Classics, Favourite films, Movies, science fiction

Adapting Philip K. Dick, the triumph of A Scanner Darkly

The writings and ideas of Philip K. Dick have had a profound impact on the development of science fiction as a film genre from the late nineteen seventies onwards. While many films have been adapted from his novels and short stories, and many more simply inspired by or influenced by Dick, really successful adaptations have been as elusive as the nature of reality is to a typical Dickian protagonist.

Dick’s career as a writer began in the early fifties and he wrote solidly and prolifically until his death in 1982 at the sadly early age of 53. Beginning his career when SF was a largely despised genre of ‘pulp fiction’, Dick would see speculative fiction steadily rise to become, if not an accepted literary genre, than at least one that mainstream literary writers could dabble in (even if novels like Oryx and Crake would rather be pulped than shelved in the SF and Fantasy section of Waterstones).

Dick was a celebrated writer in his lifetime, winning a Hugo for The Man in a High Castle, the John W. Campbell award for Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, and nominated for the Nebula award for best novel five times. These awards are respected, but solidly genre, Dick never really gained mainstream acceptance and he struggled financially for most of his life. Dick also experienced mental health issues which may have been related to his drug use. Dick was a heavy user of amphetamines in his early career, something not uncommon for pulp writers in the period, who were paid very little and would use the drug in order to increase their ability to write at speed and produce a volume of stories to sell to magazines and make rent.

Dick has picked up a reputation as a ‘counter culture’ guru, but avid readers of his work will know that his relationship with recreational chemicals is complex, antagonistic, and far from the sort of shamanistic enthusiasm of people like Robert Anton Wilson or Carlos Castaneda. During the seventies, reportedly as a reaction to drugs administered for work on an impacted wisdom tooth, Dick suffered a series of visions and hallucinations that while spiritual in nature, manifested in frighteningly complicated novels like Valis (Vast Active Living Intelligence System).

It is surprising that Hollywood took so long to discover Dick, his twitchy paranoid worldview, frequent cynicism, humanism, and proto-post modernism should have made his stories the ideal material for seventies cinema. While we think of the paranoid thrillers of the seventies (All The Presidents Men, Klute, The Conversation) as essentially realistic films, there are also films like The Manchurian Candidate, The Parallax View and Seconds that incorporate science fiction elements, and films like Soylent Green that are fully futuristic. And yet for some reason Hollywood did not come knocking (although various projects were stuck in development hell).

It’s genuinely ironic that the catalyst for Dick’s discovery by cinema was Star Wars, a film that is the complete antitheses to the sort of Science Fiction that he wrote. Lucas’ film harks back to Saturday morning serials, E.E. Doc Smith, and the golden age of space opera. Dick was part of the sixties new wave of science fiction (including writers like Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, and JG Ballard) who wrested SF back to earth and mired it in cultural and social politics, and covered what had been shiny in grime and dirt. But Star Wars was a monster hit and suddenly the genre was hot. Studios wanted to get on the gravy train, and British director Ridley Scott was looking to follow up his own science fiction hit (and classic film) Alien. Scott been trying to get an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune off the ground and had passed on Hampton Fancher’s script, but producer Michael Deeley persuaded the director to take another look.

Passing over an episode of long forgotten (and lost) sixties TV series Out Of This World, having a film generally regarded as among the finest SF movies ever made as the first adaptation of your work is pretty decent. Sadly Dick passed away before he could see the film, although he was enthusiastic about the rewritten screenplay (re-worked from Fancher’s draft by David Peoples) and a reel showcasing Douglas Trumbull’s amazing effects work that was screened for him.

The thing is, as brilliant as Blade Runner is; it is actually a terrible adaptation of Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. It bears little resemblance to the book beyond some plot points and characters, the satirical humor and the anti-Scientology subtext (Dick loathed L. Ron Hubbard) are completely excised.

Later adaptations like Total Recall and Minority Report exemplify the standard treatment of Dick’s thematically complex work, both taking a premise and a few cool ideas from the writer’s back-catalogue of short stories and fashioning them into multiplex friendly action films. These are the good ones, there has also been raft of mediocre to dreadful films such as Screamers, Paycheck, Imposter, and Next.

For a long time it looked that the most genuinely Dickian films would be works that took inspiration from his work, rather than straight adaptations. David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is very Philip K. Dick (in fact Cronenberg toiled for a year on an adaptation of Total Recall before walking off the project when it became apparent the producer wanted a straight action film).

Which brings is to Richard Linklater’s dazzling 2006 adaptation of A Scanner Darkly, for my money the first film to truly capture the unique feel of Dick’s writing.

Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover narcotics detective in a near future California that is in almost all respects indistinguishable from the present. The country has been overrun by the deadly drug known as Substance D (for Death). Arctor is embedded with a small group of D addicts who listlessly spend their days drifting from diner to sofa to deck chair. Arctor’s group (which includes characters played by Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson) have their drug needs serviced by Donna (Winona Ryder) a dealer with a large coke habit whom Arctor’s undercover persona ‘Fred’ has developed a crush on.

Arctor regularly reports to his superiors who are unaware of his real identity due to the ‘scramble suits’ they wear. These suits are one of the few pieces of speculative technology in the film and obscure the wearer’s identity by projecting a constantly shifting mirage of faces, bodies and clothing drawn from surveillance devices. Because of this extreme anonymity Arctor’s superiors are oblivious when they effectively order him to investigate his own undercover persona.

The major side effect of D is acute cognitive aphasia (neither Dick nor Linklater are interested in why anyone would take D recreationally, it is just accepted that they do). As Arctor has now developed a significant dependency on the drug, the side effects are kicking in and he becomes increasingly confused about his own personal identity. Is he Arctor? Is he Fred? Is he Arctor being Fred? Is he now Fred being Arctor?

If this plot summary is not disorientating enough, Linklater has chosen to use the digital rotoscoping technique demonstrated on his experimental feature Waking Life. This involves shooting the actors live and then animating over their performances and adding fanciful embellishments and backgrounds in post. This was an intentional distancing effect that is perfect for the material. Everything shimmers and shifts at the edges, the audience is not sure where reality ends and the characters’ drug psychosis begins. Everything seen and heard is open to suspicion and interpretation. Like its source this film requires that its audience members think and reach their own conclusions without handholding.

The overlay of animation does not impact negatively upon the performances. As Arctor/Fred Reeves perfectly conveys a growing disconnection from reality. While not possessing of a true character actor’s range, I defy anyone to name me a player who would be better in this role. Robert Downey Jr. seizes on his part as the duplicitous friend with relish. Clearly bringing his own (conquered) demons to the role, Downey Jr, is captured at his livewire best immediately before his ascendency to major stardom with Iron Man. His performance is like being trapped on a night bus with a raving lunatic and forms an antagonistic double act with the more laid back Harrelson. Ryder was even fresher from her wilderness years than Downey Jr, and also superb. A special mention goes to Rory Cochrane (a familiar face from Linklater’s stoner comedy Dazed and Confused and a former CSI: Miami regular) his character’s bug psychosis will make your skin crawl.

A Scanner Darkly represents the first filmic Dick adaptation to truly capture his paranoid vision of society and especially his dark humour. Linklater is the ideal director to adapt the author, willing to engage with his ideas on an intellectual level, and freewheeling, occasionally chemically assisted, discussions of philosophical issues is an area in which he has excelled since his first feature Slacker, and refined through the Before trilogy and on into his recent hit Boyhood.

Both book and film of A Scanner Darkly ultimately carry a strong anti-drug message, but tempered by empathy for the addict’s predicament and a rejection of the standard punitive approach to the problem of narcotics that has been taken by successive US administrations and Law Enforcement Agencies.


4 thoughts on “Adapting Philip K. Dick, the triumph of A Scanner Darkly

  1. fcbertrand says:

    Please, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is supposed to have a question mark (?) at the end of the title. Really. That way, the novel becomes one potential answer to the interrogatory title.


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