Paranoia in Modern America: An Examination of “A Scanner Darkly.”



Philip K. Dick published “A Scanner Darkly” in 1977, a science fiction novel based on the drug influenced culture of a post-Vietnam United States.  Dick used his past experiences with drugs as a basis for many of the novel’s themes.  After Dick was treated for his drug use, writing “A Scanner Darkly” was a warning to other drug users and society at large.  The novel acknowledges many of Dick’s acquaintances that committed suicide or had their lives ruined by drugs, appealing to the potential realism of his created dystopia.  Though the most basic concept to take away from the novel is the negative influence of drugs, there is much more.  The novel also provokes the reader to consider their own reality, pushing the boundaries of typical black and white, good and evil. 

Robert Linklater took on Dick’s novel in 2006, adapting “A Scanner Darkly” for the big screen.  Many of the primary themes present in Dick’s original work are infused into the film.  However, as Dick’s novel is focused on the lost trust in government and the drug craze of the 1970s, Linklater updates the themes into a dystopic future United States.  This adaptation is suggests that such themes from the 1970s are present today, maybe even extrapolated.  The focus on paranoia in a futuristic, yet negative, United States conflicts with the theme of hope that many people associate with the future.  Visually, in Linklater’s adaptation, our world is not dramatically different; yet, our culture is slowly slipping further into a conflict of morals.

Linklater used a digital reworking of an old animation technique called rotoscoping.  Rotoscoping is difficult to describe, but animates the characters into forms that are simultaneously human and inhuman.  We as viewers can tell who the actors are but are drawn to the cartoonish realism of the rotoscoping.  Linklater may be suggesting that the hallucinogens produced by drugs are nothing more than the reality we all succumb to.  This visual technique separates the film from the novel in an artistic manner, yet remains true to the spirit of the source.  The visuals make the viewer almost uncomfortable, as though paranoia from drug use is leaking into sober minds.  He may be suggesting that if we continue on our paths, paranoia will become so infused into our society that it becomes assumed.


Video: Here we see an interview with both Richard Linklater and Keanu Reeves.  They discuss the policing in the film and an association with “freedom of speech.”  Linklater states that he feels Dick was hinting at the future, which is why he felt it was appropriate to make this film when he did.  Additionlly, the use of Robert Downey Jr. was especially helpful for he wrote and improvised many of the dialogue scenes.  His background was especially helpful in creating the mood that we see in “A Scanner Darkly.”

In another interview, Linklater states that “we’re living in science fiction right now… what’s the next step- you cross the street at night and you get a ticket for jaywalking because biometrically it can read who you are?”  Linklater addresses some interesting questions about the setting of his film and the path our society is heading toward. One blogger praises Keanu Reeves, stating that “more than in almost everything else he’s ever been in, (Reeves) turns his congenital inexpressiveness into a virtue, as his character slips (without quite realizing it) into an ever-more-befuddled state of paranoia, ccognitive dysfunction, and split personality…”  Mckenzie Wark, the author, thinks that the rotoscoping helps to define the look and feel of both surveillance as well as addiction.

To answer the question of whether “A Scanner Darkly” is an anti-drug parable or an anti-government parable, the answer is up for interpretation.  I believe the novel was more anti-drug, from my understanding of it at least.  The novel was a self-examination for Dick, a novel of catharsis perhaps for a previous drug addict.  The film allowed the themes of government and self paranoia to be explored in a more negative fashion; as though hinting at the potentially disastrous paths our government could take.  Overall, both the novel and the film deal with anti-drug and anti-government parables.


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