From Book to the Big Screen

Hasitha Fernando revisits Minority Report as it turns 20…


For decades Philip K. Dick’s works have enthralled readers the world over with their high-brow concepts, philosophical themes and engaging narratives. Posthumously his efforts have attracted the attention of many a talented Hollywood filmmaker, who seek to bring his singular vision to life. Ridley Scott accomplished this and then some with Blade Runner back in 1982. Nearly twenty years later it was cinema wunderkind Steven Spielberg’s turn to try his luck.

Interest in Dick’s 1956 short story started as early as 1992, when producer-writer Gary Goldman optioned it with a view of adapting it as a potential sequel to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1990 sci-fi mindfuck Total Recall. Some time later in 1997, the project once again gathered steam and novelist Jon Cohen was tapped to adapt the short story into a feature length film helmed by Speed director Jan De Bont. However, that version of story didn’t pan out and thus, the project was shelved indefinitely.


Tom Cruise had been wanting to collaborate with Steven Spielberg on a venture for quite some time, and those frustratingly abortive attempts at working together is what drove Cruise to bring Cohen’s script to Spielberg’s attention. The intrepid director wasn’t completely convinced since he thought the script needed some work, but after Cohen submitted an acceptable revision of his original draft, he came on board. And so, in 1998 as a joint effort between Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and DreamWorks, 20th Century Fox, Cruise’s Cruise/Wagner Productions and De Bont’s production company Blue Tulip, work on the film commenced but it would be a while before things really fell into place.


Trouble came-a-knocking in the form of Mission: Impossible 2 which had, by that point, run way beyond schedule due to its myriad production issues. But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it gave Spielberg ample time to bring in screenwriter Scott Frank to retool Cohen’s script. “I think all of us would love to know what’s just around the corner. We’d all love to know what’s gonna happen next in the world, in our lives. A kind of a need to know about the unknowable. And this story flirts with the idea of ‘what if’ we had the chance to know certain things about the future, especially things that come under the heading of life and death,” Spielberg elaborated during one of his interviews when asked what drew him to Minority Report in the first place.


When Scott Frank was brought in to write the script Spielberg specifically told him to focus on story and character, eschewing the future-tech and all the bells and whistles therein. Frank had this to say during a one-on-one for BAFTA’s The Screenwriter’s Lecture Series, “The first thing Steven said to me is to write the script like it’s happening today. If someone answers a phone, they answer a phone. Don’t describe the phone. If they get in a car, they get in a car. Don’t describe the car. For the moment let’s focus just about the story. And this was a huge relief to me. It made it much easier to think about things and focus on what mattered.”


There are several differences between Dick’s story and the final script churned out by Frank. The character of John Anderton was changed from a balding out-of-shape old man to an athletic 40s PreCrime officer, to make the action scenes seem more believable. At Spielberg’s suggestion an element of tragedy was added to Anderton’s backstory, to humanize the role more. The precogs in the book were physically deformed, intellectually disabled individuals whilst in film they are the genetically mutated offspring of a drug addict. And the person responsible for the overarching conspiracy is vastly different from the source material’s version. But all these changes worked extremely well in the context of the movie, and that is what made Minority Report successful.


The world building featured in Minority Report continues to influence sci-fi movies to this day, and that’s solely because of the herculean efforts Spielberg put in to make the year 2054 seem plausible and scientifically accurate, instead of going for a more traditional science fiction setting. In 1999, he convened a fifteen member ‘think tank’ at a hotel in Santa Monica to come up with believable technological innovations, possible socio-economic changes and realistic architectural and infrastructure developments that could take place during the course of the next fifty years.


Production Designer Alex McDowell entered all these diverse ideas and thoughts compiling a book he dubbed the “2054 bible”, by the end of the aforementioned gathering. He used this 80-page guide as his basis during preproduction, when crafting the stunningly immersive world we witnessed in Minority Report. McDowell’s team was the first bunch of creatives to apply an entirely digital production design to a film. This allowed them to create entire simulated sets, populated with digital actors and these synthetic environments came in handy when blocking scenes way in advance. DOP Janusz Kaminski who has worked with Spielberg on most of his movies, employed a special method during post-production to achieve the distinct noir-feel the director wanted. The film was intentionally over lit, and the negative was bleach-bypassed to give this strange, desaturated patina reminiscent of a black-and-white noir picture.


The year 2002 saw maestro John Williams turn in scores for multiple franchise flicks, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secretsbut that didn’t stop the man from taking on this assignment as well. For Minority Report the veteran composer sought influence from another giant of the film music industry – Bernard Herrmann. Focusing on the emotional story beats of the narrative instead of its science fiction elements, Williams ended up conjuring a very noir-esque score dripping with darkness, mystery and melodrama.


Filming commenced on March 22, 2001 in Washington D.C with a packed cast of talented actors with superstar Tom Cruise playing the lead. Irish actor Colin Farrell was cast to play the persistent yet pious Department of Justice agent Danny Witwer, while Swedish-French acting legend Max von Sydow was chosen to portray the calculating director of PreCrime Lamar Burgess. British character actress Samantha Morton took on the role of precog Agatha, the unfortunate soul destined to on the rollercoaster ride with Cruise’s John Anderton. A few memorable cameos featuring the likes of Peter Stormare and Tim Blake Nelson are also worth being mentioned here.


Minority Report hit theaters on June 21, 2002 to great critical and audience acclaim raking in US$ 358.4 million through its theatrical run. Its central theme which focuses on the concepts of free-will and determinism was praised extensively as well as the strong performances of Cruise and company. As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Minority Report‘tis a good opportunity as any to appreciate what this stunning sci-fi piece achieved in terms of thought-provoking storytelling and tackling heady philosophical themes. It is the type of movie that you’d rarely see in the modern-day barren wasteland of good-for-nothing cinema. One can only hope that there’s someone smart enough left in Hollywood who’d be brave enough to adapt hard-edged, adult-centric properties like these, before we all drown in a cesspool of mediocrity.

Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.

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