New Keanu/ Winona Flick Has Philip K. Dick Fans Excited, Anxious
'A Scanner Darkly' shows Hollywood still mining late author's works for sci-fi gold.
by Jennifer Vineyard
Ask Winona Ryder about the author of the book behind her new movie, "A Scanner Darkly," and her eyes light up.
"I could talk about that forever," she said. "I have a million things to say about that."
Like the psychics in his 1956 short story "Minority Report," sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick was something of a "precog" himself. But instead of predicting murders before they happened, the prolific author imagined various unsettling futures — any number of which, one feels, might still come true.
His nightmares of twisted realities and even more twisted identities — an android-hunter suddenly unsure whether he's an android himself; a policeman accused of a crime he's yet to commit; a man planning a vacation to Mars, only to learn that he's already been there — have been made into a half-dozen movies of varying merit, including "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and "Paycheck." The sci-fi concepts he pioneered, meanwhile, reverberate through countless other films, from "The Matrix" to "The Truman Show" to "The X-Files."
Unsurprisingly, Dick fans (in fact, they call themselves "Dickheads") have eagerly awaited the release of the film version of "A Scanner Darkly," featuring Keanu Reeves as an undercover agent and/or suspected drug dealer who is, it appears, spying on himself. It's a convoluted, schizophrenic story where drug use fractures brains so thoroughly that abusers can't even recognize themselves. (Dick, a former drug enthusiast himself, intended the story as a cautionary tale.)
"I watched it and felt like I really didn't want what was about to happen, to happen," Ryder said. "I was gripping the seat. Honestly. I'm not just saying that because I'm in it."
It's been called by the author's daughters the "first faithful adaptation" of their late father's work. But what does "faithful" mean, really? Books always have to be changed — slimmed, reshaped — for the screen. Does a more "faithful" adaptation mean a better movie?
Ridley Scott's hugely influential 1982 film, "Blade Runner," for example, is hardly a "faithful" rendition of Dick's novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" As Richard Linklater, the director of the new "Scanner" movie, said, "It kind of takes the central idea and runs with it — successfully, I think. The movies can't help but reflect the filmmakers. 'Paycheck' becomes a John Woo movie. 'Minority Report' becomes a Spielberg movie. 'Scanner' becomes my type of movie — a bunch of guys talking."
Unlike most of the films adapted from PKD works, "Scanner" doesn't feel like an adventure in Tomorrowland.
"The futuristic aspect is handled in a smart way," Ryder said. "It doesn't have a future look — no silver shoulder pads. You can get into the characters, instead of [watching a] giant movie [with] big visuals and crawly things."
Ryder and Reeves both consider themselves Dickheads — Reeves started reading Dick's "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" while filming the first "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," to offset the airhead character he played in that picture.
"Dick kind of transformed the American novel," Reeves said, "from the Western to sci-fi, exploring new frontiers." And Ryder's godfather, the 1960s' LSD proselytizer Timothy Leary, was once a roommate of Dick's, so she was raised on his stories.
"He was prophetic," she said. "He wrote these things 30 years ago and look what's happening right now. He was pretty much on the money."
Many PKD fans have been annoyed that the author's richly philosophical stories have for the most part been turned into big action-adventure blockbuster movies. Two of Dick's stories, "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" and "Second Variety," both set on Earth, were turned into outer-space adventures in their respective movies, "Total Recall" and "Screamers." Inevitably, significant elements were lost in translation. On the other hand, major changes made for other film adaptations wound up enhancing the original work on other levels.
"Blade Runner" went through a number of script revisions before Dick was happy with it. Hampton Fancher's original screenplay enraged him. "They had cleaned my book up of all the subtleties and of the meaning," he told Twilight Zone magazine at the time. "I had this vision that I would go up there and watch a scene being shot, and Harrison Ford would say, 'Lower that blast-pistol or you're a dead android!' And I'd be screaming, 'You've destroyed my book!' That would be a little item in the newspaper: 'Obscure Author Becomes Psychotic on H'wood Set; Minor Damage, Mostly to the Author.' "
After David Peoples revised the screenplay and Dick saw a preview segment of the movie's special effects, he was placated.
"They caught it perfectly," Dick told the magazine, saying the movie and the book would "reinforce each other." Dick never got the chance to find out, however; he died just a few months before the film's release.
Harrison Ford, the movie's star (also known to be displeased with the film version), came around in the end himself, telling MTV News in 1996, "I like 'Blade Runner' a lot more than I used to. There were some things that I was frankly disappointed in about it, but I think it's an awfully good film, and a real original film."
The 1990 film "Total Recall" suffered similar detours on its way to the screen. Originally, David Cronenberg — a natural choice for a PKD project — was slated to direct and Richard Dreyfuss, William Hurt and Patrick Swayze were considered for the lead role. But when Cronenberg's draft was rejected — because it was "the Philip K. Dick version," he was told — the director moved on, disgusted by the fact that the movie was becoming "Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars," he told Wired magazine. In the end the seemingly ordinary clerk in the PKD story became a beefy construction worker (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and instead of just dreaming of Mars, he got to go there (again).
A related Dickian theme occurs in two of his stories: "Second Variety," which was (rather crudely) turned into the 1996 movie "Screamers," and "Imposter," which was made into the 2002 film of the same name. Here, human identity has grown unstable in a world populated by highly advanced robots and "replicants" just as lethal as those in "Blade Runner." "Screamers" turned out to be a fairly routine space-horror slasher film. "Imposter" preserved some of Dick's paranoid vision but had nowhere near the visual or philosophical punch as Steven Spielberg's adaptation of "Minority Report."
Spielberg took the short story and made it even more Dickian: Tom Cruise's character works in an even more menacing police state than that imagined by the author, where citizens are scanned by robot spiders and can be sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes they might have committed had the government's "pre-crime" cops not intervened.
"The idea of being arrested before you commit a crime is terrifying," Ryder said. "The reason it's terrifying is that I can see it happening. Journalists are already being jailed for writing something."
"In Dick's short story, the hero is trying to preserve the pre-crime program," said "Minority Report" screenwriter Scott Frank. "And he commits murder in the end to prove that it works, and to save the system. But no matter how you look at it, the system is fascistic. So I just thought about what kind of people would embrace or fall prey to this system. Tom Cruise's character had lost his son to a murderer, and he was still grieving, still obsessing, so he was in effect taking out his anger on the rest of society."
So "Minority Report" became a psychological thriller, although a very Dickian one. It could have been worse. Consider 2003's "Paycheck," which actually played down the police-state overtones of Dick's original story and turned it into a chase flick.
Will "Scanner" be the last of the really ambitious Philip K. Dick movies? Richard Linklater doesn't think so and has his own vision of the future: "We'll be seeing his movies for the next hundred years."