Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Through a Projector Poorly

While I’ve never been particularly hot for science fiction, I have in the last few years become pretty hot for the writing of Philip K. Dick. There’s something about his fast-moving prose and the brutal economy of wording that takes a little getting used to, but ultimately becomes as much a part of the story as the characters themselves.

No less jarring at first are the perception shifts that sometimes flip the reader’s perspective two, three, four or more times in the course of a novel. It can be a dizzying experience—especially when he ventures into the more esoteric aspects of the human experience. Often his narratives become more philosophy experiment than fantastic tales of some dystopian future. And while that irked much of Dick’s contemporary SF audience, (indeed his works were deemed with mild derision as “cult” science fiction) future audiences would lustily converge on his works from tastes across the literary spectrum.

Myself and plenty others are drawn to his stories because of their tendencies to play around, with and inside various fundamental frameworks of “reality.” They leave the reader dizzy, giddy, yet… wiser somehow. Similar to particular chemically or physiologically induced alterations of our perception of the universe, several of Dick’s novels leave the reader with a permanently, slightly altered view of the world around them and their place in it. It’s a remarkable feat for any literary work to achieve and certainly the mark of (yeah, it’s a bankrupt word, but it fits for once) genius.

So, of course I went to see director Richard Linklatter’s new interpretation of A Scanner Darkly the first chance I got. Discussion and reviews of the stars and the meanings and the method are all over the place right now. I couldn’t add much by spouting on anything there, so I'll just toss out a take on the film: It was lousy. I wanted to love it but I can’t even say I liked it.

Now, by way of disclosure I should say that I actually haven’t read that particular Philip K. Dick book, but since I’ve devoured plenty of his other works, I feel comfortable enough in saying that the book is a helluva lot better. Word has it that Linklatter stuck very closely to the arc and episodes of the novel. Perhaps that was the problem. The film was flat and, frankly, confusing.

The much-gabbed about Rotoscoping (painting-on-the-film) technique ultimately worked against the plot by distracting from the shifting perspectives, which needed more establishing, more grounding than they did when they were played out in words. (Though, truth be told, the effect it produced on the “scramble suits” was consistently, joyfully, mesmerizing.) Additionally, the actors were apparently instructed to be very faithful to the text. While this is admirable on paper, in practice it seemed to rob the production of much of its urgency. And in a film where the plot rides on an alternating current of urgency and philosophy, that means half the battle is lost before the cameras even roll.

There were parts I did like though. The story is genuinely intriguing and the particular take on the police state of the future is extremely relevant and urgently compelling—if only because it’s not exactly futuristic enough for comfort. But those elements don’t speak to the film itself, they're still of the story. And therein lies the problem. The production took plenty from the novel, but gave little to the story save the rotoscoping, which went from “neat” to “irritating” after about the first hour.

It’s when the elements of giving and taking are compared to other PKD film adaptations that we are witness to the great divide between the possibilities of literature and film. Each have their stengths, their weaknesses. Adaptations that pull off the translation well, rarely wring from the work more the its tranlatable elements. It's an art unto itself, really, knowing what to take and what to leave and just how much of each.

Sure. the well-liked adaptations like Blade Runner and Minority Report, hell, even the fun and goofy Total Recall, are all built upon the basic frame of the Dick story. But each eschew much of the bare-knuckle philosophy for more gunplay, more gore or more sex. These productions realized that, as a film, the essential elements of a Dick story need to be reversed in their proportions if they’re to succeed. Ease off the speculative philosophy and experiments in subjectivity and pump up the boobs, chases and explosions.

And there, in a handful of sentences, you have the formula—the how if not so much the why—of adapting a Philip K. Dick literary work for the screen. It’s also the reason A Scanner Darkly never exactly takes a flying leap and kicks our asses and our brains in the way it ought to. At least the way the book does… or so I expect it does.

Please note that I do believe that philosophy can and does work well in film... in the right hands and with the right material. My point here is that what makes PKD's more literary flights of intellectual fancy unique, exhilarating and even life-changing, are the very elements that remain impossible to successfully translate to film in a narrative capacity. Exactly why is the basis for another essay, I suppose.

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