A Scanner Darkly

1. The original novel was written by science fiction aficionado Philip K. Dick in the 1970s. It’s the story of a world immersed in addiction to a drug called Substance D, as told by a group of strung out addicts who simply float around in this world. The government has ramped up surveillance past even modern levels, making some of the book’s themes relevant today. The main character, known jointly as Bob Arctor the drug dealer and Officer Fred the narcotics agent, swims through his double life with increasing confusion as to his identity. This introduces another central theme of the novel: Dick’s philosophy of the real and unreal being inextricable shine through in this character. Is Bob the addict posing as a narc, or is Fred the narc posing as an addict? Toward the end, even he doesn’t know. His identity is in flux, while his stoner friends float around him, both entirely oblivious and paranoid at the same time. Dick’s inspiration for the novel came from his own gigantic speed habit, and the years he spent as part of the street drug culture in California. He wrote the book to serve as a warning to drug users, and he also supplies a heavy dose of anti-government paranoia.

2. The film version, directed by Richard Linklater, stars Keanu Reeves as Arctor and provides an all-star cast for his stoner friends (including Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson, who are both brilliant). However, they are not “in” the film in the typical sense; Linklater employed an animation technique called rotoscoping, in which the live action is filmed, but is then “painted over” digitally, creating an effect like that of a graphic novel. While it contains the same paranoia and anti-government sentiments as the book, these themes translate very well for a modern audience–post-9/11 and post-Edward Snowden, our world is just as fearful of a surveillance state.

3. In regards to characters, plotlines, events, etc, A Scanner Darkly is a faithful adaptation of the original story. In fact, Linklater’s decision to use rotoscoping actually helps to preserve the mood of the story in regards to the book’s focus on shifting identity/reality. The animation sometimes floats a little, shifting almost imperceptibly, making viewers question their own eyes–seeing how a befuddled addict might see, especially one like Arctor whose brain is falling apart. Critics also commend the translation of Dick’s humor into the film, where other film adaptations of his works have failed (i.e. Total Recall). However, a resounding criticism of the movie is that it lacks insight into characters’ thoughts, where the book expounds on them with artistic techniques of language by Dick. (Example: in the book, Arctor’s splitting brain is represented with intrusive snippets of Romantic poetry, and this effect is completely absent from the movie.) Another absence from the film is the mystical religious element from the book, specifically the scene were Arctor (now Bruce) discovers the blue flower at New Path. In the book, he achieves a sort of zen spirituality, while in the film, he simply observes. While most of the story’s themes and central elements are maintained, some crucial ones are missing.

4. http://sensesofcinema.com/2006/feature-articles/scanner-darkly/ This article, from one of our film journals, condemns the film as a poor adaptation and a ‘disappointment as a film about drug addiction and paranoia.’ The author asserts that those central themes are peripheral, and that the real beauty of the story lies in the unrealized romance between Arctor and Donna. Theirs is a love story made all the more tragic by Bob’s dependence on Donna’s normalcy before the ending’s final betrayal. In Bob’s drug-addled brain, in his uncertain and shifting sense of identity, she, and his love for her, are constant. This take on the film is unique, and the author compares it to Richard Linklater’s other works and their concepts of love.

http://brightlightsfilm.com/a-scanner-darkly-linklater-gets-pkd-right/#.VMHk3C5RK3M This article, also from a film journal, compares A Scanner Darkly to other adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s stories, and specifically addresses Richard Linklater’s propensity to make scenes of dialogue engaging.

http://reverseshot.org/reviews/entry/477/reverse_shot_scanner_darkly This last source, again from one of our research links, goes into detail about the effects of the rotoscoping animation technique on the movie as a whole.

http://brightlightsfilm.com/a-scanner-darkly-ii-the-kaufman-version/#.VMHily5RK3M An interesting addition that I’m not counting toward my sources: although the link to the actual document is broken, the article states that Charlie Kaufman (of Adaptation) actually wrote a screenplay for A Scanner Darkly.

5. To adapt A Scanner Darkly to film, the director Richard Linklater uses the “interpolated rotoscope” animation technique. What are the effects on the viewer of such a technique? Was it an appropriate technique for the film, in terms its themes and story?

The rotoscope technique applies certain visual effects to the movie that would not come through in a traditional film, and it is appropriate for A Scanner Darkly given its themes of uncertain identity and drug-induced psychosis. As mentioned above, the rotoscope technique has a tendency to shift a little under our gazes; at certain points, as camera angles changed, I noticed that the human figures seemed to float. Also, the animation was put to great use when trying to replicate the “scramble suits” that the cops wore to disguise their identities; different parts of different bodies morph seamlessly over each person, allowing each person’s concept of identity to blur further. Arctor sees people changing too, but not always in these suits–in a scene where he’s going over surveillance footage from his own house, he watches as the woman in bed next to him changes into Donna for a brief flicker of time. It is unclear whether this is a matter of identity or a matter of Arctor’s own hallucinations, caused by his addiction to Substance D. The rotoscoping puts a sort of surreal veneer over the story, which may have seemed unbelievable had it been shot live-action. It gives viewers a glimpse into the shifting, crumbling occipital lobe of an addict like Arctor.

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