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seeing darkly

Steven and I saw A Scanner Darkly 10 days or so ago and then I read the book on Saturday. I have a lot to say about them, but I’ve already written a version of this post on the livejournal I’ve been keeping. I want it here because it’s more this kind of material than what I’ve been writing there and also because I have very similar things to say about V for Vendetta and it will be easier to say them if I can just link back here.

“Everybody bangs me.” She amended that. “Tries to, anyhow. That’s what it’s like to be a chick.” (14)

So I read A Scanner Darkly on Saturday and watched the adaptation the weekend before, and Steven was right that it was a remarkably faithful adaptation (and I’m sure I never doubted him!). Sure, the movie’s been beefed up with more foreshadowing (possibly, as Steven suggested to me, because some of the twists were things Dick made up as he went along) and a few nods to the fact that it’s being released in 2006, not the late 70s. So instead of phone booths there are cellphones. There’s no word about a Communist conspiracy, but there’s also no real surprise in Big Government colluding with Big Business.

Most interesting to me, though, is that while the movie is still about ostensibly straight, white men, that almost doesn’t matter. Sure, as in the book, there’s debate about how to get into Donna’s pants and why Bob can’t manage to do it. As in the novel, when Bob brings home a Donna-substitute to fuck, she wants to know whether he’s gay since he lives with two men. As in the novel, he tells her that he’s trying not to be. But there’s none of the hand-wringing about how Donna’s not going to be able to preserve her current chastity because chicks never do. In fact, in no time at all women addicts seem to slip right into selling sex for drugs. Somehow the men are able to avoid this or avoid mention at least. In the movie, it doesn’t come up much, in part because women don’t exist much.

In the whole movie, I don’t remember hearing once about a woman who wasn’t wearing a bra, but that’s a key descriptor for certainly the vast majority of the women who show up in the book. And while race seems quite incidental in the movie, that these just happen to be a bunch of white stoners, race has in many parts been erased. It’s supposed to be black people from whom Barris buys the bike and a black man who explains to them how the gears actually work, but that’s not how it works out in the movie. The only black character I remember (and I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting some) from the movie is the doctor in the team examining Bob/Fred, and she’s female too. So instead of getting to see how privilege works, why these hierarchical distinctions maybe matter even more to these paranoid straight, white male addicts because inherent power is the only kind of power they can get, we get to see a black woman as the voice of reason, able to correctly assess what’s wrong with Bob. I’m not sure if this was a deliberate choice to contrast the novel’s stance (and I’m not accusing Dick of being a misogynist racist or anything; I assume the biases he gives Bob/Fred and his cohort are just the sort they’d really have) or if it’s a way of supporting it, showing that non-white/female power is just another thing Bob’s damaged brain can’t handle.

There’s more to it than that, of course. This doctor is the one who tells Bob to get Donna some little blue (in the movie version, at least, blue) flowers, which initially made me suspect that she might be Donna in some sort of higher-level scramble suit. She’s the one who lets him off the hook the first time he should fail his perception tests, also the sort of thing a kind-hearted or manipulative girlfriend might do. And yet it eventually turns out that maybe she’s gotten through to Bob’s reptile brain and, whether he realizes it or not, he may do exactly what she asks. Would a white man higher up the hierarchy have been able to get below his skin as well? Beats me.

There’s the whole Donna conundrum, too, that while in the movie she doesn’t get to be the castrating bitch who’s suing a man for $40,000 for grabbing her boob and who carries a well-concealed knife to ward off potential attackers, she gets a major elevation of role in the metaplot. Whether this makes her a conniving bitch instead, especially since as in the book there’s a decent chance that she’s disguised herself as Connie to be Bob’s Donna-substitute fuck after she’s turned him down as Donna, is unclear. I’m pretty sure there was a major difference in the scene where she does turn him down, when Bob asks if he can run away with her if she cleans up her life and leaves the scene, too. In the book, this refusal more than her unwillingness to have sex was the heartbreaking dealbreaker for him. He can’t even have a fantasy of her. And yet I’d thought in the movie she agreed that sure, maybe they’d go together and thus he could dream whatever he wanted (while she knew the truth). I feel a lot of tenderness for her in both versions, maybe gender biases coming into play again, but she’s a bit of a mystery no matter what. I think that’s a good thing, though.

Really, I said that I was okay with not having all the plotlines completely resolved and I still am. I like a certain amount of uncertainty (ha ha) but there’s something a bit unnerving about the cleanup of the nastier bits of story for the movie, just as there would be something unnerving about hearing Keanu Reeves call someone a “spade” the way he’d have to in a literal adaptation. I don’t know how this sort of thing generally does or should get dealt with, but it’s still got me thinking days later. I just don’t think I’m thinking toward definitives, which is typical but also probably good.


  1. jamesmith3 says:

    I hadn’t intended on seeing this movie, but it was hot and I don’t have AC. Then, of course, I slept through the 2nd act turnaround, and so I woke up to find out Donna was a double-agent. I think, in a way, I had the same experience as Fred there.

    But I wanted to know what I missed; how that turnaround worked. I got the book on tape– voiced by Paul Giamatti of all people. What’s fascinating (beyond his inability to do a decent female voice) is the acting choices he makes. His reading of lines is, in some places, so different from what goes into the film that the lines actually take on different meanings. If I’m going to come to a book *after* its film adaptation, I almost think tape is better. Because if I’d read it, I probably wouldn’t have been able to voice, in my own head, the lines in any substantially different way than the cast.

    I’m annoyed, slightly. Reeves robs Arctor of almost all observational skills, and Linklatter amputates all the lines that would have let him at least suggest: “I have a brain.” Bob is *just* a stoner, and Fred is *just* a cop. In a way, the rotoscope technique is necessary to add that certain level of disjointedness to the procedings, because it’s not there in the original film. Pomo anxiety as special fx.

    And maybe I’m confused, but Donna’s a Fed, right? I’m not sure I’d call the book version a “conniving bitch” because I’d imagine that everything she was doing was part of her cover.

    I’m not a big PKD fan, so I always seem to see the mvoies before reading/hearing the books (excepting PALMER ELDRITCH). What’s interesting to me is that the dead-tree versions always seem to be horrified by the loss/confusion of identity, whereas the movies seem to think these things are just kind of interesting. Acting-wise, these movies always seem to suffer: two crap lead actors and a third who famously tried to make his narration so bad that they wouldn’t use it in the final cut. No one yet seems to have been able to convey the sheer existential horror of suddenly not being sure of who you are.

    — 14 August 2006 at 12:58 am (Permalink)

  2. Rose says:


    Yeah, I didn’t actually mean that I think Donna is a conniving bitch, just that there seems to be the positioning she got from the other characters and maybe Dick himself-as-writer. In the movie, her twist is slightly different than that of the book (and I didn’t think of her as a double agent exactly since EVERYONE’s a double agent and that’s sort of the point) since she’s not just someone on this infiltrating taskforce pushing Bob/Fred under cover, but she’s actually the immediate boss he reports to as well. I don’t know if she’s a Fed per se because her affiliations aren’t specified and because at least in the movie she’s going to be, if all goes well, proving that the government is complicit in the whole drug process.

    This isn’t much of a response and maybe I can give a real one when the timing’s better, but I can definitely see what you’re saying about the adaptation being needlessly simplistic, and I’ll have to think about that. I did have to fight the “movie voice” problem, which is why I waited a week to read it. Longer might have been better, but I was pretty good at overcoming it.

    — 14 August 2006 at 10:24 am (Permalink)

  3. jamesmith3 says:

    Hi, y’all.

    I’m thinking the film and book differ on their sourcing of the Substance D? Again, that’s the bit of the movie I missed, picking it up again with Donna in the diner. So I’m not definite on how they define her there.

    “… I can definitely see what you’re saying about the adaptation being needlessly simplistic…”

    Depends on your definition of needless. I’m sure Spielberg would say he absolutely had to have action sequences in MINORITY REPORT.

    I’m being contrary.

    I don’t know. It might just be as simple as filmmakers not wanting to relentlessly bum out their audience. Or they’re worried about losing people. I mean: That moment in the book, where you perceive the change from Fred watching himself to Fred watching *Arctor*; I haven’t the foggiest idea how you convey that on film without boring or confusing an audience.

    Maybe PKD books can only be made into art films. Maybe Lynch could pull it off.

    — 14 August 2006 at 9:10 pm (Permalink)