If almost any director or screenwriter other than Richard Linklater had been given the opportunity to make Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly into a movie, I think their immediate reaction would have been, “This is too talky” “Show it, don’t say it!” “Action, not words!” and so on, reiterating all the conventional wisdom clichés that make most screenplays produced these days so uninteresting.
Philip K. Dick is a hot property right now. To contemporary film audiences, he may be as well known a sci-fi brand name, if not more so, than Bradbury or Heinlein were in the 1950s. But he is known mainly for his surreal imagination. He ought to be equally well-known for his terrific ear. In PKD’s novels, particularly his late novels, starting with Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974), Dick is just as concerned with what the characters say to each other, as with what happens to them, or what they do. A Scanner Darkly (1977) has a sci-fi framework and powerful themes (personal vs. social identity; the drug war; the surveillance state), but its primary purpose was to capture on paper the voices of PKD’s deceased friends.
Thank heaven it was Linklater who finally made the film. Linklater – who also made Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and the Before Sunrise/Before Sunset diptych – loves characters who talk, and knows how to make their talking watchable. He also has a strong sense of place. (Book and film both take place in and around Anaheim, California.) The result is the most faithful adaptation of any PKD novel or story filmed to date.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), based on PKD’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is one of the great, visionary films of the 1980s, but it is also in many ways a reversal, or alternative version, of Dick’s story. Where Dick’s androids were villains, defined by their inability to feel compassion, Scott’s “replicants” are the heroes of his film, outsiders who embody the life force in a dying world.
Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990) is clever and entertaining, and very much in the PKD spirit (thanks to screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon). However, it is not so much adapted from Dick’s story, “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” as inspired by it. The story provides the initial concept (the film’s first act); the film takes off from there.
Confessions d’un Barjo (1992) is a French film based on Confessions of a Crap Artist, the first of Dick’s “mainstream” novels to be published during his lifetime. I haven’t seen this film (it’s not available on DVD and was not widely released in this country), but the transplantation of the characters from Northern California in the 1950s to contemporary France does not bode well.
Screamers (1995), based on the short story “Second Variety,” was exactly what Dick feared Blade Runner would be (but fortunately was not), a mindless, futuristic, video game of a film, consisting mainly of shootouts between human and robots.
Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) is a wildly uneven adaptation of PKD’s story of the same name. Some good sequences – mainly those involving Samantha Morton – but the last half hour or so plays like an episode of Columbo without Peter Falk.
Impostor (2002) – nothing here that you haven’t already seen in Blade Runner, Total Recall, and a hundred non-PKD sci-fi projects.
John Woo’s Paycheck (2003) – another fine example of how not to adapt a PKD story. Lots of action and special effects, signifying very little, a film comparable in its forgettable inanity to Jerry Bruckheimer’s The Island.
Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly follows PKD’s novel almost scene by scene. Some characters are combined. The performances – particularly Robert Downey, Jr.’s as Barris – are creative and engaging. And funny. The ending, although it comes straight out of the novel, actually works better in the film version. Linklater prepares us for it better than PKD did, and to see it performed by a live actor (Keanu Reeves, no less) makes it more moving.
Much has been written and will be written about Scanner‘s visual style. The film was shot on digital video, then “rotoscoped” – the video images were traced, colorized, and otherwise elaborated upon, on computer, giving the film the look of a graphic novel. (Linklater used the same technique on his Waking Life.) As it turns out, the technique is perfect for certain aspects of the novel – the “scramble-suit” that Bob Arctor (Reeves) wears when he is working as a narc (constantly shifting images that make the officer unrecognizable), the hallucinations of the various characters addicted to “Substance D.” It provides a heightened visual interest to even the most conversational scenes. Lifelike. Yet not. But even more importantly, it captures PKD’s underlying thematic, the feeling that the reality we live in is unstable, unreal, a mask that covers a more profound reality.
I would be delighted to see all of PKD’s signature and previously unfilmable works – The Man in the High Castle, Ubik, VALIS, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer – treated in this fashion. And – incidentally – if any producer out there wants to see my screenplay of A Maze of Death (PKD 1970), you know where to find me.