Book vs Movie: Total Recall – What’s the Difference?

In this month’s What’s the Difference, CineFix look at Total Recall* and Phillip K Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.

Can you believe it has been 30 years since the release of Total Recall? At least nobody invented Johnny Cabs in that time.

Many years ago I wrote a post discussing my thoughts about the differences between the first Total Recall movie, the remake with Kate Beckinsale (and some guy called Co-lin Faarill), and the book/short story. In it, I talked about how quickly the movies diverge from the book, essentially before the end of the first act (around the inciting incident). And then I went on to spend several thousand words complaining about the lack of massive biceps and extra boobs in the remake.

For me, this comparison of book to movie and remake shows just how far you can diverge from the source material whilst still retaining a lot of similarities. It also shows the strength of the original premise from Phillip K Dick, because even the remake of Total Recall didn’t completely suck, despite having Len Wiseman involved.**

I’m sure by the time the fortieth anniversary for the original movie rolls around, Hollywood will have released at least two remakes, a TV show, a Mars Lander tie-in short movie with a digitally recreated young Arnie, and a triple breast augmentation procedure.

* The first one, not the bland remake with the genocide of robots.

** The remake mainly suffers from being just that bit soulless. It doesn’t feel like anyone involved cared that much about the film, just that it was a good solid paycheque. As a result, they churned out a good solid action movie that is largely forgettable. Another one in the long line of perfectly adequate movies that make you feel like you’ve been robbed of the opportunity for something better. Not bad enough to justify your hate, but not good enough that you’ll forgive its flaws.

Some News:

I apologise for the lack of updates lately. I have several book reviews I haven’t gotten to, a couple of posts I’ve contemplated and then given up on, and a few of my regular posts (like this Book vs Movie series) that I haven’t published. This is partly sheer laziness and partly due to having taken on a freelance writing job for a magazine due out later this month. I’ll attempt to get back to weekly posts soon.

Total Recall: the movie, the movie, or the book?

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At the moment there is a lot of talk about Paul Verhoeven’s ‘trilogy’ of sci-fi movies being remade. I think the terms used to discuss the remakes are stupid, banal, and facile. Verhoeven made three fantastic social satires, that were also science fiction action films: Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers*. Okay, only two were fantastic, Starship Troopers was stupid. They were also all made at a time when you could make a grossly violent film and not be shunned by cinemas and TV in favour of PG13 violence – you know, the violence that is heavy on explosions and pew-pew noises, but light on the consequences of that violence, which raises kids to believe that violence doesn’t hurt anyone.

Robocop: The Reboot has just hit the cinemas, spurring people the internet over to complain about a movie they haven’t seen (new Robocop), a movie that hasn’t been made yet (new Starship Troopers – not to be confused with Super Troopers), and how terrible the recent Total Recall movie was. Anyone would think that Colin Farrell had personally shagged Arnie’s housekeeper the way they talk about the Total Recall remake.

So I did something unthinkable: I rewatched the remake, the Verhoeven/Schwarzenhamneggnburger version, and read the Phillip K Dick short story (or is it a novella?). The reason for doing so? Because these remakes were being derided so heavily. Nothing inspires people to touch wet paint like putting a wet paint sign on it.

Let’s start with the Total Recall remake. It is an action film: good start. It is a sci-fi: in that it doesn’t have a talking dragon in it, thus it can’t be fantasy, despite the lack of ‘science’ in the science fiction, making it closer to fantasy. It has half decent actors in it: I’d watch just about anything with Kate Beckinsale in it since seeing Shooting Fish, as long as the movie doesn’t have Ben Affleck in it – yes that one, let us not speak it’s name. It also appears to have a plot: I could be mistaken.

As a film the Total Recall remake is fine. All the right things explode, all the good guys live, all the bad guys die horribly, most of the needless violence is against robots so we don’t get caught up in the mass genocide that the hero performs. As an adaptation of the short story, you could be forgiven for thinking the film makers only read the first few pages; much like the original movie. As compared to the original Total Recall, it is a pale, facile shadow.

The Arnie version worked as both a straight up action movie, but also had a much better secondary plot about whether it was all happening or all in his head. This part is what makes the original movie closer to a Phillip K Dick adaptation than the new movie. Although the original movie being closer to the source material is probably because the screenwriter and Verhoeven had read the dust jacket of the story, whereas Len Wiseman and his screenwriter just took Verhoeven’s word for it that there was an original story to base the movie upon.

Dick’s story actually has a really funny and interesting twist ending, which neither movie used because the movies and story diverge at about the time when Doug Quaid (Quail in the book) arrives home after visiting Rekall. In fact, We Can Remember If For You Wholesale bears so little resemblance to the movies that you’d more call it an inspiration for them rather than source material. I don’t have a problem with this, as long as they handed Dick a great big cheque, maybe a signed picture of Arnie to go with it, maybe some Planet Hollywood shares as well.

The movies are both good fun, both are entertaining, both are well made, both had dubious understandings of physics. There is nothing wrong with the new movie as a piece of entertainment. But it won’t last the way the original movie has. This comes down to Verhoeven’s handling of the secondary plot, which might as well not exist in the remake. I certainly look forward to the even more facile Total Recall movie that will come out in another 20 years, which will probably not even have a three boobed woman in it.

* I could write an entire essay on how Heinlein’s original novel differed from the movie and how its social comment was far deeper and insightful than the movie.