Book Review – Ubik: The Screenplay by Philip K Dick
Philip K Dick’s Ubik: The Screenplay has long since been an obscure, out of print collector’s item for hardcore PKD fans like myself. First published in 1985 (three years after the great man’s death), the screenplay is difficult to obtain secondhand and exorbitantly priced. So I was pleased to discover earlier this year that Subterranean Press would be reissuing the book in hardcover (1500 copies) and lettered, signed hardcover (26 copies, very expensive). Being the PKD-phile that I am, I went out and preordered this from Amazon, and it arrived on Monday. I wasn’t disappointed.
I first read Ubik: The Screenplay in 2000 (from Murdoch University library) and I recall being impressed by PKD’s re-interpretation of his essential but often horribly written Ubik. PKD was commissioned to write the screenplay in the 1970s by a French filmmaker whose name I have temporarily forgotten, but the film was never made. Apparently, a film of Ubik may be on the horizon, but I wouldn’t be holding my breath. Ubik would probably be one of the most difficult PKD novels to film, and his screenplay actually makes things even harder for the would-be filmmaker. An amazing film it would be, but I doubt I’ll ever see it.
I’m not going to run through the plot of Ubik here, as I’ve already done so in my detailed review of the novel. This can be found under the Philip K Dick category on this blog. This review will merely describe the differences between the novel and screenplay, and attempt to inform potential buyers as to what they will be getting for their US $35. In terms of the design and production of the book, Subterranean Press cannot be faulted. The cover is in fact more of a silver colour than the white depicted in the image above, but the physical construction of the book is immaculate. If only PKD could have lived to have seen his work revered in this way…
The main problem with the novel Ubik is that the first 60 pages or so are horrible. Ghastly. About as good as a much less well known PKD novel called The Zap Gun. I’ve charted the writing of Ubik in my novel review, but suffice to say that here PKD gets a second crack at it, and for the most part he improves on the overall story. Ubik: The Screenplay is full of strange filmic oddities (most noticeably the ‘Andy Warhol’ Ubik can intrusions) and spacetime slips. It’s pretty psychedelic stuff.
As I’ve read the novel version five times or more, I was able to instantly pick up which material PKD had added. I noticed a ‘self serve abortion clinic,’ a pregnant minor character whose child becomes the new Ella Runciter (much in the fashion of the film 2001), and a punch up between two characters. None of the new material is important or even particularly good. It might even be said that some of the new material is slightly jarring or inappropriate, but that’s debatable. For the most part, however, PKD sticks to the story of the novel, removing a lot of wastage in the early part and focussing on the far superior later scenes.
One thing I noticed this time around is how modern and Matrix-like Ubik: The Screenplay is. This is really sophisticated fare, full of incursions into reality on Runciter’s part and truly mind-blowing scenes, like the one with the drugstore phasing in and out of reality. This truly would make an excellent film if it could be done properly. The central mystery of Ubik: The Screenplay is and remains Ubik itself? What is Ubik? We never find out. Therein lies the allure and possibly the frustrating aspect of the most elusive of PKD’s stories.
Ubik is an essential PKD novel, and Ubik: The Screenplay is an essential read for hardcore PKD fans. I only wish he could have lived to see how much people like myself revere his work.