The 2006 film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly is the kind of failure that can only be produced by an exceptionally talented and intelligent artist — one who loves his material so deeply that he can’t step back and realize that his approach is fundamentally misguided, and hollows out the core of what drew him to the material in the first place.
It’s startling to have come to that conclusion. Richard Linklater is one of America’s most intriguing directors, and in the remarkable Waking Life he demonstrated his savvy appreciation for Dick’s work with a long monologue about Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. A Scanner Darkly was the film I most wanted to see last year. Let the movie geeks go on wasting their time with Blade Runner, I thought, Linklater was going to show everyone how to do things right. And when the film failed to register with me, I stepped back and returned to it a few times before I realized what had happened.
The 1977 novel is the most personal and least science-fictional work published during Dick’s lifetime. The story was rooted in personal trauma: deeply shaken by a ruined marriage at the start of the 1970s, Dick allowed himself to become an avuncular guru to a shifting cast of teenaged speed freaks and druggies who wandered into his house in San Rafael, Calif., ate his food, fended off his advances, listened to his philosophical rants and soaked up the music from his vast collection of records. He also became dependent on the amphetamines he had used intermittently during the Sixties in order to maintain the brutal writing pace needed to sustain himself and his family as an SF writer. One by one, the lost boys and girls learned that the highway of excess doesn’t lead to the palace of wisdom, it leads to vascular damage, impaired brain function and, if not death, then one of the varieties of semi-death that can be even worse. Dick later likened it to watching children playing in the street and getting run down, one by one, while the others continued playing.
The novel Dick drew from the experience is set in a near-future Orange County where the drug war has created something close to a total surveillance society, in which undercover narcotics cops wear “scramble suits” — full-body coverings that conceal their identities by projecting a continuous stream of blurred facial and bodily images. One narc, Agent Fred, who goes by the street name Bob Arctor, shares a house with two other druggies and nurses a yearning for Donna, a low-level drug dealer. All are addicted to something called Substance D, the pleasures of which are never made clear, though one would think the drawbacks — sundered connections between both halves of the brain, fragmentation of one’s personality, eventual psychosis — would be fearsome enough to scare away any customers. When Agent Fred is ordered to conduct round-the-clock surveillance on Arctor — i.e., himself — drug damage combines with this already surreal life, and Arctor tips over into a personal abyss.
Dick’s sense of love and loss was deep-seated and sometimes wrenching to encounter. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was my first experience with his work: I was on the threshold of my teen years and the cover come-on (“Synthetic humans programmed to love and then destroy!”) promised all sorts of smuttiness. What I got instead was a meditative action story essentially devoid of villains, and a sense of tragedy that rattled me for days after I finished the book.
That same feeling imbues every page of A Scanner Darkly, and the concluding chapter showing Arctor, his mind and personality damaged beyond repair, performing menial labor under the supervision of a Synanon-like rehab group called New-Path, is still one of the saddest things I’ve read. The coda, in which Dick lists the names and fates of his San Rafael friends, is some of the most nakedly emotional writing he ever set to print.
The most important thing to remember about A Scanner Darkly is that it is a historical novel. When he finished the book, Dick — who had struggled vainly to escape the “sci-fi guy” label pinned to his back by mainstream critics — knew he had written what amounted to an Orange County version of The Panic in Needle Park, and that it would be unsalable without science fiction elements, which he then proceeded to add. Not all of them sit comfortably within the story, though the scramble suit idea succeeds brilliantly as a metaphor for Arctor’s dilemma, and the theme of a total surveillance society has grown steadily more relevant with time.
But Dick could hardly have forseen the course of the Reagan-era drug war, or the rise of highly organized ethnic gangs centered on drug distribution, or the ways in which drug use would differentiate among social and racial castes. For all these reasons, A Scanner Darkly, in its slang and its picture of drug use, remains firmly rooted in the early 1970s. Its action, such as it is, mostly consists of stoners engaging in elaborate raps and attempting, without much success, to get a grip on the world and the life that is tightening its coils around them. And it turns out that while Arctor’s crisis is the result of a horrible betrayal, the motive is heroic: the narcs suspect that New-Path itself is manufacturing Substance D, but cannot penetrate its wall of secrecy without a plausibly damaged agent who will appear harmless to the New-Path hierarchy, all the while acting as an unwitting spy. Thus, Bob Arctor is destroyed to achieve a greater good — or so his victimizers believe.
A Scanner Darkly is full of unblinking cruelty: this is a world where a young girl can find herself prematurely aged by drug and sexual abuse at the hands of her own brother, or a dealer can turn an unknowing tourist into a cross-border drug courier, with jail the penalty for an unsuccessful trip and murder the reward for success. At the same time, Dick endows even his most damaged characters with some kind of dignity: even a man so drug-addled that he imagines himself covered with invisible bugs turns out to be the only one with the presence of mind to save someone’s life. There is also a great deal of deadpan comedy, much of it involving Arctor’s housemates: Luckman, an essentially harmless party-hearty type, and Jim Barris, the kind of would-be evil genius who concocts endless mind-fuck schemes but trips himself up on the small details, such as rigging an elaborate surveillance system to record potential intruders but then forgetting to plug it in as he leaves the house.
The immediate problem with Richard Linklater’s film is that its most striking and attention-getting idea — using the same computerized rotoscoping technique that made Waking Life so trippy to watch — is the one that should have been scrapped immediately. The film’s candy-colored surfaces remove any sense of the squalor and neglect that are part of Arctor’s undercover existence. When we get a flashback to Arctor’s days as a straight-arrow family man, the house and his surroundings hardly seem changed. Like the current Beowulf, which uses groundbreaking motion-capture technology to the same self-defeating end, A Scanner Darkly would have been far more effective as a live-action film. The digital rotoscoping only pays dividends in visualizing the scramble suits, and these should have been handled as separate special effects.
The rotoscoping also walls us off from the actors. As Luckman and Barris, Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. deliver performances strong enough to break through the candy curtain, but the film would have been immeasurably improved by removing the barrier of gimmickry. And what is merely an impediment for Harrelson and Downey proves disastrous for Keanu Reeves, who as Arctor is supposed to be the damaged soul of the story. Reeves, already an actor with limited range, becomes a virtual mannequin. Instead of showing us the stages of Arctor’s descent into madness, Reeves gives us a uniformly puzzled expression, as though he spent the entire film trying to understand the script.
To give Reeves some credit, Linklater’s adaptation has some very puzzling aspects. Dick’s adulatory view of the drug agents, rooted in his horror at the damage wrought by the decay of Sixties culture, clashes with the Linklater’s more skeptical stance, which grows out of three decades of just-say-no propaganda and drug-war rhetoric that have played havoc with civil liberties while affecting the illicit drug trade hardly at all. Linklater has inserted scenes of faceless police cracking down on dissidents and even implies that the government itself is in on the New-Path conspiracy, but this makes the narcs seem merely clueless, and Arctor’s martyrdom utterly pointless.
Linklater’s writing also buffs away some of the rougher edges of Dick’s harsh story. The anecdotes about the tortured girl and the murderous drug dealer are gone, along with many of the other seamy realities of the drug culture, leaving us to wonder why the feds are so determined to crack down on what appear to be essentially harmless stoners. Linklater loses his nerve most damagingly with the book’s finest, cruelest moment, when Donna (who proves to be an undercover narc herself) describes her dream of a quiet life on a beautiful farm; Arctor, trying to cling to his last shreds of humanity, asks if he can be a part of it, and Donna replies, with great tenderness and compassion, “No.” Linklater, astonishingly, has Donna taking Arctor’s hand and saying, “I hope so.” Winona Ryder’s flat delivery drains the last bit of pathos from a scene that should have been heartbreaking.
With a copout this huge to Linklater’s discredit, it’s hardly surprising when the film waters down the details of Arctor’s snakepit treatment at New-Path, where a relentless barrage of abuse and criticism completes the destruction begun by Substance D. The details of this “attack therapy” technique, which Dick observed during a brief stint with a group called X-Kalay, are another artifact of the early 1970s, when Synanon (the standard bearer for the approach) was mutating from a misguided drug-rehab program into a menacing proto-fascist cult. Synanon was already in deep trouble with the law when A Scanner Darkly was published, and the behind-the-scenes glimpses of life under an alternative-therapy regime gave the book great immediacy. It also added punch to the ending, in which the prospect of Arctor’s ironic victory over the cult that reduced him to a burnt-out husk provides a slender ray of light in an otherwise pitch-black scenario.
Visions of the future always turn into trips back in time: just as A Clockwork Orange returns us to the Cold War and early 1960s controveries over social control and behavior modification, so does A Scanner Darkly take us back to the muzzy conclusion of the hippie era, and the growing sense that along with many social benefits, something dangerous had been set loose in society and needed to be brought under control. Philip K. Dick, who saw the damage clearly, was writing at the beginning of that societal change, and it shows in his novel. Richard Linklater, also clear-eyed, created his film version of the novel with the benefit of three decades of hindsight and the awareness that attempts to crack down on the problem have, if anything, only made it worse, and brought other problems in their wake. The two viewpoints share space in the film version of A Scanner Darkly, and they cancel each other out.
How interesting to think that a talented filmmaker, drawn to the masterwork of a writer whose stories were often based on shifts in perception, should have his movie undone by a shift in perception. And how surprising to realize that a writer who wrote consistently about the future is still, despite the best efforts of Hollywood, best experienced on one of the oldest forms of technology we have — the printed page.