Blade Runner celebrates its 40th anniversary today. Released in the summer of 1982, the film flopped at the box office, and wasn’t particularly well-received by critics. But through the intervening decades, Blade Runner’s reputation has grown, and it’s now considered a sci-fi classic. But the idea for the film came from a dark place, with author Philip K. Dick being inspired by a Nazi diary.
Set in the (then) future of 2019, Blade Runner revolves around a former cop who now makes his living hunting and “retiring” powerful androids – or Replicants – who have been outlawed on earth.
Directed by Ridley Scott, the film has two screenwriters in the shape of Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, and the source material they worked from was a novel called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick.
The book was published in 1968, during the height of the Vietnam War, and Dick first had the idea for the story while researching another book.
How did a Nazi diary influence Blade Runner?
While working on 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle – which imagines an alternative world where Germany won WWII – Dick gained access to Gestapo documents housed at the University of California.
In there, he discovered diaries of SS men stationed in Poland. And one entry triggered something.
Speaking to Cinefantastique shortly before his death, Dick said: “The sentence read, ‘We are kept awake at night by the cries of starving children.’ There was obviously something wrong with the man who wrote that. I later realized that, with the Nazis, what we were essentially dealing with was a defective group mind; a mind so emotionally defective that the word human could not be applied to them.”
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From there, Dick considered the fact that such group-thinking was becoming universal. He continues: “Worse, I felt that this was not necessarily a solely German trait. This deficiency had been exported into the world after World War II and could be picked up by people anywhere at any time.
“I wrote Do Androids during the Vietnam War. At the same time, I was revolutionary and existential enough to believe that these android personalities were so lethal, so dangerous to human beings, that it ultimately might become necessary to fight them. The problem in killing them would then be: ‘Would we not become like the androids in our very effort to wipe them out?'”
Androids/replicants vs. humans
Dick wanted to explore modern mankind’s emotional sterility with the book, as well as the effect that the war in Vietnam was having on those fighting. As he tells Cinefantastique, “It was written during a time when I thought we had become as bad as the enemy.”
This is where the film differs to the book. In Androids, protagonist Deckard seems to be losing his humanity, whereas in Blade Runner, he’s gaining it, through his love for replicant Rachel.
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“It’s one of my favorite novels,” he told the magazine. “Although it’s essentially a dramatic novel, the moral and philosophical ambiguities it dealt with are really very profound. The book stemmed from my basic interest in the problem of differentiating the authentic human being from the reflexive machine, which I called an android. In my mind, ‘android’ is a metaphor for people who are physiologically human, but who behave in a non-human way.”
Differentiating human from machine becomes an even more prominent theme of the movie, and yet more pronounced with each successive cut. But the central concept remains the same, and can be traced back to that single, chilling sentence.