A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Book Analysis

A Scanner Darkly, written by Philip K. Dick in 1977, is a science fiction novel whose narrative serves as a commentary for the drug-saturated period that was the 1970’s, as seen by Dick himself. The story follows Bob Arctor, an undercover narcotics agent, who accidentally becomes hooked on a popular hallucinogenic while on a sting. The book visits many themes throughout its duration which include conflicting personalities, drug addiction, deception, and reality vs. illusions/hallucinations. According to the author, the book was meant to show the negative effects that drug-addiction can bring about while intermingling science fiction themes such as the advanced technology present throughout.

Film Analysis

Richard Linklater’s 2006 film adaptation of A Scanner Darkly follows the same plot as Dick’s original novel and stars Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor, the main protagonist. The film contains the same thematic elements seen in the book such as addictions, conflicts in perception between drug-induced hallucinations and reality, and conflicts with multiple identities as seen through frequent use of “scramble suits” and frequent drug use. Linklater uses a very untraditional filming style in that he filmed the entire movie digitally to begin with, but then added a layer of animation through a process called “rotoscoping” which makes the film seem like an unusually realistic cartoon, complete with the subtle details and imperfections seen in the live action films. The music chosen for the film, despite the futuristic setting, was largely un-synthesized and utilized mostly acoustic instruments. The movie relies heavily on musical accompaniment as there are very few scenes without a score in the background.

Adaptation Analysis

Linklater’s adaptation of Richard K. Dick’s novel is largely successful in that it maintains the thematic elements in the book and covers all major plot points, characters, and settings despite the time constraints of running for less than two hours. However, critical reception was less than impressive; a fact which is not entirely surprising considering the amount of information that needed to be condensed and relayed to the audience in a cohesive manner. In other words, I believe this narrative fared much better in its original form which, being a novel, have the author much more time to process all of the variables at play. This issue came into play particularly during scenes where Arctor is switching rapidly between identities (and personalities) which can be relatively difficult to follow unless one is completely invested for the duration. It would seem that having read the book prior to viewing the film would be the most ideal approach and would give viewers a more fruitful experience, having already registered the plot beforehand. The animated-feel of the film did well to give it a surreal tone in which reality is not always a certainty.

3rd Party Sources

a.       http://www.planit3d.com/source/interviews/sabiston/bob_sabiston.html

An interview between Paul Salmons of “Planit 3d” (a blog) and Bob Sabiston, the creator of “Rotoshop” in which they discuss the background of and uses for the film style of “rotoscoping” used in the film.

b.      http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=507

A blog entry from McKenzie Ward’s “The Pinocchio Theory” series which goes in-depth in describing the obvious and the more subtle thematic elements present in both the book and film.

c.       http://anm.sagepub.com/content/7/1/7.abstract

An essay written by Caroline Ruddell of St. Mary’s University College, that “seeks to analyze the [film’s] visual style” by discussing its aesthetics.


B. Ward’s analysis regarding the overall effectiveness of Linklater’s adaption serves as an excellent supplement to the knowledge those taking this class will have gained by reading the brief excerpt from Philip K. Dick’s original novel. Ward, having read the book in its entirety, gives a much more thorough perspective of how well Linklater did in writing, filming, and casting. It’s particularly interesting to consider that Arctor’s character was, remarkably, a perfect fit for Keanu Reeves’ marked “inexpressive” style of acting (if there is such a thing). The blog entry gives a sort of expert’s (or at least someone more knowledgeable than myself) opinion of how Linklater did and what elements were translated effectively throughout the film. This source is definitely one to read before a screening of the film.


Critical Analysis


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?

Richard Linklater’s use of the “interpolated rotoscope” filming-style, an eccentric animation-based method, was a wise choice for a film that gathers much of its thematic impact from the blurred line between reality and a drug-induced imagination. Through the “rotoscope” method, it is not the question of “what is real?” which is ambiguous, but instead what brings about a certain level of uncertainty is the question “how does the protagonist (Arctor) see reality?” A theme seen throughout the film is how each addict in the film can no longer be sure what world is brought about by “Substance D” and what is actually happening because both worlds have become intertwined. The surreal feeling that the rotoscope method brings about is a perfect “visual seasoning”, if you will, to the fever-dream of events taking place on-screen.





2 comments on “A Scanner Darkly (2006)

  1. Hi Ryan, I liked how you talked about the surreal feeling in your critical analysis paragraph. The movie is two worlds colliding (the drug world and the real world) and the animation technique brought this to life. The characters, on Substance D, were living in a different physical world than what their brains were in.

  2. All analysis is well done. Reading the book before seeing the film probably would be best, except that confusion–the inability to determine what is real–is a key theme. Your argument paragraph was quite effective, with a really good thesis statement. 10/10. JB.

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