Thursday, June 11, 2009

Philip K. Dick: A SCANNER DARKLY--novel and film

The SF/F book discussion group scheduled Philip K. Dick's (PKD) A Scanner Darkly as one of its selections. I had just learned of the film version, which came out in 2006, so I decided this was a good opportunity to do something I enjoy--reading the book and watching the film.

The novel itself posed problems for some members of the discussion group, for it, in some respects, is not a typical PKD work, although several of his basic themes were present. The novel was published in 1978 and set some years in the future (the film avoids "dating" by stating that it takes place seven years from now, whenever now is). However, the time is really the late 60s and early 70s, in the post Haight-Asbury years, when "the summer of love (1967)" turned nasty as organized crime moved into supplying drugs and government undercover agents were at everybody's elbow, or so the popular myth went.

The very loose plot detailed the efforts of Fred, an Orange County Sheriff's Dept undercover agent, to move his way up the drug chain. He had started out making occasional buys and then increased the size and scope of his purchases. He planned to gradually increase his purchases to the point that Donna Hawthorne, his supplier, could no longer provide him with what he wanted and would consequently introduce him to her supplier. At this point, he would no longer be a user but would move up to being a supplier himself. Eventually he hoped that this would allow him to meet and get evidence against the upper echelon of the drug supply chain, a necessity if one wanted to break up that chain of supply.

The plot, however, is quickly forgotten, as Fred, the undercover narc, gets new orders. A new player has entered the scene--Bob Arctor. He seems to be new in the area, and there's something not quite right about him--there's more to him than just someone trying to break in, and this makes the police curious. Fred is now ordered to concentrate on Bob Arctor. There's a new drug on the scene--Death--it's highly addictive and fatal to addicts in a short time, and so far, no one has been able to get any clue as to its distribution chain. Arctor may be part of that distribution chain, and Fred is supposed to find out. The ironic twist here, and also somewhat satiric on PKD's part, is that Bob Arctor is Fred's undercover identity. He, therefore, has been ordered to spy on himself. A government agent now is spying on his own cover identity.

This is less ludicrous than it sounds--but not much less I admit. The reason this is possible is the presence of what is really the only SF element in the story--the shadow suit. It's a jump suit with a head covering that broadcasts confusing images to others around the wearer. Others can't tell who is inside the suit, but what is known is that it is a member of some law enforcement agency, since they are the only ones who possess this technology, so far. The shadow suit is worn only when the agent is acting as a police officer, inside the police headquarters or perhaps when giving a lecture to some civic group, as Fred is doing when we first meet him. The result is that none of the lower-ranking members of that law enforcement agency know who the undercover agents are, not even the agent's immediate supervisor.

One of the strangest scenes that occurs is when Fred meets with Hank, his supervisor, and both are wearing shadow suits. Neither of them knows what the other looks like, or even their gender. The reason is that everybody knows the police agencies are riddled with corrupt cops, one of whose duties is to learn the identity of the undercover agents. At one point, Hank tells Fred that somewhere up the chain of command somebody knows their identity, but he doesn't know who it is.

This is why Fred can be ordered to spy on Bob Arctor, his alter ego. Hank doesn't know Fred's undercover identity. Arctor's activities are suspicious, but not for the reason Hank thinks. Arctor doesn't seem right because he's an undercover agent.

At this point, the plot disappears. One reason is that Fred/Bob is becoming addicted to Death, and it's slowly "eating his head." He finds it increasingly difficult to handle his two identities. When Fred is on the scene, the reader can see that Fred is finding it difficult to remember that he is also Bob, and he more and more often thinks about Bob as a separate person as the drug effects become stronger. At one point, Fred thinks, "Bob wouldn't be selling Death; he's a nice guy."

The plot seemingly goes nowhere at this point because this really isn't a plot-driven story. It's PKD's homage to the late 60s and the people he know back then. Dick really isn't in the story, although elements in the story come from his own life. Dick was married and had two daughters. His wife divorced him and took the girls, leaving him the house. Bob Arctor had been married, with two daughters, but his wife divorced him and left him the house. Eventually some friends and relatives moved in with Dick and over a period of time, his house became a crash pad for anyone seeking shelter. Many of these were heavy drug users, including, to some extent, Dick himself. The same happened to Arctor.

What we really get is a sense of the way of life for those in the drug culture. There was only one concern, getting drugs. Planning for the future consisted of getting a sufficient stash of drugs to tide one over during the lean times--loosing one's supplier for one reason or another. The story becomes a series of vignettes loosely connected by the characters and their major concerns: the search for drugs and their paranoia regarding the police. Long philosophical discussions that lead nowhere intersperse sporadic bursts of activity involving the search for drugs.

I had watched another film recently, one also dealing with undercover agents. In this film, though, the setting is not the drug scene but the Cold War. It was John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. One very striking parallel between the two was the old adage--I can protect myself from my enemies, but only God can save me from my friends. Both PKD's Fred/Bob and Le Carre's Alec Leamas are brought down by their friends. They are destroyed by the agencies that employ them, for Fred and Alec are deluded into thinking they know what's going on, but the reality is that they are being used to further the ends of the two agencies. Both are ultimately expendable.

What I have said of the novel is also true of the film version of A Scanner Darkly. The film is very true to the novel, and I doubt if any but the most exacting purist would argue with this. Some minor changes have been made, some incidents have been dropped, and the sequence of events has been modified to some extent. But, except for one inexplicable modification involving one of the characters, I would say the film is faithful to the novel, and the animation process, which distorts just enough to make it "unreal," captures the tone of the book and the characters quite nicely. The characters, including the police and the drug culture, live in a world of their own, which is quite removed from the general mundane world, where most get up in the morning, struggle through the day, with traffic and impossible supervisors and co-workers as major concerns, and then return home to get ready for the next day. Rotoscoping makes the world of the film just a bit off from what we would call realistic, familiar but somewhat distorted.

The film is animated by a process known as rotoscoping. The result is that the characters still resemble the actors to a considerable extent, but they clearly are animated. The cast, before I forget, includes Keanu Reeves as Fred/Bob Arctor, Winona Ryder as Donna Hawthorne, Robert Downey, Jr. as Barris, and Woody Harrelson as Luckman.

Another PKD theme found in the novel and the film is that of identity, or rather, loss thereof, for Dick's main characters don't really know their real identities. This confusion is frequently tied in with some sort of government activity. Classic examples of this that have been turned into films are Total Recall, Blade Runner, and this film, A Scanner Darkly.

In Total Recall, a film "inspired" by a PKD short story "We can remember it for you wholesale," Douglas Quaid/Hauser tries to get false memories about a vacation trip implanted but discovers that a whole set of false memories have already been installed, to a degree that only a government agency would have the equipment to do this. He is not whom he thinks he is. In Blade Runner, a film loosely based on PKD's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the question of Rick Deckhard's true identity--human or android-- is left unanswered at the end, although I have participated in "discussions" in which both interpretations have been strongly defended. If Deckhard is an android, then he also has had false memories implanted by a law enforcement agency so he will act as a bounty hunter who must track down and kill runaway androids. And in A Scanner Darkly, Fred finds it increasingly harder to perceive Bob Arctor as himself and as Bob Arctor, may not even remember much of the time that he is also Fred.

Overall rating: Read the book and see the film. Neither will fit most people's expectations, which makes them a valuable reading and viewing experience.

Link to Wikipedia article on the rotoscope technique.


  1. Thank you for your very thorough and interesting review. I was having a hard time getting engaged in the story but I may give the film a try. I have no idea what "roto scoping" looks like but I guess I will find out.

    One thing that really hit me was how dated the language felt. It was an interesting coincidence to pick up this book right after my husband and I were reading a current non fiction book that uses a lot of trendy language. I had remarked to Josh that ten years from now the book will seem dated.

    Then I started reading Scanner Darkly and noticed that he was using the language popular in the 60s and 70s. I was a kid then, but it still brought me back to that time. A weird feeling.

    Thanks for the review!

    1. Sharon,

      Thank you. I'm glad you found it helpful. I didn't know about rotoscoping either until I saw the film.

      Many of PKD's novels do play games with identity, as well as blurring the lines between consensual reality and fantasy in the mind of one or more characters. It also poses a problem for the reader, or at least it does for me.

      I enjoyed the language also, as it brought back memories of that time. I agree that trendy language will eventually disappear, possibly leaving a word or two behind.

    2. Groovy, man. I can dig it. Peace!