Angels on the Head of a Tape Recorder: Adapting Philip K. Dick for Audio

We’ve seen a mini-boom of fictional podcasts pop up over the past year or two (Limetown, Archive 81, and The Bright Sessions, to name but a few). Even so, there’s still not a lot of audio fiction in the world, especially when you compare it to the vast amounts of fiction literature, films, and plays produced each year. But bridging that gap is a bit tricky because what makes an audio story work is very different from what works well in print, film, or on stage. The lack of visual elements in audio storytelling poses particular challenges for fiction, which relies on building imaginary worlds and characters. And I think one of the best ways of understanding what these challenges are and how to tackle them is by exploring the process of adaptation.

Adapting a novel for film or a short story for audio is no simple feat, and any re-creation requires overhauling scenes and set pieces and often condensing or eliminating entire sections. Very rarely is the adaptation completely true to the original (lucky for those who like to brag that they prefer a book to its film). The challenges involved in adapting a story for audio begin with finding a story, and then reworking it in a way that takes advantage of audio’s strengths, and then finally recording and mixing it in a way that enables the story to become a piece which could only exist as audio. Each of these steps requires a keen understanding of how audio storytelling functions and how to build rich soundscapes that listeners can effortlessly imagine.

Finding a Story

Our podcast, The Truth, is an anthology series, which means that for every episode, we start anew:  a new premise, new characters, and a whole new world to build. That means we are constantly in need of fresh story ideas and scripts to produce; we can never have enough.  And we’re always on the lookout for already-existing stories that we can adapt to audio.

Of course it helps to know what you’re looking for. We’re particularly interested in speculative fiction, which means there’s something in the story that couldn’t happen in the real world. This is a broad category of fiction that includes science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternative history, and magical realism. We started by asking, “Which authors feel like how we want our show to sound?” Michael Chabon. Madeleine L'Engle. Ray Bradbury. Oh, and definitely Philip K. Dick… Wait, doesn’t he have a bunch of short stories in the public domain

Finding a source of stories available in the public domain is a big advantage: it means we can use the story free of charge without copyright issues. When we realized some of Dick’s stories were available, I asked Diana McCorry, who was our intern at the time, to read all of them and type up descriptions of the ones she thought had the most potential for audio adaptation.

All of Dick’s public domain stories come from the 1950s, when he was still early in his career and was selling his work to pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and Fantastic Universe. Most of these stories read like post-World War II relics, preoccupied with Soviet aggression and nuclear Armageddon, metaphors for common anxieties of the era. The mission of our show has always been to make audio drama that feels modern and relevant to a contemporary audience, and it was difficult to see how these stories could work without fundamental changes. But among them we found one that was based on a mythology I’d never encountered before.

“Upon the Dull Earth” was first published in November 1954 in a magazine called Beyond Fantasy Fiction. It’s about a young couple, Rick and Silvia, who are engaged. For years Silvia has used blood to attract creatures she calls “angels.” (Spoilers ahead!) One day Silvia takes Rick to the woods to witness these otherworldly creatures for himself. Afterward, they go back to Silvia’s family’s house, where the couple gets into an argument that culminates in Silvia’s spirit being taken by these creatures, leaving a “brittle, burned-out husk.” Rick decides to try bringing Silvia back and is able to successfully contact her through the angels. She tells Rick that the angels are willing to send her back, but the results could be unpredictable. He agrees to it and indeed the results are as chilling as they are bizarre: one by one the people around him transform into Silvia. Her family, the people in town, the entire world...and finally Rick himself.

I liked this short story because it’s not about zombies, it’s not about vampires, and it’s not about aliens; it’s an odd mix of all of those things, with a healthy dose of mysticism thrown in. “Upon the Dull Earth” read to me as though Philip K. Dick identified supernatural elements of disparate stories, like Norse mythology and Homer’s Odyssey, and found a way to tie them all together into a unified plot. In this way, the story was both familiar and altogether original.

But just because the content felt fresh didn’t mean that it would make a good audio piece. Finding a compelling story is only the first step in production. Every episode we make takes months of effort, and I didn’t want to go through all that just to end up with a glorified book on tape, or worse, a piece that felt like its lack of visuals were working against it. I wanted to make something that was fundamentally a radio piece—that was actually better because it was only sound. To do that, I had to think about what parts of the story would lend themselves to soundscaping. I like our stories to go beyond the sound of characters talking to incorporate the environments they’re inhabiting and plot elements that can be relayed in distinct ways through sound.

Fortunately, this story had a lot going for it: Rick and Silvia go into the woods (immediately I thought of branches cracking and leaves crunching in a thick chorus of crickets) to see glowing angel creatures that swarm in from the sky, which I felt could sound very unique and immersive. There’s a set-piece in the middle where Rick is standing alone in the woods shouting to Silvia and the angels, and I thought it might sound great to have the angels sing back to him. And there’s also the sequence when everyone transforms into Silvia that I knew we could translate into audio simply by re-recording the same actress in multiple locations using a stereo microphone. Right away, I knew sound could play a big role in telling this story.

On the other hand, there’s a lot in this story that’s quite visual. Often writers “solve” this problem in adaptation by filling in those visual elements with exposition-heavy dialogue (“Here we are in your parents’ house.”). I don’t like to hear characters say things they don’t need to say in a story, it makes me conscious of the story mechanics when I’d rather be experiencing the story along with the characters. And exposition-heavy dialogue is usually full of things a character would not actually need to say; the writer needed to say it. So with that in mind, how could we clearly convey all the story’s visual elements without bogging down the dialogue in description? One way to deal with this is to use narration.

The original story is written in third person, but I thought perhaps we might try changing it to first person from Rick’s perspective because I thought that might help the story feel more intimate and play to radio’s strengths. Specifically, I was thinking about all of my favorite radio hosts, from Jean Shepherd to Marc Maron, and how they are always talking directly to the listener. I was also thinking about the way documentary producers like Joe Richman (Radio Diaries) and David Isay (Story Corps) use first person narration, often edited from interview recordings. The radio that I love tends to thrive on intimacy and personal connection.

But there was one complication: Rick changes into Silvia at the end of the story. How could he narrate the entire thing? And then I thought: what if at that point the narrator becomes Silvia? That’s it! I was convinced. We had to make this story.

Scripting for Audio

Once I determined how to handle the story’s visual elements through narration, I knew this was something we could adapt. Now it became a matter of exactly how to script it.

I wanted to get to know the story better, so the first thing I did was copy and paste it into a Word document so I could start playing around with the text. It read to me very strongly as something written in the 1950s, primarily in the way the characters talk and relate to one another. For example, near the beginning of the story when Silvia and Rick are in the woods, Silvia has narrowly escaped being devoured by the creatures:

"I'm sorry," Silvia whispered.

"Don't do it again," Rick managed. He was numb with shock. "It isn't safe.”

"Sometimes I forget. I'm sorry, Rick. I didn't mean to draw them so close." She tried to smile. "I haven't been that careless in months. Not since that other time, when I first brought you out here." The avid, wild look slid across her face. "Did you see him? Power and flames! And he didn't even touch us. He just — looked at us. That was all. And everything's burned up, all around.”

Rick grabbed hold of her. "Listen," he grated. "You mustn't call them again. It's wrong. This isn't their world."

The characters talk as though they’re in an old black-and-white B-movie, and Rick treats Silvia more like a child than his fiancé, which was reflective of the gender roles of the time. But I wanted our piece to feel contemporary, maybe even timeless. As I went through the story, I imagined how everything might play in a modern day setting and what kinds of changes might make sense with that goal in mind.

After Silvia is nearly devoured in the woods, she takes Rick back to her family’s house, where she’s still living. We learn several crucial details: her entire family disapproves of Silvia’s interest in the angel creatures; despite her family’s disapproval, in their basement Silvia has built an elaborate system of pumps and wooden pipes that transport lamb’s blood out to the woods. She also has an oak and brass coffin she bought from China that she uses as a cocoon.

Trembling with excitement, Silvia disappeared behind the huge lumbering refrigerator, back into the darkness behind the web of frost-hard freezing coils. He could hear her tugging and pulling at something. Scraping sounds, sounds of something large being dragged out.

"See?" Silvia gasped. "Give me a hand, Rick. It's heavy. Hardwood and brass — and metal lined. It's hand-stained and polished. And the carving — see the carving! Isn't it beautiful?”

"What is it?" Rick demanded huskily.

"It's my cocoon," Silvia said simply. She settled down in a contented heap on the floor, and rested her head happily against the polished oak coffin.

Rick grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to her feet. "You can't sit with that coffin, down here in the basement with —" He broke off. "What's the matter?”

Silvia's face was twisting with pain. She backed away from him and put her finger quickly to her mouth. "I cut myself — when you pulled me up — on a nail or something." A thin trickle of blood oozed down her fingers. She groped in her pocket for a handkerchief.

As I thought about adapting this, I spent a lot of time trying to reconcile several things that didn’t quite make sense to me—things that I might have just shrugged off if I were reading more casually. Did she build this elaborate plumbing system all by herself? Her family certainly doesn’t seem like they would be willing to help. And how could she acquire an expensive hardwood cocoon (from China no less) without her family finding out? How did she pay for it?

I also had trouble reconciling Silvia and Rick’s relationship. Why did Silvia accept Rick’s marriage proposal in the first place? She behaves as though she has some sort of death wish, with the cocoon and the blood and the questionable angel creatures. Also, the gender dynamics feel old fashioned to me. Even though she’s engaged, Silvia still lives at home with her parents. When she shows him the coffin and plumbing system, Rick’s response to Silvia comes across as paternalistic and controlling. How did they even get this far in the relationship without him knowing? To deal with these concerns, I imagined how it might affect the story to make them not engaged, but just a young couple, naive and deeply in love, maybe still in high school. I also thought about taking away Rick’s skeptical protectiveness and making him more cautiously fascinated with Silvia’s interest in angels. I thought this might make him feel more complicit in her disappearance and fuel his desire to get her back.

I started thinking about what a real world contemporary analogue to all of the story’s fantasy elements might be. And what I came up with was heroin addiction. The characters in this story reminded me of an episode of Cops I saw one time (don’t laugh, this is serious) that really stuck with me. In it, officers come upon a young guy, maybe 18 or 19 years old, who looks like a typical white middle class college student—the kind of guy I grew up with—who is wandering the streets in a daze, with hollow eyes and the life sucked out of him, like a zombie. When the officers question him they learn that he’s strung out on heroin, and he first became addicted when his girlfriend turned him onto it. When I saw this, I tried to imagine how that first time might have gone, what she might have said to him to make him feel like this would be a good idea. This was my model for Rick and Silvia. It was a metaphor that seemed to correlate to all the blood elements in the Philip K. Dick story, and it helped me understand who the characters were and how they might behave. It also felt consistent with the story’s ultimate consequences. That was the key I used to make the story feel more modern: when in doubt, I imagined those kids from Cops.

While these changes felt right for me, they were not always easy for me to embrace. When I began adapting this story, I was reluctant to do anything that I felt might run counter to Philip K. Dick’s original intentions. But the more I worked on the story, the more I realized how much a) I have no idea what Dick was thinking when he wrote this, and b) what excited him was not necessarily what excited me. I felt that for this piece to resonate with our audience, it first needed to be something that resonated with me. This gave me the confidence to begin making much larger changes; I focused on what excited me about the story.

There were three clear sections I “heard” in my head right away, that energized me and made me want to tackle this in the first place:

    i) Rick and Silvia go to the woods to make the angels appear
    ii) The angels sing to Rick    
    iii) Everyone in the world changes into Silvia

These three set-pieces seemed like they could make a good spine for the story, and so I decided to let go of the original plot and instead think of these sections as my structural guide.

Once I let go of staying faithful to all of the original elements of the story, I was able to make much more sweeping changes. For instance, while the elaborate plumbing system and cocoon are both neat, I felt they pushed the plausibility of the fantasy elements. I thought, What if we dropped the plumbing system, removed the cocoon from the basement, and had the angels succeed in taking Silvia in the opening sequence? That would make that section into a set-piece with a tragic climax. But in doing that, we lost a lot of important exposition and character motivation that is developed when Rick and Silvia go back to the house. We also lost Rick meeting her family, who are important characters to introduce as they are among those changed into Silvia later.

The solution I came up with was to make the first sequence of the story a montage that included clips of Silvia showing Rick how she draws blood (an idea I had while thinking about the Cops episode) while she tells him about what compels her to do this. I juxtaposed that with the two of them walking in the woods, along with Rick’s narration. Then, after she’s taken by the angels in the woods, instead of Silvia bringing Rick back to her house, we’d hear Rick running to Silvia’s house to tell her family what happened. That allowed listeners to be introduced to the family as characters and to have an opportunity to learn their perspective on Silvia’s behavior. All of this tinkering was getting me closer to a complete script, but it left me with a couple more problems to solve: How is Rick left to feel at the end of his encounter with her family? And what motivates him to then return to the woods to get Silvia back?

Fortunately, I didn’t have to answer all these questions myself. The Truth has a weekly writers’ meeting where we all read and discuss each other’s stories. In discussing this story at our meeting, our team came up with some great ideas. Perhaps the most crucial change was that we decided to make the blood Silvia uses to attract the angels her own rather than lamb’s blood. This one change disposed of the remaining problems; it gave Rick something to ask for when he talks to the family (i.e. he knows there’s more of her blood in the house, and he wants it so he can try to get her back). Then when the family refuses, it clearly demonstrates where they stand in all this. And how Rick responds to this refusal is an important character-defining moment for him: Does he try to overpower them? Sneak in late at night to steal more blood? Or… what if he uses his own blood? Additionally, Silvia’s use of her own blood felt more visceral and it drew the metaphor closer to drug addiction.

The last really major change we made was to the final sequence, when everyone changes into Silvia. In the original story it’s much, much longer. In fact, it’s almost half the story. Consider this cumbersome sequence of events:

    - Silvia’s entire family transforms into Silvia
    - Rick gets in his car and drives to a gas station, where the attendant transforms into Silvia.
    - He goes to a roadside cafe, where the waitress and everyone in the cafe transforms into Silvia.
    - He then drives through several towns, where everyone everywhere is transforming into Silvia.
    - He drives for hours and finally picks up a hitchhiker, who transforms into Silvia.
    - He turns on the radio, and the voices he hears are Silvia’s.
    - He sees a police officer, who transforms into Silvia. (Is Philip K. Dick getting paid by the word? Actually, probably.)
    - He goes to his apartment building, where a janitor greets him in the hallway before transforming into Silvia.
    - Finally, finally, he gets home, closes his door, looks into the mirror, and—yep—transforms into Silvia.

What we need to know can pretty much be summed up in one sentence: everyone transforms into Silvia. That’s the entire point of the story. It doesn’t matter who transforms into her, because everyone does. The question is what actions do we need to witness for this point to be communicated as simply as possible? That’s dramatic storytelling in a nutshell: what can be communicated by an action? And how can an idea be communicated in as few actions as possible?

I set to work condensing the ending. After Rick gets in his car, he drives down the highway, and everyone he sees is Silvia. This works fine, but how can we know the whole world has turned into her? If we look at the sequence of events Philip K. Dick wrote, we see that at a certain point Rick turns on the radio. I liked this one because it shows that Silvia is now taking over bodies well beyond the immediate physical space that Rick inhabits. And if that is happening, we can begin to understand the reach of this phenomenon. And then we can confirm it and feel its repercussions when he gets home and is hounded by Silvias from every direction. Reducing the redundant scenes and keeping it simple builds the tension because we’re always learning new information. Then the whole sequence culminates with Rick slamming his front door, finally safe. Only he’s not safe because… dum dum DUM!

Recording and mixing

After the script was complete, we had to cast people to play Silvia and Rick. Finding the right actors is always important; they can be the difference between a script coming to life or falling flat. We found exactly who we needed in Rebecca Robles and Andy Moskowitz, both performers with whom I’d worked on previous stories. I had Rebecca and Andy meet with me at my apartment in New York City. I talked them through the story and acted out bits of it for them, all while describing how I imagined recording it. Then I got out the microphone and we recorded a little improv, just to get to know their characters a bit. Rebecca and Andy are both experienced improvisers, and so they were able to convincingly portray several scenes, including when I asked them to act as though Silvia is showing Rick how to draw blood.

I also had some of the exposition from the story written out , so I had them throw some of that in there, too.

The next step was finding the right locations in which to record. A lot of this story takes place in the woods, and I really wanted to record in an actual wooded area. Because we’re based in New York City, which is full of people and traffic and honking and sirens, getting the remote rural sound I wanted had to involve travel. Fortunately, Diana McCorry’s grandparents live on a farm in New Jersey, about an hour and a half outside of the city. With our location settled, one evening Rebecca, Andy, Diana, our associate producer Kerry Kastin, and I all drove out to the farm and spent a few hours recording all of the scenes in the woods.

Jonathan Mitchell recording a scene for "Silvia's Blood."

Jonathan Mitchell recording a scene for "Silvia's Blood."

For the “walking around in the woods” sequence, I gave the actors just basic bits of loose dialogue, and we wandered around in circles, improvising while working the dialogue into the conversation. I really liked the sloppiness of using a handheld microphone for this sequence because it helped reinforce the remoteness of where they are going (it’s a struggle to get there), and it made the whole endeavor feel more authentic (like a documentary). The more authentic we could make the story feel, the spookier the fantasy elements would play.

Jonathan Mitchell on location and shooting a scene for "Silvia's Blood."

Jonathan Mitchell on location and shooting a scene for "Silvia's Blood."

The trickiest sequence to record was when Rick stands in a clearing, shouting to Silvia, who is singing back to him. There was always something a little implausible about this part of the story for me — why does Rick think this will work? What does he understand the power of these angels to be? If there was anything about it that felt too campy or fake, the whole story would come off as silly. With this in mind, I had Andy improvise—I told him to just stand in the middle of the field and shout to the trees what he thought he honestly would say in this situation. Rebecca gave him Silvia’s lines, and Andy responded with whatever he thought Rick’s honest reaction to Silvia would be. There were some really nice, unpredictable moments that came out of this because there were times when Andy wasn’t quite sure what to say, just like Rick would be unsure. There’s a palpable desperation to his character here; he needs to say just the right thing to convince these angels to send Silvia back.

While Rick’s side of this “conversation” (him begging the angels to return Silvia) had to be recorded in the woods, Silvia’s didn’t (since she is not actually in the woods at that point). To get Rebecca’s side, I brought her into the studio and gave her Silvia’s lines. In her headphones, she could hear a drone—a sustained low D—and line by line we went through the scene, finding melodies that went with the text of each line. And then we’d come up with ways of harmonizing those melodies. It was a remarkably easy process when you consider the results we got. There was no score, no real planning of the music; we just made sure to keep everything in D minor.

And then I took all of that tape and mixed it into the scene with the recording I had of Andy shouting in the woods.

Rick’s narration was also a challenge to get right. I wrote out a lot of the narration, basing it around transcripts I’d made from the location tape we’d recorded, in much the same way I would write the narration for a radio documentary.

    SILVIA: Careful
    RICK: Where are you taking me?
    SILVIA: You'll see.

RICK (narr): I'd never met anyone like Silvia. She showed me things I'd never seen.

    SILVIA: See how I'm pulling the vein taut like that?
    RICK: Yeah
    SILVIA: So you just hold on to one end…
    RICK: This is already grossing me out.
    SILVIA: laughs
    RICK: I know it's just a needle but I don't even like the thought of you hurting yourself.
    SILVIA: I'm totally fine.

RICK (narr): She was sweet and beautiful and from another world. And she had a strange fascination with blood.

    RICK: How long have you been doing this?
    SILVIA: Since I was a little kid.

    SILVIA: It's not too much further.
    RICK: All right.

RICK (narr): She took me to a place deep in the woods, with a vial of her blood. She said she wanted to show me something special.

It’s a little different from what’s in the final story. As we recorded, I encouraged Andy to mess around with the wording and make it his own. He improvised and we recorded more than we actually needed. It’s always better to have too much than not enough. That way, when I heard it all in context, it became clearer what we needed and what felt like too much.

For some sequences, Andy listened to mixed scenes in his headphones while recording his narration so that the intensity in his voice would match the music and sound in the story. It took a little longer, but it had to be just right or it might come off as campy and puncture our suspension of disbelief. My main direction to Andy in all this was to imagine he was being interrogated by detectives, and they didn’t believe a word he said. That way his character would be acknowledging the story’s implausibility through his delivery and he would serve as a conduit between the audience and the fantasy elements.

Once we had the script fully recorded, I wrote all of the music for the story, and mixed it in the same Pro Tools session with the dialogue and sound effects. This allowed me to better integrate all the elements and have their rhythm and placement inform one another. The repeated chords that you hear at the very beginning are gated noise bands that I made using a tremolo plugin.

They were inspired by a sound effect I have of an owl hooting

I wanted everything to feel very organic, so for that first sequence I wrote the music and edited all the tape and narration together at the same time, deciding how the music would move based on where the tape went, and playing off of the music to decide how the dialogue should move. I put that section together more like a documentary than a scripted story because we had so much improvised material.


Publishing the Episode

The final result of our efforts—what ultimately became known as “Silvia’s Blood”—is a big departure from “Upon the Dull Earth,” and it represents an audio adaptation that I like to think is successful. I believe a big reason this adaptation worked out for us was because we were working with public domain material, and the author is no longer living. Now, clearly that doesn’t need to be the case to make a successful adaptation, but I found it very liberating, especially considering the intimidating brilliance of Philip K. Dick. I didn’t have anyone to answer to other than myself, and so we had the space to make the material our own. The key for me was to be true to what excited me about the story on a deep, emotional level. That had to come instinctively and from within; it couldn’t be something I tried to guess about the original author’s intentions. I tried to let that excitement inform every choice I made. And if we did our job right, you’ll feel that very same excitement when you hear it.


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