between the expectations of an individual and his real life. Paul Verhoeven and his colleagues had to focus on the actions of the main character, rather than his reflections. Secondly, they attempted to make the protagonist more appealing to the general public. Finally, they had to create visual effects that produced long-lasting effects on the viewer. Thus, the failure to explore the theme of the story helped the film-makers become creative. These are the main questions that should be analyzed.
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One of the issues that should be discussed is the ideas Phillip Dick attempts to express in the short story. Overall, this author describes the experiences of many people who are essentially dissatisfied with their lives due to some reasons, for instance, lack of career prospects, family problems or monotony. His work is full of irony and compassion at the same time. The writer focuses on the tension between virtual reality and the real life of an individual. First, it should be noted that the main character of the short story Douglas Quail calls himself “a miserable little salaried employee“ (Dick 305). He wishes to visit Mars and imagines himself as an undercover agent. In other words, he is eager to escape into a different world that is not available to him. The feelings and emotions of Douglas Quail may be familiar to many people.
In contrast, the main protagonist of the movie Douglas Quaid1 is a self-confident and athletic construction worker who can hardly be called neurotic or depressed (Total Recall). He is essentially satisfied with his life, and his marriage can be called successful at least at first glance. Such a person produces a more favorable impression of the viewers. Therefore, one cannot say that the film-makers did not attempt to create a character similar to that one described by Phillip Dick.
Thus, Phillip Dick’s short story emphasizes the contrast or tension between virtual reality and the real world. One can definitely see the difference between a salaried and underpaid employee and a secret agent. In turn, the character personified by Arnold Schwarzenegger fits popular stereotypes of secret agents. One can argue that this character is more appealing to the general audience. This is the main difference between the movie and the novella and it definitely attracts attention. People, who read the story and watch the film, may be surprised by the fact that Paul Verhoeven did not focus on the ideas of Phillip Dick.
Many critics of screen adaptations often point out that to some degree, films inevitably differ from novels, short story or plays on which they are based. They are often accused of infidelity to the original. One can respond to this criticism by referring to the ideas of a literary theorist and critic Linda Hutcheon who points out the very term adaptation implies change, alteration, or adjustment (7). So, the failure to adapt the main theme of the novella should not be seen only as the drawback of this film. It should be noted that cinematographic cannot always express thought, feelings or emotions of the character.
They are better suited for describing people’s actions and outward behavior (Hutcheon 57). This is why there are significant plot differences between the short story and its screen version. The main character described by Phillip Dick is frequently engaged in self-reflection. He always asks himself whether his perception of reality is accurate (Dick 307). This person cannot determine whether his experiences and memories are imaginary or real. The thing is that this self-reflection cannot be easily replicated in the cinematographic work (Wurth 10). Thus, some differences between the short story and the film were almost inevitable.
This is why in the movie Total Recall Paul Verhoeven focuses on the actions, especially the adventures of the main character who does go to Mars unlike the protagonist of Phillip Dick’s short story (Total Recall). Douglas Quaid is not a person who is likely to think about the subjectivity of his worldviews. To a great extent, this emphasis on action made the film more appealing to the viewers. The plot of this film is very fast-paced, and it helps to keep spectators in suspense. This is why this movie enjoys popularity among many people. The creators of Total Recall emphasized that it is an adventure film, rather than personal drama of an individual. This is one of the strengths of this movie.
Those people, who worked on the creation of Total Recall, were able to create visual effects that were almost unprecedented at that time. For instance, they were able to create a very engaging picture of Mars (Total Recall). Moreover, visual effects helped them to portray a futuristic and industrialist society. This is the reason why this film was given Academy Award for the Best Visual Effects (Lichtenfeld 257). Such descriptions cannot be found in Phillip Dick’s short story. Certainly, the readers can sense that the action takes place in the future, but the author does not focus too much on the description of nature or the interior of buildings. He pays more attention to the experiences of the main character. So, well-developed visual effects also contribute to the success of this movie Total Recall.
Therefore, one should not suppose that cinematographic works are inevitably inferior to literary works. As it has been said before, different media can portray life from different perspectives. Moreover, screen adaptations of literary works cannot be identical to their originals. Such an expectation is hardly realistic. This is one of the issues that should be considered by people who compare a literary work and its screen adaptation.
Furthermore, one should take into consideration that Total Recall has a good musical score that enables to highlight the sense of danger and adventure. It helped film-makers to produce a more lasting impression on the viewers. Phillip Dick’s short story describes the experiences and emotions of the protagonist with the help of expressive means, whereas the movie strongly relies on the sound. It is supposed to reduce the distance between the spectators and the events or people described in the movie. So, it was a good supplement to the plot and visual imagery used by film-makers. These examples indicate that visual effect and soundtracks were essential for the success of Total Recall. Again, the inability to explore the theme of Phillip Dick’s story made the film-makers to make creative decisions.
Overall, this discussion shows that Paul Verhoeven’s film Total Recall should not be viewed as a replica of Phillip Dick’s short story. This movie relies on the expressive means that are widely used in cinematography. In particular, one can speak about visual affects, musical score, and emphasis on action. Each of them greatly contributes to the success of commercial success of this film. In We Can Remember It for You Wholesale Phillip Dick pays more attention the self-reflection of the protagonist and his perception of the world. This is the main difference that one can identify. On the whole, this example demonstrates that it is difficult to speak about literary works and their screen versions in terms of inferiority or superiority because they may have their advantages and disadvantages. This is the key issue that people should take into account. Certainly, literary critics may say that a screen adaptation of a short story should reflect some of the author’s ideas (Boozer, 2). The problem is that the viewers of Total Recall may not be able to see the main themes discussed by Phillip Dick in his novella.
Therefore, one should expect complete fidelity from film-makers. Such a requirement is not quite acceptable, since cinematographic works portray characters or events in a different way. Certainly, Paul Verhoeven and his colleagues did fail incorporate the themes of Dick’s story into the film. Yet, they were able to take very creative decisions regarding the plot of the movie, the personality of the protagonist, or musical score.
Boozer, Jack. “Introduction: The Screenplay and Authorship in Adaptation.” Authorship in Film Adaptation. Ed. Jack Boozer. Austin: University of Texas, 2008. 1-30. Print.
Dick, Phillip, The Philip K. Dick reader, New York: Carol Pub. Group,1997. Print.
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Hutcheon, Linda, A Theory of Adaptation, New York: Taylor & Francis, 2006. Print.
Lichtenfeld, Eric, Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2007. Print.
Total Recall. Ex. Prod. Paul Verhoven, Los Angeles: Carolco Pictures, 1990. DVD.
Wurth, Kiene, Between Page and Screen: Remaking Literature Through Cinema and Cyberspace, New York: Fordham University Press, 2012. Print.
1 It should be noted that the last name of the protagonist was changed from Quail to Quaid in the film.