A Scanner Darkly: thoughts on the film adaptation and the unfilmable

A Scanner Darkly: thoughts on the film adaptation and the unfilmable

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat today at 3:30 p.m. CST. Watch this space for a link to the chat, and come join us.

Tasha Robinson: The first time I watched Richard Linklater’s 2006 film A Scanner Darkly, I hadn’t yet read the book, and I experienced the movie as a series of distracted, almost unconnected scenes, nearly as shapeless as Linklater’s breakthrough Slacker, or his Waking Life, which like Scanner, was a rotoscoped collaboration with animator Bob Sabiston. Having read the novel and re-watched the film, I have far more respect for it now; it’s an astonishingly accurate adaptation, though it streamlines the book to the point where the story is much easier to follow if you have the book in mind and can fill in the gaps yourself—and pull yourself away from the Waking Life/Slacker reverie induced by long, wandering, doped-out conversations.

The film version does make a few tweaks, adding one violent scene that more directly references the modern War On Drugs rather than Philip K. Dick’s ’70s version, and it telegraphs the ending of the story a great deal more, by getting New-Path and the organic nature of Substance D on the record very early in the film. And given that we barely ever get into the characters’ heads, the film loses a great deal of Dick’s much-discussed themes about fluid or impaired identity. But all that said, it takes virtually all of its content directly from the book, relying on Dick’s situations, characters, and exact dialogue, and even relaying Dick's afterword about his friends in the form of a post-film onscreen scroll.

It also plays with identity in its own way, by deliberately populating Dick’s sorry, drug-impaired world with Hollywood actors who have had extremely visible ongoing issues with drugs themselves: Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, and Woody Harrelson. Maybe this is because they can relate to the material, and maybe it’s because of the extra conscious layer their presence brings to the film. (Also, Downey Jr. makes a terrific Barris.) But at times, it almost feels like a joke at their expense. In the same way, casting Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor feels like a commentary on Reeves’ career—Arctor tends to be an unfortunate blank, an empty page who lets other people define his identity, and doesn’t seem to have much personality of his own. It’s no compliment to say that that description brings Reeves to mind.

Ultimately, I think Reeves does the Scanner Darkly film more harm than good. His nasal surfer-boy voice and flat affect turn Arctor’s confusion and despair into a sort of dull, plodding petulance (particularly in the scene where he blows up at the people administering the psych tests), and when he’s hanging with his druggie friends, he never comes across as a narc with a secret, or really a man with any depth at all. If anything, he seems like more of a burnout than they do. The one exception I found was when Linklater catches him inside his scramble suit, and adds highlights to his face (and I would swear, widens his eyes considerably) in ways that make him look more pained and soulful than Reeves ever looked on his best live-action day.

But all that said, there are a lot of pleasures to be had in the Scanner Darkly film adaptation. I go back and forth on whether Linklater goes overboard with the surreal qualities, as when Luckman and Barris turn into giant bugs, or the many-eyed prosecutor from another dimension stands over Charles Freck, reading his sins. It seems like a waste not to have more of this kind of color in the film, given that it’s animated anyway; on the other hand, it would be pretty self-indulgent, and would tend to distract from the gravity of Dick’s story. (Actually, maybe I wish there’d been a little more of that kind of color in the book; one of my favorite routines from the beginning of the novel was the numerous mental idylls the characters fall into—as Dick tends to word it, running a fantasy number on themselves—and I love the graphic, literal way the film handles these. But they’re unfortunately confined to the early chapters of the book, and consequently, the early minutes of the film.)

I could go on all day about the film, I suppose, but I should give everyone else a chance. For those of you who have seen the movie, what do you think about how it handles Dick’s story and his ideas? Was Sabiston’s animation the best way to bring across this narrative, and why or why not? Does having seen the film interfere with how you read the book?

And if you haven’t seen the film, that doesn’t mean you can’t participate. Would you think of this as a book that could be brought to the big screen? Are there ideas in it that you suspect just couldn’t be brought across in a film adaptation? And have you avoided the film on purpose for any reason?

Leonard Pierce:  I only got around to watching the movie version of A Scanner Darkly last week; I missed it during its original run, and I've always found Bob Sabiston's rotoscope process fairly pointless: Why bother to animate something if you're just going to make it look exactly the same as if you filmed it? But overall, I found it quite strong—certainly it's the most faithful adaptation of a Philip K. Dick book I've ever seen, which probably shouldn't come as a surprise, given that Richard Linklater worked closely with Dick's estate in making it.

The animation, as usual with rotoscope work, didn't do much for me, but the things they were animating generally did. The details, the set dressing, the location filming was all quite effective at portraying the dull stretches of Southern California where the novel is set.  (It was also a neat trick how Linklater, prohibited from using his favorite Austin locations, managed to play up the Austin-like qualities of Anaheim.)  I, too, liked the literal way in which the daydreams of Freck (who, here, is a composite of two characters from the book) were rendered; it made up for the frustrating but understandable inability of the rich interior monologues, so important to the book, to be rendered onscreen. 

The rearranged chronology of the film—the way scenes were shifted around to suit the run time—sometimes worked for me and sometimes didn't. I felt that they tipped their hand a bit too soon about New-Path and the nature of Substance D, but that also allowed them to give a chilly, gut-wrenching moment early on when the female psychologist suggests that Bob give Donna some "blue flowers" to woo her. And while I missed some of the character moments that were lost by making Charles Freck and Jerry Fabin into a single figure, overall, I don't feel like much of importance was lost in the translation from book to film.

As far as the acting goes, it's sad that in 2010, we're still dogpiling on poor Keanu Reeves, but I agree, Tasha—he seemed peevish and petulant when he should have been desperate and lost, especially in that scene with the psychologists. I also didn't much care for Rory Cochrane as Freck; his over-the-top twitchiness and mugging was exactly the sort of thing I hate to see in movies about drug addicts. It felt unnatural and forced. Robert Downey Jr., on the other hand, was fantastic in his role; Winona Ryder surprised me as a more mature, lived-in Donna than we see in the book; and while Woody Harrelson replaces the dry irony of the novel's Ernie Luckman with goofy farce, it still works in context.

The major reason the film can't surpass, let alone replace, the book is the loss of the interior language that gives the book so much of its thematic heft and mood-setting power. But it's quite well-done, surprisingly faithful, and a useful companion piece by a director with a clear affection for, and understanding of, his source.

Donna Bowman: I sure do appreciate that last sentence, Tasha.  I haven't seen the film. But I was thinking about it in cinematic terms from the very first pages. It's the interior monologues, with their increasing fragmentation and their straightforward philosophical questioning, that would seem most challenging to make work on the screen. You all indicate that Linklater mostly (and I would argue wisely) chose to avoid artificial means to get them into his script. And your revelation about rearranging the story elements so that the truth about New-Path and Substance D comes much earlier surprises me greatly.  While reading, I found the lack of reliance on those truths as a conventional thriller element (how will our heroes uncover the conspiracy?) to be a real strength.  I was even a bit iffy on the ending, where it turned out those suspicions everyone had about Substance D were true; it felt ever so slightly like a retroactive validation of the hell everyone went through. (The gummint did it!) So I think it would bug the heck out of me if those facts became a driving force for the plot rather than a momentary glimpse of sunlight through the clouds.

What I want to see in a movie version is all the hanging out at the junkie house.  I want to hear all those conversations about nothing in particular. I want to experience both the camaraderie and how it shatters instantly under the weight of the addict's paranoia and fear. There's nothing unfilmable about that, I don't believe, unless we're talking about the pressure filmmakers feel to keep the plot moving forward and have something happen in the movie every once in a while.

Ellen Wernecke: I haven’t seen the movie adaptation of A Scanner Darkly, although I’m hoping to catch up with it before our livechat later today. I didn’t have any particular reason to avoid it; I think the reviews I saw at the time were just middling. I did think of it while reading the book, particularly that the rotoscoping technique might achieve something stunning for the scramble suits, given the dreamy wash it gave to Waking Life.

I don’t think of the book as particularly unfilmable; plenty of movies have gotten into the minds of disturbed people like Bob Arctor and his friends, mimicking their subjectivity with the full visual arsenal film can bring. I am surprised, though, that no one (from what I could find) attempted to adapt this book before Linklater came along. In my imagining, it would have made a great ’70s paranoia thriller along the lines of The Conversation, although the scenes in Arctor’s house that Donna said she would look forward to onscreen would probably have been pushed aside in that scenario, and the plot’s edges overall smoothed to better create suspense. (This could just be my love for the subgenre coming through.) As for the ending of the book, I think I might have found it a little too pat in a movie, but from your descriptions, Tasha and Leonard, I’m anticipating how it will play out as revised.

Zack Handlen: And just to dogpile on Reeves a little more, this is a small thing, but I'd forgotten that the Bob Arctor of the novel isn't really an attractive guy. Donna calls him ugly, which could just be something going on with her, but a random undercover operative who catches a glimpse of Bob in some of the surveillance footage confirms the diagnosis. I think Reeves' inability to play layers hurts the story more, but in making Arctor such a familiar anti-hero-cop style character visually (he kind of makes me think of Jason Patric in Rush) makes him too generic. Robert Downey Jr., walks away with the picture, and that was probably going to happen no matter what, but at least Bob might've not looked quite so much like one of the straights he railed against. 

I liked the movie a lot, though. Saw it when it first came out, bought it on DVD. Philip K. Dick film adaptations generally don't stay very close to their source. The fist Dick novel I ever read was Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, because I really liked Blade Runner, and the paperback copy of DADOES I found at a used bookstore said that the movie was an adaptation of the book. This is technically true: the lead in both stories is Rick Deckard, and he makes his living hunting down replicants, most of which have the same name in either version. Yet the two differ vastly in terms of plot and tone. Same with, say, Total Recall and Dick's short story, "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale." The movie's a solid, ridiculously gory Verhoeven action blockbuster. The short story is maybe 10 pages long, and is basically just a pretty good science-fiction joke. There are no setpieces or bullets or anything.

So I appreciate how close Scanner stays to the novel's storyline, and the basic vibes are very similar. I think my only real problem is that the movie really just works best as a companion piece, and as such, it's more a curiosity than anything else. To be great, I think an adaptation needs to be something more than an advertisement for whatever it's adapting, and I didn't really feel like that was the case here; it was a fun way to relive some of my favorite parts from the novel, but so is re-reading the novel.

Todd VanDerWerff: The copy of the book I ended up picking up was the one that features the movie's cast on the front cover—the official movie tie-in, in other words—and it was odd to look at the actors, all staring out at something with big, goofy, bug eyes, and remember that, yeah, this had been a movie, once, and a good one I very much enjoyed back when I saw it in theaters, then promptly forgot about. I had friends who were obsessed with the movie back in 2006, but I only saw it the one time and never bought it on DVD or revisited it. What surprised me in reading the book—and this may have been the cover, again—was the way the movie version stayed with me. I found it pretty much impossible to read Barris' lines without hearing Robert Downey Jr.'s voice in my head. (I'll agree that's the movie's best casting.) It's rare for something like this to happen to me. Movie versions of books I love rarely colonize my enjoyment of the books themselves, but there's Downey, playing Barris in my head in perpetuity, apparently.

I'll agree that Reeves is the weak link. I remember thinking it was the best work of his career back when the film came out, but after reading the book again, it's clear that the Arctor of the book is a more tragic figure than Reeves was able to convey. In Reeves' hands, Arctor already seems spaced-out. You can't imagine a time when Reeves was anything other than Reeves. It's hard to conceive of him as a vital, ambitious go-getter, which I think we're supposed to think of Arctor as. It's far too easy to imagine that he's always been this burnout, and that his degradation is sad, but not all that sad.

But I'll give it up for Winona Ryder, who has mostly disappeared since the unfortunate incidents in her personal life. Her Donna is a legitimate take on the Donna of the book that nonetheless leaves her mostly untouched. Ryder is maybe the only actor in the piece to create a character that feels more of the world of the film—rotoscope craziness and all—than of the book. The other actors feel like they're trying to play really, really good versions of the characters in the book, like when you're in the backyard as a kid and acting out your favorite scenes from whatever you're reading or watching at the moment, but Ryder mostly just goes ahead and creates a Donna who could fit into the world of the book, but feels much more natural in the film. And that isn't an easy task in such a slavish adaptation. Downey's performance is the best of the film, but Ryder seems to have done the most work at creating her character. Had Linklater skewed more toward what she was doing, I think the film would have been slightly better, though I still enjoy it.

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