I am generally reluctant to compare films and the books they are based on, except perhaps to comment on the "faithfulness" of the adaptation: fiction and film are two very different mediums and deal with subjects through fundamentally different formal approaches, although both normally use a narrative structure ( even though it occurs to me that neither is really limited that way). That said, I find myself reviewing A Scanner Darkly, both the film and the novel, together, simply because it ultimately made more sense to do it that way.
Philip K. Dick was a challenging writer, recognized during his life as a major voice in science fiction but largely ignored outside the field. Since his death in 1982, however, he has become a staple in college courses in modern American literature and is second only to Steven King in the number of screen adaptations of his novels: A Scanner Darkly is the eighth. The adaptation is a close one, with no large divergences and no major excisions, such as we've seen in other important works of speculative fiction recently adapted to film.
It's ironic that Dick, who wrote in a mode that was -- and still is -- centered on the future, is highly regarded because his novels so accurately reflect our own present. Dick's shifting realities have become not only a mainstay of contemporary science fiction, but of much contemporary fantasy as well. (I won't impute any direct influences, but I will maintain that at the very least Dick was a harbinger.) His attitude toward that incongruity is best summed up by his own comment about why he wrote science fiction: "I want to write about people I love, and put them into a fictional world spun out of my own mind, not the world we actually have, because the world we actually have does not meet my standards. . . . I should yield to reality. I have never yielded to reality. That's what SF is all about." It's a mark of the strength of Dick's vision that not only is he regarded as one of the luminaries of science fiction, but that he also expanded its boundaries in ways that most writers never even thought about.
We've lost the drug war. At least we have in the world inhabited by Bob Arctor and his friends. Arctor is an undercover narcotics agent that has become a user. His overall mission is to work his way up in the supply chain for Substance D, known on the street at "Death" or "Sweet Death," in the hope of hitting a key player and bringing down at least part of the pipeline. There are problems aside from Arctor's addiction: rumor is that the police are compromised, one promising lead has vanished into a confidential rehab center, and someone is trying to kill him -- or perhaps one of his housemates. Arctor, using the code name Fred, reports to his superior disguised in a scatter suit, a technological marvel that projects fragments of millions of physiognomies onto a coverall that masks his entire body. Hank, his supervisor, is similarly garbed At the beginning of the story, Arctor is assigned to review surveillance tapes on himself and his housemates and his visitors, including his supplier and girlfriend, Donna Hawthorne.
This may sound like the set-up for a gripping thriller. It's not. A Scanner Darkly is not an edge-of-the-seat page turner, nor does it make a hold-your-breath adventure film. Dick's novel is a study in disintegration, appalling but absorbing, stark, poetic, often hallucinatory, with a profound emotional impact. It is about a man who literally loses his identity -- Arctor, caught between being himself and observing himself, gradually disassociates into Fred and Arctor due to the action of the Death he consumes in ever-increasing quantities, to the point where Fred begins to speculate on what Arctor is up to, convinced that he is hiding something. The layers of reality involved include layers of deception as well -- one might expect that no one is who they seem to be, and Arctor's cover turns out to be deeper than even he knows, a stroke that relies on hope more than any real chance of success.
Philip K. Dick tended to occupy himself with dualistic themes. In this case, we see a close-up of the shifting interfaces between self and other, between reality and fantasy. It's no secret that Dick had his own battles with addiction and with emotional instability, and his novel, though fiction, has a sobering degree of verisimilitude. Paranoia is part of Arctor's daily life, as it is for his friends and housemates, Ernie and James, and for Donna. It's a world in which everyone uses everyone, paranoia is indeed a survival trait, and identities come and go. Reality shifts as Arctor's state of mind alters, and Dick's portrayal -- uninflected, spare, depicting a character with an affect that becomes flatter and flatter as his brain becomes less and less functional -- brings us face to face with all of it. It is harrowing and ultimately profoundly moving.
Richard Linklater's film departs from the novel more in shifts of emphasis more than anything else. Linklater paints an America "seven years from now" that is much more immediately frightening than the one in Dick's novel: surveillance is constant, omnipresent, indiscriminate, and accepted. Anyone can be arrested for behaving strangely, depending on what a watcher's definition of "strangely" happens to be. Police agencies are more obviously compromised in the film, and of the two major plot twists, one is obvious fairly early on; the other took me by surprise. (I saw the film before reading the novel.) The picture painted of America is obviously the projected result of current trends, and what is perhaps most striking is the sense of apathy that pervades the movie. In tandem with the early scenes of remote electronic surveillance, it provides a highly political subtext as chilling as anything that Huxley or Orwell portrayed.
And yet, although the scene is one of nightmare, the nightmare quality doesn't come across. It's a fairly chaotic film, often incoherent early on and marred in one or two early scenes by some exceptionally bad dialogue. (In fact, much of the dialogue is directly from the novel, but there are passages in which this was not the best idea: what reads well doesn't always work when spoken.) The pacing, where there is pacing, is uneven. Running time is only one hour, forty minutes, but it's a very long movie.
Where Dick was able to bring us right into Arctor's dissolution, the film doesn’t seem to get us into Arctor's head, which surprised me. I've always though of film as a very immediate experience, especially on the big screen: we are a visual species, hard wired to pay close attention to visual cues, particularly if those cues resemble us. Linklater's take is dispassionate, almost clinical, at least it seems to be, as though we were watching through a one-way window as part of a research project. I'm convinced that a large part of this is the result of the decision to do an animated feature, because, thinking about it, the cast delivers a group of strong performances that I think may have been undercut by the style.
Linklater reportedly wanted to keep the contemporary feel of the book, that kind of edginess that is essentially Philip K. Dick. The idea was apparently to incorporate the aesthetic of the graphic novel, and while the abstraction of the animation is sometimes very beautiful, I have to say that graphic novels are generally much more sophisticated visually. (You can get away with things on a page fixed in time that you cannot get away with in a real-time visual flow without abandoning coherence.) What's lost is subtlety. Animation is not a particularly subtle medium and particularly in a film as understated as this one, it doesn't bring across the tiny, almost invisible gestures and expressions that will cue us. (Nor, as seems to be the case with this type of animation, which is a more sophisticated, computer-enhanced version of the live-action/animated overlay that Ralph Bakshi used in his The Lord of the Rings, is the visual experience consistent: some scenes seem not to have overlays at all.) In spite of the best efforts of the cast, the film begins flat and stays that way. The horror of Arctor's disintegration becomes an intellectual thing: it was, in my case, something arrived at by analysis, not something that I carried with me out of the theater. In fact, I didn't feel much, and I'm usually right in there with the story. The cast has done an exemplary job of projecting through voice and larger gestures, but there is only so much that voice and large gestures can deliver.
After thinking about it for a while -- and it's a film that does deserve thinking about, in spite of my reservations -- I'm still not enthusiastic about it. I think I see what Linklater was trying to do, which is pretty much what Dick did in his novel, but, without some emotional connection to these characters, the effort didn't jell: if you have to watch someone lose his mind, you have to care about him to begin with, or it doesn't have any effect except a very general, "oh, how sad" sort of reaction, like reading a newspaper account. The horror is muted, even the realization that Arctor has been sacrificed on a gamble (a scene in which Winona Ryder as Donna delivered the one truly powerful moment of the film), and even though Linklater included Dick's "Author's Note" as a coda to the film, the poignancy is not there.
(The "Author's Note," Dick's commentary/apologia on the friends he lost to drugs and the overly severe consequences of "playing," in itself deserves an essay. In the context of both novel and film it is truly affecting, but open to widely divergent interpretations.)
And after thinking about both the book and the film for some time, I can say that I unreservedly recommend Dick's novel: it is powerful, frightening, ultimately heartbreaking. And. although there is much more to the film than I could discuss here, I wish I could recommend it as highly.
There is an official Philip K. Dick Web site, and two routes to the official film site, with full production credits, trailers, and the works: Visit through the Warner Bros. site, or go directly to A Scanner Darkly.