Have you read the book Blade Runner: A Movie? It’s not the book of the movie Blade Runner – the book of that movie is called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Blade Runner: A Movie isn’t even a movie. Though it was meant to be. The movie of a book called The Bladerunner. Another book, written by someone else entirely, unconnected to Blade Runner, the movie, or Blade Runner: A Movie, the book.
Phew. Shall I start again?
Blade Runner: A Movie was written by William Burroughs – yes, the godfather of the Beats, author of Junky and Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine – and published in 1979. It’s fair to say it’s one of Burroughs’ more obscure titles, but to celebrate its 40th anniversary, it’s back in print this month.
Blade Runner: A Movie is a breathless, stream-of-consciousness, novella-length treatment for an adaptation of an obscure science fiction book called The Bladerunner, written by Alan E Nourse and published in 1974. Set in a near-future dystopian US, where free healthcare is available to all provided they undergo sterilisation and forego various other genetic liberties, Nourse’s novel sees those who don’t submit forced into accessing underground medical treatment. Billy Gimp is the titular Bladerunner, getting scalpels, drugs and supplies to the illegal, backstreet medics.
Burroughs had moved back to New York the year the book was published, after 25 years away from the US. In 1976 he told his agent that he was interested in writing a screenplay of Nourse’s novel. He soon realised that any such adaptation was unlikely to happen, so his screenplay became the novel of the pitch of the film of the novel. In his introduction to the new Tangerine Press edition, Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris suggests that Blade Runner: A Movie is a mutation of Nourse’s The Bladerunner – quite apt given both stories’ rather prescient focus on Big Pharma and healthcare and Burroughs’ exploration of rapidly mutating viruses.
When Blade Runner: A Movie was published in 1979, the story became entwined with its Hollywood homonym. Hampton Fancher was the screenwriter charged by director Ridley Scott with putting together an adaptation of Philip K Dick’s 1968 science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It was to be a very loose adaptation – Scott famously never finished reading the book – and the original title was not marquee-friendly. Scott’s movie had a couple of working titles, notably Android and Dangerous Days, but none appealed to the director until he spotted a throwaway line in Fancher’s script that described Harrison Ford’s character Rick Deckard as a “blade runner”.
It turned out that Fancher had a copy of Burroughs’s book on his shelf and had borrowed the title as a placeholder in his draft. But Scott loved it and paid both Burroughs and Nourse for the rights to use it as the title of his 1982 movie – even though “blade runner” wasn’t mentioned in Dick’s novel or the film, apart from a very brief mention in the voiceover that was tacked on to the original theatrical release at the last minute.
Now it is in print again – is it any good? That depends on how well you get along with Burroughs’ experimental prose. It does seem satisfyingly appropriate that in the month and year Scott’s Blade Runner was set, a new edition of Burroughs’ tale of destroyed cities and angry taxpayers gets re-released. Now, when do we get a re-release of Nourse’s book?
• Blade Runner: A Movie is published by Tangerine Press.