“Blade Runner” Was a Totally Different Story

Back in October I saw the new Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic. I enjoyed it a lot, and I think that they did justice to the original – which is a pretty tall order. I will say that the reviews were mixed in part because you need to be familiar with the original film in order to fully appreciate it, and some of the perpetual fan questions like “Is Deckard really a replicant?” go unanswered – but I found it a nice counterpoint to the big, kind of dumb sci-fi action films that seem to be taking over the genre of late.

At any rate, no matter what you think of the original or the new film, here’s a question for you – what the heck is a “Blade Runner?” We know what it means in the context of the films – blade runners are essentially bounty hunters who track down rogue replicants, synthetic humans originally created as a slave labor force. The original Philip K. Dick story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is no help at all – the term “blade runner” is nowhere to be found in the text.

I recently came across this Slate article up explaining where the title came from, and it’s actually kind of bizarre and amusing. It just goes to show the in world of movie adaptations, nothing is anywhere near as straightforward as it appears. The story of the term “Blade Runner” starts with a doctor named Alan E. Nourse who also happened to be a science-fiction writer.

Whatever Nourse’s skills as a doctor may have been, they were outweighed in the scales of history by his other passion: writing about the medical profession and fantastical worlds of the future. Before he was even done with medical school, he was publishing sci-fi on the side: first came short pieces in anthology magazines like Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction, then he started publishing novels with titles like Trouble on Titan (1954), Rocket to Limbo (1957), and Scavengers in Space (1959). In 1963, he retired from medicine to focus on his writing, but wrote about learning the healing arts in a 1965 nonfiction book called Intern, published under the intimidating pseudonym “Dr. X.” Sci-fi author-editor Robert Silverberg, who knew Nourse, tells me the latter book “brought him much repute and fortune,” but in general, he just “wrote a lot of very good science fiction that no one seemed to notice.”

That changed on October 28, 1974. Sort of. On that day, publishing house David McKay released a Nourse novel that combined the author’s two areas of expertise into a single magnum opus: The Bladerunner. It follows the adventures of a young man known as Billy Gimp and his partner in crime, Doc, as they navigate a health-care dystopia. It’s the near future, and eugenics has become a guiding American philosophy. Universal health care has been enacted, but in order to cull the herd of the weak, the “Health Control laws” — enforced by the office of a draconian “Secretary of Health Control” — dictate that anyone who wants medical care must undergo sterilization first. As a result, a system of black-market health care has emerged in which suppliers obtain medical equipment, doctors use it to illegally heal those who don’t want to be sterilized, and there are people who covertly transport the equipment to the doctors. Since that equipment often includes scalpels and other instruments of incision, the transporters are known as “bladerunners.” Et voilà, the origin of a term that went on to change sci-fi.

The Bladerunner had nothing to do with Philip K. Dick or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Nonetheless, it would become the title of the film that would make Dick and his work famous in popular culture. The story of how that happened was strange and serendipitous, to say the least.

But fortune smiled on Nourse, as did one of the finest writers of the past 100 years: the obscene eccentric William S. Burroughs. According to literary scholar Paul Ardoin, Burroughs somehow obtained a copy of the second printing of The Bladerunner around the end of 1976. Burroughs was in a transitional stage in his life, having kicked heroin only a few years before and having moved back to New York after a self-imposed exile in Europe. He was rebooting his career with the help of a new assistant named James Grauerholz, turning in columns for pop-culture mag Crawdaddy and soaking up the nascent downtown punk scene. On December 5, 1976, Grauerholz wrote a letter to Burroughs’s agent, Peter Matson, saying the scribe had “liked the book very much, and in fact has begun to consider a film treatment for it.” As far as I can tell, writing a film treatment was something new, or at least quite rare, for Burroughs, but he dove into it with fervent passion. Matson negotiated the rights with Nourse, got the go-ahead, and Burroughs wrote the treatment in less than four months, delivering it to Matson by March 1977. He called it The Blade Runner, adding a fateful space to the titular noun.

Burroughs’s take on Nourse is, to put it mildly, a wild ride. Indeed, it barely has anything to do with The Bladerunner and is as over-the-top as the original was buttoned-down. It’s written not as a screenplay, but rather as a novella-length explanation of the movie to someone named “B.J.” (Burroughs periodically included this mysterious figure as the recipient of his words in other works, as well.) Like many Burroughs texts, the adaptation is highly inscrutable, which is what makes it so entertaining. He doesn’t even get to the main plot of the movie until nearly halfway through, having spent the first portion just setting the scene with the difficult-to-follow backstory of how the world of the film got to be so screwed-up: Overpopulation led to government intrusion into the lives of private citizens, the state’s attempts to control the population begat multiple Health Acts that were received poorly by the populace and led to a bloody civil war in greater New York in which the white middle class battled the poor and people of color, and from the ashes rose a new America where “the unfit” have to undergo sterilization in order to receive health care.

The Blade Runner was patently unfilmable. Grauerholz reported in July 1977 that nobody they took it to was interested, and an alternative arrangement was made with Nourse, whereby the treatment would be published in book form and all film rights would be forfeited. In order to distinguish it from Nourse’s book, a title change was necessary, and although the adaptation would never be a movie, Burroughs and Grauerholz confusingly chose to call it Blade Runner: A Movie. It was first published in 1979 by Blue Wind Press and was never considered a major Burroughs work.

However, a copy of Blade Runner: A Movie found its way into the library of a struggling actor and writer named Hampton Fancher. In the early 1980s, he, producer Michael Deely, and director Ridley Scott were working on an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and stumbled on a question. “Ridley, after a few months of us working on a draft, when he first came into the project, asked me a question that was so obvious I hadn’t really addressed it before,” Fancher tells me. “What is it that Deckard is, professionally? ‘He’s a detective,’ I said. ‘Well, that was obvious, but what kind of detective exactly, what should he be called?’ I didn’t have an answer, but I’d better get one fast.”

He turned to his collection of tomes. Per Fancher: “That night, I was looking through my books and came across a thin little volume by William Burroughs called Blade Runner. Bingo! Everybody liked it, then later, we needed a new title other than the ones we’d been considering and Michael Deeley, the producer, said, ‘It’s staring us right in the face.’” According to Scott, they approached Burroughs, he said yes, they bought the title of his book for “a nominal fee,” and Blade Runner — a work that otherwise had nothing to do with The Bladerunner or Blade Runner: A Movie — was released on June 25, 1982.

I don’t know if there’s any real takeaway from this, except that it shows if you come up with a really cool title for your story, somebody might decide to license it for a completely unrelated film. This isn’t the only case of that, either. The producers of the 1992 film The Lawnmower Man licensed the title of the Stephen King story of the same name not long after King became a household name, but the movie was actually based on an original screenplay with a working title of CyberGod.

The only similarity with the King story is that there’s one scene where a guy is killed with a lawnmower. King wound up suing the production company when they advertised that the film was based on his story – when all that the company had licensed was the title and the movie was entirely written by someone else. And by the way, before you tell me how terrible The Lawnmower Man was, make sure you’ve watched the director’s cut first. Compared to the theatrical release, which was awful, it’s like night and day.

So maybe that means if you come up with a really cool title, you should keep it to yourself until you know what the people licensing it are going to do with it. Then again, if your name isn’t Stephen King, I don’t know how likely it is that a film production is going to try and exploit your fame in order to drum up publicity.

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