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The cinematic adaptation of Phillip K Dick’s thrilling science-fiction story Minority Report captures perfectly the futuristic noir feel of the original. However, the movie’s plotline, characters and central themes contain major dissimilarities. Its characters have different names, younger ages and greater free will. Its plot diverges, and results in a dramatically different, typically Spielbergian happy ending. More importantly, its underlying theme undergoes a shift of focus. One of Dick’s reoccurring themes, evident in many of his works, is the dangers of future society. Likewise, the original Minority Report bears a veiled premonition of the dangers of social engineering and government tyranny. In contrast, Spielberg’s film contains only a skeleton of Dick’s words of warning. The basic plot of a single man pitted against fate remains. However, the emphasis of this story morphs from government conflict to interpersonal conflict; from power and greed on a grand scale to the lust for power on a personal level; and from one man’s helplessness against fate to one man’s victory over fate. Thus, the film adaptation dwells more upon questions of free will. It expands upon the concept of self-determinism versus destiny, and pays less attention to Dick’s deeper themes of ‘big government’ and ‘big brother’. Rather than critiquing the impact of government, police and technology upon society as a whole through the eyes of an individual, Spielberg’s Minority Report focuses more upon the inner turmoil of choice within the individual – such as in Anderton and Burgess. Spielberg successfully captures the grim and gritty feel of Dick’s novel, and creates additional dark characters of which Dick would be proud. He builds upon Dick’s favourite emotions of confusion, paranoia and thrill. He encapsulates Dick’s vision of the future. However, the message of Minority Report becomes diluted in the transition from page to screen. It is a financially and visually successful adaptation, but lacking in parity with Dick’s original intent.
One of the biggest reasons for the differences in Spielberg’s adaptation is the different audiences for which the two works were created. A common feature of many works of science fiction is their non-conformist and non-mainstream qualities, which many of Dick’s works share. In converting this short story into a Hollywood blockbuster, Spielberg necessarily changed several aspects in order to make the story ‘sellable’. One of these aspects is Minority Report’s characters. Ignoring Dick’s description of his middle-aged hero as “Bald and fat and old”, Anderton becomes the explosive young Tom Cruise. Rather than “smiling with forced amiability” at Witwer while “Fear touched him and he began to sweat”, Spielberg’s Anderton exchanges retorts with Witwer, such as “Why don’t you cut the cute act, Danny boy”, culminating in a crowd-pleasing fight scene at a Lexus car factory. Likewise, Witwer is transformed from a blond, blue-eyed and stalwart believer in Precrime to a more intriguing, dark-haired ex-seminary student and wily Irish skeptic. Rather than reciting humble lines like “Maybe I – don’t have this job down as neatly as I imagined”, Spielberg has his Witwer confronting Anderton about his drug addiction, exhibiting “image scrubbing” skills that rival Anderton’s, and almost deducing Burgess’ murderous secrets. These more virile and fiery action heroes, replacing Dick’s middle aged main characters, change the dynamics of the story. Similarly, the “deformed and retarded” Donna becomes the intelligent, sympathetic and attractive Agatha. Rather than being “imprisoned in… special high-backed chairs” and “babbling” incoherently, Agatha reveals the murder of her mother to Anderton, and uses her psychic skills to help him evade capture. She also persuades him to not voluntarily shoot Leo Crowe despite this being his predetermined fate.
This emphasis upon the individual character’s gifts and skills, and their ability to choose their own fate, obscures the deeper implications of the Precrime system. In the novel, Dick’s emphasis was upon an older man beset by a fate he could not change, despite his efforts. He was intending to warn of the dangers of the future, and the susceptibility of mankind to its destiny. The reason for these changes was to make Minority Report more ‘sellable’. However, it could be argued that in this process Spielberg ‘sold out’ the true message of Dick’s work. Spielberg’s emphasis upon free will and the ability to alter one’s destiny shifts the film’s focus away from Dick’s underlying themes, making the film less truthful to its inspiration, and therefore less successful as an adaptation.
Another significant change made to Minority Report is its plot. In Dick’s original story, there had recently been waged an “Anglo-Chinese War”, which left its mark on the American country side. In contrast to Spielberg’s adaptation, the main antagonist of the story is Leopold Kaplan, a retired Army general who was plotting to once again take over full control of the government. In Anderton’s words: “After the war… Officers like Kaplan were retired and discarded. Nobody likes that.” Attached to this plot is Dick’s apprehension at the excessive control of government, and the future dangers associated with a powerful government melded with modern technology.
By replacing Kaplan with Burgess, Spielberg reduces the theme of Minority Report from social and political conflict to interpersonal conflict. No longer is the antagonist motivated by power and the desire to control society; Burgess is simply motivated by personal greed and ambition. By making the antagonist a greedy and ruthless individual, rather than the power-hungry International Veterans’ League, Spielberg downplays Dick’s political themes.
Also, Spielberg introduces the loss of his son as Anderton’s motivation for joining Precrime and his determination to prevent murder. This emphasis upon Anderton’s personal pain dwarfs the broader social perspective Dick originally intended. Another plot change was Spielberg’s restriction of Precrime to the prediction of murder. As Fletcher explains, “There’s nothing more destructive to the metaphysical fabric that binds us than the untimely murder of one human being by another”. When describing the predictions of the precogs, Anderton said: “most… record petty crimes”. By focusing solely upon murder, Spielberg lessened Dick’s portrayal of an engineered society totally under the control of the government. Since murder was the only crime foreseen, then police interference in society was seen as less invasive than in Dick’s short story, and therefore less concerning.
All these alterations resulted in greater focus upon the individual characters and their battles against fate, leaving hardly any mention of the greater political and social concerns evident in Dick’s work. Spielberg neglected Dick’s forewarning of future government tyranny in favour of a story mainly concerned with individual free choice.
Another of the significant differences between Dick and Spielberg is their endings. Spielberg has his Anderton end the film with the optimistic monologue: “In 2054, the six-year Precrime experiment was abandoned. All prisoners were unconditionally pardoned and released… Agatha and the twins… live out their lives in peace.” This is in stark contrast to Anderton’s closing words in the book: “Better keep your eyes open… It might happen to you at any time.” Spielberg’s characteristic happy ending, evident in most of his films, negates Dick’s original tone of warning. Rather than containing an undertone of urgency, foreboding or cynicism, Spielberg more often meanders into humour and light-heartedness. This is exemplified when Anderton launches through a family’s dinner table during the jetpack chase scene, and in Rufus Riley’s line to Agatha: “Those thoughts about my cousin Elena, those were just thoughts!” This humour is not evident at all evident in Dick’s original work, just as Spielberg’s hopeful spin is incompatible with Dick’s original intent. Spielberg ends his film with Anderton escaping his fate, and Burgess proving the system as flawed. As Anderton says to Burgess: “You still have a choice, Lamar”. This choice of fate is not evident in Dick’s work. Neither does Anderton bring down the system, despite proving its flaws. The precogs continue to be “imprisoned in their special high-backed chairs”, and society continues to be controlled through technology. This ending serves as a warning against modern society being overrun with technology, and engineered to dangerous perfection. Spielberg’s alterations distort Dick’s message, and result in a humanistic triumph rather than a solemn caution.
Despite these gaping differences in theme and message, the look and feel of Minority Report is strikingly accurate to Dick’s original story. True to the original, Spielberg’s film is dark, melancholy, and replete with paranoia and sombre colour schemes. In both original and adaptation, there are shadowy and mysterious characters like Fleming and the eyeless drug dealer. Spielberg even builds upon Dick’s style by introducing characters like the weird eye surgeon, his strange nurse, and the piano-playing prison guard, Gideon. In both original and adaptation, there are dark and forbidding settings like the “dark streets of New York” and the ominous underworld of ‘The Sprawl’. The fast-paced and action-laced scenes shot by Spielberg reflect, amongst others, the frenetic car crash scene of Chapter IV.
Also, Anderton’s drug-obsession is reflective of Dick’s other works, and his constant questioning and confusion fits perfectly with Dick’s favourite question of “What is real?”. Spielberg’s grungy and gloomy scenes, such as the jetpack chase through The Sprawl, are suggestive of such descriptions in the book as “the rubbish-littered streets” and “the tumbled miles of cheap hotels and broken-down tenements that had sprung up after the mass destruction of the war.” Spielberg also builds upon Dick’s ambiguous technology, translating “data-receptors”, “computing mechanisms” and “bundles of wiring” into motion-operated computers, magnetically levitated public transport and iris-scanning equipment – all in a way that channels Dick’s creativity. Just like the original, the mood of Spielberg’s adaptation is mostly sombre, focused upon fear, suspicion and thoughts of confusion – emotions which Spielberg interprets in his colour scheme. The lighting of Minority Report is desaturated and highly contrasted, reflecting the shadowy and war-ravaged world of Dick’s original story. While Spielberg removes the effects of war, he leaves a sense of subduedness, reflected in muted colours and grim contrasts. All these production elements bring Spielberg’s version closer to the creative essence of Dick’s work. However, they fail to bridge the gap between Dick’s concerns and Spielberg’s altered message.
Dick’s short story was a poignant herald of the future, and its possible dangers. He created an entertaining story which avoided a happy ending in favour of a timely social message. His vision of police control, lack of free will and the possibility of tyranny is pertinent in today’s increasingly globalised and government-centred society. Spielberg’s adaptation loses this vital message in the transformation from book to screen. The individual actions of its characters become more important than the deeper social implications. The significant plot and character differences between the two versions stem from their being aimed at two contrasting audiences. Spielberg’s version was a thrilling action movie that engaged the audience in a story of escape, intrigue, murder-mystery and ultimate triumph of the underdog, aided by the stunning distraction of special effects and enigmatic colours. Dick’s original story was focused more upon deeper questions of social engineering, the hazard of perfection and the dangers of over-powerful government. It was a grim and satirical warning of what the future might hold. Spielberg was successful in capturing the gritty and gloomy feel of Minority Report, but Dick’s important underlying message was lost in translation. Rather than warn, Spielberg’s version was designed to engage and entertain. In this respect, the modern adaptation of Minority Report failed.
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