Philip K. Dick’s life was as colourful as anything in his science-fiction books. He lived in poverty most of his life (he recounts being reduced to eating tinned cat food), and was frustrated at his failure to have his mainstream novels published; he had to rewrite them as trashy pulp science-fiction paperbacks, for which he was paid barely enough to live on.
His personal insecurities and relationship difficulties with dark-haired women became fused with his West Coast hippy sensibilities, university-town intellectualism and his restless search for meaning in the universe through religion and drug experimentation. Dick’s LSD trips, his fear of raids and arrest and his dissatisfaction with the increasingly right-wing Nixon government only fuelled the sense of hallucinatory paranoia in his works and in his own life.
…he experienced strange night-time visions and hallucinations preceded by a blinding beam of pink light…
Many of these elements come to the fore in Dick’s later semi-fictional books A Scanner Darkly, VALIS and The Divine Invasion. The latter two, in particular, deal with perhaps the strangest incident in the life of Philip K. Dick. In 1974 he experienced strange night-time visions and hallucinations preceded by a blinding beam of pink light. Whether these visions were real, whether it was a gnostic theophany that served to open up the author’s mind to the hidden reality of the world, whether it was a reaction to medication for a tooth extraction or whether the years of drug-abuse and experimentation were just taking their toll (Dick would die from a stroke in 1982 just before filming was completed on BLADE RUNNER, an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) it was nonetheless a life-changing event that fired his imagination and found its way into those later works.
Written in 1976, Radio Free Albemuth was an attempt by the author to both fictionalise and explain the experience, or at least to suggest to the reader that there may be more than one level to what we know as reality. Following his failure to have the book published, however, it was rewritten as VALIS and the original manuscript for Radio Free Albemuth was left with his friend, the author Tim Powers, only to be published posthumously in 1985. In many repects the earlier work is the better book and in many respects also, John Alan Simon’s film version is by far the most faithful adaptation of a Philip K. Dick book we’ve had to date.
Whether they deal with alien invasion, the colonisation and terraforming of Mars or chasing down escaped off-world replicants, you’ll find the same frustrations of the little man struggling against the system in all of Philip K. Dick’s works. His heroes are trying to make sense of a run-down world that is changing for the worse, driven and yet beaten down by a personal sense of insecurity and failure, hoping that a big break might just be around the corner or that a religious revelation might provide a personal breakthrough for the better. In RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH, this opportunity is presented to record store clerk Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe) who looks to be inheriting a dusty store of vinyl records at the dawn of the age of the CD, until he receives a night-time vision from what he believes is a future vision of himself. Following the advice from this mysterious visitor, Nick subsequently sells up, uproots his family from Berkeley and moves to Los Angeles where he becomes a successful music company executive.
Philip K. Dick’s vision of an alternate USA in the 1980s now seems remarkably prophetic.
He continues to receive strange messages, always between 3 and 4 o’clock in the morning, beamed from space by what he calls a Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS). Together with his SF writer friend Phil (Shea Whigam) they try to come up with some explanations for what Nick is experiencing, and some of their theories are quite bizarre, but no more bizarre than the reality of life in the United States. This alternate United States of the 1980s is being run by an increasingly paranoid right-wing president, Ferris F. Freemont (FFF being the letters 666 in the alphabet) who believes the USA is being is threatened by a mysterious organisation called Aramchek. Learning to trust the night-time messages, which have warned Nick of an undiscovered birth defect that could have proved fatal to his newborn son, Nick and Phil are inclined to believe VALIS when it warns them of the true nature of the President and the eternal hidden war that is being waged.
Anyone attempting a literal adaptation of any PKD work will inevitably run into difficulties with establishing an authentic tone for their film. The spectacular shining visions of BLADE RUNNER and MINORITY REPORT, for example, lack the gritty, everyman point-of-view that is a vital characteristic of the author’s work. Even Richard Linklater had to resort to animation techniques to present the distorted view of the world in A SCANNER DARKLY. Recognising, however, that just as much is lost as gained when you impose another vision on the author’s work, John Alan Simon chooses to go for complete fidelity when it comes to this particularly bleak personal vision of the author and he gets the tone absolutely right.
That’s not as easy to achieve as you might think. RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH has a number of particularly outlandish pulp SF elements that are difficult to integrate into a story that also has considerable autobiographical content, and a great deal of serious points to make about a fascist United States. There is increasing fear of terrorism from without and within, and Dick’s US is capable of enacting extreme security measures against its own citizens. As the old saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t all out to get you, and Philip K. Dick’s vision of an alternate USA in the 1980s now seems remarkably prophetic.
RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH manages to be the closest we’ve seen yet to Philip K. Dick’s vision being put on the screen.
But it requires precisely the right tone to prevent it all from sounding completely ridiculous, and Simon’s uncompromising film adaptation never puts a foot wrong. Some of the depictions of alternate universes, apocalyptic visions and quasi-religious imagery might appear to be a little pulpy, but this is perfectly consistent with the Philip K. Dick worldview and it shouldn’t be overly-polished and airbrushed. Likewise, some of the plot developments may be a little hard to swallow, not least of which is Nick’s discovery of a young woman, Silvia Sadassa (Alanis Morissette), who will help him write a song with a subliminal message to incite the overthrow of Freemont’s presidental tyranny. The key is to play this as if it’s all just the most natural thing in the world, and it gains considerable credibility in this respect from the acting performances. Shea Whigam in particular is a perfect surrogate PKD. Serious, impassive and impassioned, he’s ready to seize upon the most unlikely theories presented and expound on them, and the viewer is carried along by the sincerity of his personality, no matter how surreal and deranged those ideas might seem.
As an adaptation then, RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH manages to be the closest we’ve seen yet to Philip K. Dick’s vision being put on the screen. This is as full and complete an account of this work – and it’s a key work – as it’s possible to achieve, but by the same token it doesn’t offer anything that you can’t already get from the original book itself. For all its superiority in terms of fidelity to its source, Simon never really manages to impose his own character onto RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH in the way that Ridley Scott did with BLADE RUNNER, the way Spielberg did with MINORITY REPORT and even Verhoeven did with TOTAL RECALL. Without the necessary adjustments (or distortions) for mainstream consumption, RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH is likely to remain a cult film, but with this particular work there might not be any other choice.