Last week, we saw BLADE RUNNER (version three: the “final” cut). I’d like to consider that film in the light of the book on which it was based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

When any book is made into a film, the screenwriter must make decisions. What to include? What to exclude? What, if anything, to invent? Often these decisions aren’t made alone, but in concert with the director, the producer, and, perhaps, the financiers.

In this instance, what elements did BLADE RUNNER keep from the book? Here is a rough list:

Deckard (bounty hunter renamed blade runner)
Rachel & the other androids
J.R. Isidore (becomes J.F. Sebastian)
Bounty hunters versus androids
Human emigration to Mars (renamed off-world colonies)
Basic plot of Deckard’s hunt for andys (renamed replicants)
Rosen Corporation (renamed Tyrell Corp)

What elements of the book were lost? Another rough list:

Nuclear war and radiation poisoning
Animals as status symbols/love objects
Iran, Deckard’s wife
Mercerism (accessed via Empathy Box)
Penfield Mood Generator
Buster Friendly’s TV Show (and the attack on Mercerism)
Alternate Reality Police Station
San Francisco/Bay Area location
Rachel’s revenge

What did they invent?

Sebastian’s premature aging disease
Cold room scene
Androids’ desire to meet Tyrell
Los Angeles location
Happy end

Of the elements that were lost, how important were they? Does the film remain true to the spirit of the book without them? Is it true to the book’s theme?

BLADE RUNNER is a very good-looking film, and many of the visuals – particularly the cityscapes and vast interiors, in the METROPOLIS style – do justice to the original. But in terms of content, it is drastically reduced. It was almost inevitable that the new religion, Mercerism, would be excised. Such a thing would not please the studio executives, who have a very conservative view of what the “marketplace” will accept. In any Hollywood movie, Mercerism’s going to be gone, and probably the alternate reality Hall of Justice, too, since it’s easy to remove. Did the Penfield Mood Generator have to go, as well. Is the piano/unicorn sequence a reference to it? Or is the unicorn a “planted” false memory, indicating that Deckard is a replicant?

The biggest losses, for this reader, are Deckard’s wife, Iran (why get rid of her? To facilitate the “love story”?); the World War Terminus back story; and the leitmotif of animals-as-status-symbols. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Deckard spends more time thinking about sheep and goats than he does about androids. In the aftermath of the massive species die-off, humans have finally come to appreciate animals, and seek to care for them. Perversely, this has turned the last surviving animals into consumer items, sold in elite boutiques.

BLADE RUNNER retains the book’s notion of fake animals, but their purpose – as substitutes for the real thing for people who can’t afford it – is dropped. Indeed, though we see fake and real animals (the snake is fake; what of the pony, the pigeons and the dove?) their significance is ignored. The Tyrell Corporation has fake owls, but why the real owls died, and how humanity has responded to this catastrophe – the most pitiable, and original, and human aspect of the book – has gone.

These changes had to be made somewhere, and my guess would be at a meeting between the studio executives, the director, Ridley Scott, and the writers, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. These “creative” Hollywood executives are no-nonsense types. They “green light”, and reject, numerous pictures. Their opinions are holy writ for their unfortunate employees. Assuming the executives had read the book I suspect that they identified the following five problems.

1. Deckard has a wife. He should be a hard-boiled loner hero. Lose the wife.

2. He has a sheep on the roof? A sheep? An electric sheep? What is this guy, some kind of pervert? Lose the sheep!

3.Nuclear war? Species die-off? New religions? Lose ’em.

4.Unhappy ending? No way. Harrison Ford has a flying car, right? Use it.

5. Harrison cannot play a bounty hunter. Bounty hunters are sleaze bags. Call him something else.

So it goes. It’s possible to argue with the financiers, but it’s difficult because the filmmaker doesn’t want them to walk away, or to be fired. So, stupid script notes like these tend to be taken on board, especially on big, expensive films.

The screenplay dated February 23, 1981 contains most of these modifications. The term “blade runner” – used instead of bounty hunter throughout – was licensed from two other science fiction writers, Alan E. Nourse and William S. Burroughs, who wrote novels entitled The Bladerunner and Blade Runner (a Movie) in 1974 and 1979.

Another ill-advised “improvement” – which may have come from the studio executives or from the director – is the imposition of the notion that the “androids must want something!” In the book, Roy Baty and his crew of andys simply return to Earth. There is no discussion of why they’ve done this. It isn’t needed. They’re fugitives from space. Where else are they supposed to go?

The film, however, requires that Roy Batty [sic] and the replicants want something beyond anonymity and safety – and comes up with the inspiration that, like Frankenstein’s Monster, they seek out their creator. So Fancher and Peoples invent the character of Tyrell, a standard villainous corporate head, and a lot of story time is spent on their invented quest to meet him. Nothing is gained from the meeting; Tyrell can’t help them, so Batty kills him.

Could we not have spent this time with an electric sheep?

It’s worth comparing the movie “love story” with what happens in the book, where Deckard lies to Rachel so that she’ll come and sleep with him, and Rachel takes her horrible revenge.

I saw BLADE RUNNER when it first came out, and watched the “final cut” for this class. Apparently the violent scenes in the later version are somewhat longer and more explicit. They disturbed me in both versions of the film. Of course, this is the story of a bounty hunter, whose victims are, by human standards, non-human. It is bound to be violent. But much of the violence in the film is directed against women – women clad in scanty, sexy outfits – and I don’t buy the argument that “its okay because they’re robots.” They aren’t really robots; this is a film and these are two almost-naked women actors pretending to be killed at length by the brooding, handsome hero, Harrison Ford.

BLADE RUNNER is perversely cavalier in its treatment of its three women characters: violently disposing of two of them, pedestalising the third.

Simultaneously the movie reduces its protagonist – a troubled, feeling, married man in the novel – to a hard-drinking, sentimental, loner, hero-type. This imposition of the Hollywood-style protagonist, ironically, reinforces the possibility that Deckard in the movie might be an android – something the empathic Deckard of the novel is clearly not. In the screenplay, the last scene shows Deckard and Rachel fleeing from the policeman, Gaff, as a voiceover from Deckard reveals that he knows his is a replicant. This voiceover does not appear in any of the versions of the film: in 1982, the studio added a “hardboiled” voiceover narration by Ford, but this final speech was not part of it, and in subsequent versions the voiceover was removed.

It’s not entirely true that studio executives wield all the power and decide what all the moves are going to be. Film is a collaborative enterprise, and no one person has the time or energy to do it all, or to screw it all up. The art and camera and costume and audio departments of BLADE RUNNER did a remarkable job; visually and aurally the film is outstanding. And, despite the bland performances of the hero and heroine, the supporting actors contributed hugely to the success of the film. Edward James Olmos never had a better role than the policeman, Gaff; and the same is true of Rutger Hauer, who played Roy Batty.

On page 97 of the 104-page screenplay, Batty reminisces, and dies. This is his dialogue, as it appears in the script:


Compare the written dialogue with what Rutger Hauer came up with, on set, when it was time to say those lines. “All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain.” He dropped the “little people” line because it wasn’t necessary: we know that humans are little, and that Roy Batty is a mad god. And the “tears in rain” line, improvised by Hauer, makes the scene. All power to Hauer, and to his director, Scott, for letting him make these changes. This is one of those rare cinematic moments where everything works in total unison – script, performance, direction, picture, sound, score.

BLADE RUNNER is a fairly typical example of a project being given a bumpy ride by Hollywood and failing to rise to the inspirational heights of its source. Yet, simultaneously, the industry is anxious, nervous, constantly on the lookout for the Next Big Thing. A newcomer can be granted a surprising amount of autonomy on his or her first picture – and sometimes great things result. Studios bring money, time, space, and technical collaborators of the highest order. It is to such a combination of youthful exuberance and brilliance, and old-time money and technical expertise, that we now turn.

The movie business is, as you surely know, full of hype, and overestimates, and bluster. Things are invariably “the biggest”, “the best”, “the most highly-praised”, “the most extraordinary”. One film talent about whom many superlative things were said, with justification, was an actor/director named Orson Welles.

When Orson Welles was 21, he was directing a professional stage production of Macbeth with an all-black cast, in Harlem, New York. The year was 1936. Imagine the self-confidence he had! Imagine the extent of his abilities – to mount the production, to find the cast, to do something no director had attempted before. Welles followed Macbeth with modern-dress productions of Julius Caesar and Doctor Faustus. In each of these stage plays, he aimed for a 90-minute running time, without an intermission.

Welles partnered with the actor-producer John Houseman to create the Mercury Theatre Company, which would produce theater and radio plays for Welles to direct. In 1938, they staged a Halloween radio version of The War of The Worlds. At that time the science fiction novel by H.G. Wells hadn’t been made into a film: this was the first dramatic version of a story unknown to many people. In adapting the book for the radio, Orson Welles and his writer, Howard Koch, decided to tell the story as if it were a series of live news broadcasts, interrupting a regular program of dance music. The idea of the faux-reality narrative is more familiar today, thanks to films like BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (USA, 1999) and CLOVERFIELD (USA, 2008), but when Welles’ broadcast went out, no one had done it before. You can listen to the entire broadcast here.

Welles’ 1938 radio play was taken as real by many people. There was panic all across the United States, from New York to Los Angeles. Hundreds of people in New England fled their homes; there were reports of Martians, and attempted suicides.

The sensation which followed the broadcast made Welles nationally famous. The following year he received an invitation from a Hollywood studio, RKO, to go to California and make a film. RKO was a small studio, with a reputation for quality. They offered Welles $100,000 to direct, write, produce and star in a film based on any subject he chose. RKO also promised Welles final cut on the film, a guarantee directors almost never received. Usually, studios reserved the right to re-edit the director’s version of the film, to replace the music, and to make any other changes as they saw fit. RKO, in their desire to contract Welles before another studio did, gave him an unheard-of deal – a deal most directors don’t receive, today.

Welles began work on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s book, Heart of Darkness. A critical tale of the colonialist white man’s burden, this was the book John Milius later adapted as APOCALYPSE NOW. Welles planned to shoot the film from the point of view of the protagonist, with the camera acting as that unseen person’s “eyes”. But he also found he disliked the Hollywood environment, and returned to New York once a week to direct and act in Campbell’s Playhouse, a radio drama show financed by the soup company. The flight from Los Angeles to New York was in those days very arduous, involving several stops for refuelling and a total of 18 hours each way. Yet Welles racked up 300,000 miles of air travel between the two cities, and was given an award by the airline, TWA, for being its best customer.

Meanwhile the estimated budget of HEART OF DARKNESS rose to $500,000, at which point RKO cancelled it.

Now Welles was in trouble. Full of energy, fervor and inspiration, he had a tendency to be late, and to do to many things at once. As a theater director he might sleep late, and then insist on all-night rehearsals. This pushed his budgets sky-high; his personal finances were even more exotic. Welles needed to make a movie, and in 1939 he was introduced to the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz.

Mankiewicz wanted to write a movie about the life of an American newspaper magnate, based on William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was a right-wing publisher who admired Abraham Lincoln and Adolph Hitler. To embark upon a film about him in 1939 was the equivalent of a studio today making a bio-pic of Rupert Murdoch, the owner of News International, Fox News and 20th Century Fox. In other words, it was a very risky proposition – yet RKO  paid Mankiewicz to write the screenplay, and Welles to develop it.

Various drafts were written, entitled American, John Citizen, USA, and finally Citizen Kane. Meanwhile Welles, the stage and radio director, watched 35mm prints voraciously, in particular the films of John Ford. He asked Gregg Toland, who had just shot THE GRAPES OF WRATH (USA, 1940) for Ford, to be his cinematographer. RKO – the studio which had made KING KONG – provided Welles with an experienced and inspired technical staff and art department.

RKO and Welles both needed something to show for their collaboration. Almost miraculously, the result was CITIZEN KANE.

Welles worked hard on the shoot, directing and acting. For Welles the actor that work involved hours in makeup, as his character aged from 25 to 75. Welles the director had to manage a large cast and crew, something not too different from directing a big stage play. He finished the film in debt, as usual, turned all the footage over to his editor, Robert Wise, and embarked on a lecture tour.

The film he and his collaborators made, CITIZEN KANE, was for many years considered by filmmakers and critics to be the “best film ever made.”  But, at the time, the fate of KANE seemed much less certain. The Hearst press were vocally hostile to it, which led Welles, in interviews, to insist that his film had nothing to to with Hearst. Hearst’s papers blacklisted it, nonetheless: worse, they blacklisted all of RKO’s other pictures, too. Blacklisting in this instance meant refusing to mention any of RKO’s films, or to give them advertising space. Anticipating criticism of their class, Hearst’s fellow millionaires rallied around him. Nelson Rockefeller refused to allow CITIZEN KANE to play at Radio City Music Hall, which he owned. Louis B. Mayer, magnate of MGM, offered to refund the entire cost of CITIZEN KANE to RKO if the small rival studio would destroy the negatives and prints. Welles became involved in a stupid dispute with Mankievicz, over the writing credit. Writers Guild arbitrators ruled in favour of both men as writers, with Mankievicz’ name in first place. Theatre chains controlled by Warners, Paramount and Loews refused to exhibit the film. CITIZEN KANE opened despite this, in 1941, to tremendous critical acclaim, but did poor business. Its director was 25 years old.

CITIZEN KANE should be watched, on first viewing, all the way through, on the largest screen possible. To see this film for the first time is an amazing gift, and you should let it wash over you. Don’t take notes. Then, when you see CITIZEN KANE a second time, you can consciously appreciate its many virtues, starting with the screenplay: a series of flashbacks, in seemingly-random order, as a journalist interviews people who knew Charles Foster Kane. It’s the structure Francesco Rosi borrowed for THE MATTEI AFFAIR, thirty years later.

On that second viewing you can study the magnificent cinematography of Gregg Toland, mostly deep focus shots, with profound blacks. Consider the production design and its constant use of model shots and paintings. CITIZEN KANE had a limited budget – less than $700,000 – so visual effects were critical, as was the lighting of the sets. Set designer Perry Ferguson couldn’t afford to build complete interiors for Kane’s mansion, so Toland’s lighting crew would let the unbuilt sections fall away into darkness – an atmospheric solution which adds to the mystery and foreboding of the tale.

The music is the first film score of Bernard Hermann, the composer who Welles brought with him from New York. The film won one Oscar, for best screenplay, so Welles and Mankiewicz each received a trophy. This was the only Oscar Welles ever received. The trophy was sold at auction in 2011 for $860,000 — more than the budget of the film.