Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly” is easily the most straightforwardly faithful Phillip K. Dick adaptation to reach the screen. It adheres closely to the novel’s words, and is suffused with a sense of reverence.
Unfortunately, that’s kind of a problem. Dick’s books were remarkably unfaithful, even to themselves. A typical Dick novel reads as if he’s thinking only about one paragraph ahead of the reader. Narratives dead-end, expectations are ruthlessly ignored, profound insights turn into pratfalls and vice versa. For a writer so enamored of aesthetic messes, a spirited desecration like “Blade Runner” is more in the spirit than Linklater’s sincere homage.
When Linklater does change the material, he consistently dumbs it down. At one point in the novel, Arctor is coldly dissed by his girlfriend Donna Hawthorne; in Linklater’s version, this scene turned into a tender, romantic moment. Even worse is the treatment of the rehab center New Path. Linklater tells us right from the beginning that New Path is evil; Dick saves the information till the end, so that it appears to come almost as an afterthought. And, of course, Linklater adds gratuitous scenes condemning police brutality, complete with some dude in a bullhorn praising freedom. Subtle, Rick.
All of the movies faults are further accentuated in the comic. The movie’s animation was created using computer software to animate over live-action footage; it doesn’t look good onscreen, but the stills used as comic art are absolutely hideous. Nor has anyone made any effort to translate the movie’s effects and rhythm into comic form. The main special effect — a scramble suit which causes the wearer to look like one person after another in quick succession — doesn’t work at all in a static image which lets you see only one set of features. Comic timing is relentlessly ignored; still images seem to have been selected almost at random by a machine. The one concession to comics form — additional narrative text blocks written by Harvey Pekar. are woefully clumsy. A typical one informs us that, as a car speeds out of control, “…high speed chaos reigns….”
In other words, this graphic novel is a pale shadow of a pale shadow. Do yourself a favor — skip the comic adaptation, skip the movie, and just go read (or reread) the novel. Philip K. Dick was fascinated by imposters and facsimiles, but he himself was inimitable.
This review was first published in The Comics Journal a while back.