Adaptation Paper: Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox


  1. Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, 1970

    Written early in Dahl’s “second career” as a writer of children’s literature, Fantastic Mr. Fox is generally considered one of his more minor works compared to well-known tales such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda. Writing in “Children’s Literature Association Quarterly,” Adrienne Kertzer says “scholarly attention has tended to concentrate upon other Dahl works, possibly because they are regarded as more subversive and/or controversial.”

    It’s true that on the surface there seems to be little that is subversive or controversial in this slender volume – approximately 80 pages of text and full of Quentin Blake’s sprawling illustrations. The story introduces Mr. Fox and his wife Mrs. Fox, who have four Small Foxes who, while charmingly capitalized, are never named. The Fox family are at least assigned titles; other animal characters are given no such honor (Badger, Rabbit, Mole). Mr. Fox goes about his fox business, which is presented matter-of-factly: “Every evening as soon as it got dark, Mr. Fox would say to Mrs. Fox, ‘Well my darling, what shall it be this time? A plump chicken from Boggis? A duck or a goose from Bunce? Or a nice turkey from Bean?’ And when Mrs. Fox had told him what she wanted, Mr. Fox would creep down into the valley in the darkness of the night and help himself.” Boggis, Bunce, and Bean are also not afforded the honor of titles; they are the mean and nasty farmers who are the villains of the tale and considered “horrible crooks” by the local children. As Mr. Fox goes about his stated business, it of course alarms and upsets the farmers, who take up a single-minded mission: to destroy Mr. Fox at all costs. Mr. Fox, despite starting the trouble to begin with, winds up saving the day and being declared “fantastic!” repeatedly by Mrs. Fox – and the other local animals agree, as they celebrate the emptying of the greedy farmers’ stores while the farmers themselves were too bent on vengeance to notice.

    Regardless of the fact it was not the same level of commercial success as other of Dahl’s works from around the same time, Fantastic Mr. Fox is still well-known and quite well loved by many. It is never given a distinct geographic setting but there is a pervasive and understated English-ness to the whole thing, from the somewhat fussy formal dress of the Fox family to the oh-so-British determined-ness of the farmers (quite to their own detriment; the book ends on them sitting, perpetually, outside the Fox family hole while all the animals feast on their stolen stores). The cunning animals outwit the mean farmers at every turn, and the fable comes out in a way pleasing to children and adults as well.

  2. Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, 2009

    One of the many people loving Dahl’s book was, by all accounts including his own, Wes Anderson. Born a year before it was published, Anderson has fond memories of the book. In his extensive “New Yorker” piece on Anderson, Richard Brody writes “Roald Dahl’s ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ is the first book that Anderson remembers owning. (Owen Wilson told me that he was still talking about Dahl in college.)” And years after college, Anderson chose to make Fantastic Mr. Fox the first novel he adapted for film (he wrote or co-wrote all his prior movies himself).

    No matter how much Wes Anderson may love Dahl’s original work, there was no question it would need to be expanded to be made into a feature film. Kertzer discusses “the text’s literal expansion in that Anderson and Noah Baumbach’s script treats Dahl’s short story as the middle chapter of a three-chapter plot.” Brody expands on this observation, “[t]hey amplified the characters’ relationships, as well as their conflicts, invented new characters, and gave names, identities, and backstories to the characters who, in the book, are merely sketched in action. The result is not just a longer narrative but also an expanded emotional spectrum.”

    Expanded story and emotional spectrum are joined by the painstaking artistry of stop-motion animation. Anderson has gained a reputation over the years as a somewhat painstaking director himself, and a number of commenters expressed no surprise whatsoever that he chose stop-motion technique for his first animated work. Writing in “New Review of Film and Television Studies,” Tom Dorey observes “One of the most prominent American filmmakers of his generation, Anderson’s films show an increasingly tight control over the cinematic worlds he creates for his characters to populate and over the characters themselves; in this regard, his auteur signature becomes increasingly more visible from film to film.”

    The expressive, solid reality of the puppets used in stop-motion animation brought delightful personification to the expanded cast of Anderson’s film. The Fox family is altered slightly, Mr. and Mrs. Fox have only one child, a son who is actually given a name (Ash), and they play host to their visiting nephew Kristofferson while his father recovers from double pneumonia. Badger is now Mr. Fox’s lawyer, advising him on the real-estate market, and Mr. Fox has a new best friend, Kylie, a simple and sweet-minded opossum who joins Mr. Fox on his raiding adventures despite not always understanding what he’s getting into (“Before we go any farther, from now on can you give me some kind of signal once in a while just so that I know any of this is getting through to you?”). There is a fun diversion and plot-point regarding Mr. Fox’s athletic prowess at a fictional game called “whack-bat” (explained by Owen Wilson as Coach Skip in a hilarious scene), and perhaps most importantly, Mrs. Fox is greatly expanded as a character and personality (she is also given a name – Felicity, a tribute to Dahl’s second wife).

    While the basic plot does not change – clever animals outwit nasty farmers – the added personalities, complexities, and adventures add up to something quite a bit more than Dahl set out in his slender volume. No longer just about the greed of mean farmers, family relationships come to the forefront and can even be said to overshadow the threats posed by Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. If the movie arguably changes the focus of the book, what does that say about the success of the adaptation?

  3. The Adaptation

    Wes Anderson has been linked with a “New Sincerity” movement in film-making, characterized by filmmakers creating worlds and characters that they sincerely wish well for – as opposed to ironic detachment, cynically placing characters in a situation and feeling “above” them. Dorey writes, “What better confirmation of his continued cinematic manifestations of sincerity than revisiting a favoured childhood text with a nostalgic, handmade form of movie-making that has been long eclipsed by other forms of animation, obviously distinct from the hyperrealistic computer-generated images of the Pixar and DreamWorks animation studios that dominate the contemporary box office?”

    There is no doubt Anderson’s love for Dahl’s work is front and center in his film. The opening shot is entirely silent, and displays text from the book (“Boggis and Bunce and Bean / One fat / One short / One lean” etc.) before the soundtrack begins and the shot changes to an animated hand holding …a library copy of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. The colors chosen for the shots echo the colors of the book and the colors remain a vivid reminder of the beloved basis for the film throughout.

    Kertzer’s essay, however, argues that Anderson “protests too much” – that he makes almost too strong an argument for fidelity to Dahl’s work when in fact he works some changes on the original that are fairly profound. Presenting her own research that there is often a “ferocious” response when it comes to children’s literature particularly when it comes to the fidelity of literary adaptations, she makes an interesting observation about her own response to Anderson’s film: “Not only has the film prompted my return to Dahl, including books that I had never read simply because Anderson’s affection for Dahl’s fiction and his decade-long determination to make the film made me wonder what I had been missing, but it has also driven me from an initial indifference to whether the film is faithful to Dahl to a curiosity about the obsession with fidelity operative within both the discourse of the film and its subsequent marketing.”

    There are an elaborate series of marketing videos available on YouTube (search for “fantastic mr fox behind the scenes” or see also link below) that were released prior to the release of the film to pique audience interest. In the very first video we learn that Wes Anderson actually had video taken of himself performing nearly every action that Mr. Fox makes in the film, to show the animators the precise motions – even facial expressions – he had in mind. There is also brief footage of George Clooney being filmed doing this. Considering the time and attention this must have taken, again, it is impossible to argue against Anderson’s devotion to the material.

    By the very act of choosing to take a book so well-loved by him and changing it so profoundly – where in Dahl’s original is there room for Mrs. Fox to say “I love you too, but I never should have married you”? – Anderson had to be conscious that his own artistic creation would then have the potential to change others’ perceptions of Dahl’s work. By adding so much to the original, there were always going to be people who had never read the Dahl book who went to it and said, “This? This is it?” (Full disclosure: I had never read the book before this class, and that reaction was mine.) But as Kertzer notes of herself – the film prompted her to revisit Dahl, even his other works.

    The act of creation is an act of inspiration. Wes Anderson, so inspired by Roald Dahl’s book that he wouldn’t shut up about it to his college roommate, brought out this film when he was forty years old. Although the book is not much more than the small stiff wire model holding up all the delightful clay of Anderson’s creation, it is arguably one of the most successful adaptations we have seen in the course of this class. Every tiny line and detail was created purely out of love of the story and the joy of imagination making it anew. Rather than parroting the creation of another, it opens up a broad response to “adaptation” that encompasses something beyond mere fidelity.


Works Cited

“Fidelity, Felicity, and Playing Around in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox
Adrienne Kertzer
Children’s Literature Association Quarterly
2011 (requires UniversityID login)

“Fantastic Mr. Filmmaker: paratexts and the positioning of Wes Anderson as Roald Dahl’s cinematic heir”
Ted Dorey
New Review of Film and Television Studies

“Songs of Innocence & Experience: Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, and the Post-Boomer”
Michael Sicinski
Cinema Scope
No date given; issue CS41

“Wild, Wild Wes”
Richard Brody
The New Yorker
Nov. 2, 2009

Additional material: “Behind the Scenes: Fantastic Mr. Fox”
series of promotional videos
Nov., 2009

Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, 2009

photo courtesy
photo courtesy
  1. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen was published in 1986-1987 as twelve monthly comic installments, each one a chapter or “Episode.” Set in an alternate reality “modern day” of the mid-1980s, the themes of this elaborately complex work are primarily humanity’s increasing sense of powerlessness in a changing, threatening world, the relationship humanity has with history, time, memory, and nostalgia, and a powerful twinned sense of fear and wonder at what humanity has wrought.  The innovative graphic novel style incorporates text and drawings and also a comic-within-a-comic story and, at the end of each installment/chapter, excerpts from the memoir of one of the characters and case notes from Rorschach’s psychiatrist. Harping upon the still-prevalent Cold War fears of the time, Watchmen used a complex story medium to address complex, modern fears and concerns.
  2. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is set in alternate-history 1985 as well, and its foremost theme is also fear. However, by placing oil companies up there with nuclear threats, it expresses fears for humanity that are less “of our own devising.” There is still a threat of nuclear destruction – prevalent even in alternate-history 1985 – but there is also a looming threat of environmental destruction as well. The film is concerned with power as well, examining who wields it and who does not, and how it is expressed in physical power. This is an intensely kinetic, loud, violent film, in keeping with director Snyder’s apparent preferred style. The colors are bright and vivid, and the shots are often carefully framed to suggest the comic book origin of the story.
  3. Zack Snyder’s visually pleasing homage to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ deeply original work is clearly reverently done. Pains are taken to preserve many visual details and character details from the graphic novel, though of course some things must be cut for length. There are plot changes which strike at the heart of longtime fans (full disclosure: I am one, having first read Watchmen in 1988 when it was published in its compendium form), perhaps foremost the ending. The tonal change is probably unavoidable, as the palpable sense of fear for humanity in 1986 was simply not the same as it was in 2009. Due to its violent nature, cataclysmic ending, and New York City setting, its meaning is inevitably given new shades in a post-9/11 world. The chaotic, frenetic style of the action sequences, shot in a high-contrast vivid “comic” color palette, also result in tonal changes from the original work. While clearly made with deep respect, the adaptation gets sloppy in a way that the precisely ordered panel work of the original would never suggest.
  4. “Watch: Patton Oswalt & Patrick Wilson Talk Zack Snyder’s ‘Slavish’ Adaptation of ‘Watchmen'”, Jan. 14, 2015
    Noted geek raconteur Patton Oswalt discusses Watchmen with Patrick Wilson in response to an audience question at a public event.

    “Zack Snyder made Watchmen ‘to save it from the Terry Gilliams of this world'”, Mar. 3, 2014
    Some newer sources are popping up on the movie adaptation because of some (possibly unwise?) words uttered about the storied history of the Watchmen project in an interview with Snyder.

    “From Frank Miller to Zack Snyder, and Return: Contemporary Superhero Comics and Post-classical Hollywood”, Aug. 2013
    Academic paper on narrative structure in comic book movies, addressing both superhero movies and non-superhero movies. Makes the valid and interesting point that Watchmen is not truly a superhero comic structure, in that it is more about the shortcomings of the heroes themselves than any particular outside villain.

    “Watchmen’s long journey from page to screen”, Apr. 22, 2014
    A history of the arduous process of getting Watchmen turned into a movie, and why it took 23 years.

  5. By virtue of the fact that the film was made in the 21st century but retained the original alternate-history-1980s setting, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen has a changed relationship with human perceptions of history and nostalgia that are notes of importance in the Moore/Gibbons original. In the very opening scene of the film, the death of The Comedian, we do get a brief glimpse of what could have been – on the television that Edward Blake is watching when his door is smashed in, Nat King Cole can be heard singing “Unforgettable” as part of a TV ad for “Nostalgia” perfume, which is produced and marketed by Veidt Enterprises. In the book, there are constant cues dropped about reverence for the past..until the ending, when Veidt begins to change worldwide marketing (Veidt Enterprises is a very large concern) to reflect a forward-looking attitude. Moore and Gibbons’ work was produced in the same time frame that it conveys, alternate history or no. Snyder’s work exists quite emphatically in a post-9/11 world, as most notably illustrated during The Comedian’s funeral scene, where the fog-enshrouded Twin Towers hover over everything like the ghosts they now are. That is how they will be perceived by nearly every audience member, especially at the time of the film’s release in 2009. This conscious decision by Snyder grounds the film very firmly in a 21st century mindframe, which has repercussions on the characters and their ideas about time and history (and, yes, nostalgia) that simply do not get updated. Snyder’s nearly slavish devotion to the look of the original work seems to mean that some ideological alignment is lost in the translation.

Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, 2009

photo credit from someone's Pinterest page!
photo credit from someone’s Pinterest page!
  1. Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is a biting children’s fable about noble animal life and evil human farmers. With Dahl’s characteristic themes of mean adults being outwitted, outshone, or out-interesting-ed by younger, smaller creatures (often children; this time, foxes!), the story is loads of fun while also showcasing a sweet family tale with Mr. and Mrs. Fox and their four Small Foxes. “Outwitting” is probably the most important part of the above list, as Mr. Fox thinks of helpful solutions for the problem of the mean farmers waiting to shoot him – and his whole family helps to execute them. This short work showcases Dahl’s concise, colorful style.
  2. Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox opens the door wider, so that all manner of small animals may outwit and outshine the mean farmers. The themes also become more broad and encompass a world of different things…and differences. Foxes and beavers and opossums and weasels and other small mammals celebrate their differences, and their various strengths. The theme of family is expanded upon as well, as the Fox family is given their own names and personalities – Mrs. Fox is Felicity, an accomplished landscape painter, and their son (only one!) is Ash, a boy who dreams big but never seems to be quite what his father might expect him to be. They are joined by their cousin Kristofferson, who is a gifted athlete and all-around centered young kit. Anderson’s film is done with rich, textured stop-motion animation (accomplished by painstakingly moving actual puppets and re-shooting them for each frame of action) in a warm palette of greens, browns, and golds that lends a sense of physical texture and reality to this world of talking (often hilarious) animals.
  3. If ever a movie was an excellent argument for a successful adaptation to be most true to the spirit, not the letter, of the original work, Fantastic Mr. Fox may well be that movie. The original work is a slender book, not a full novel-length work as some of Roald Dahl’s other popular stories (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda) are. It is essentially a brief fable, on the folly of the farmers and the cleverness of the animals. There are also larger themes hinted at, chiefly the destruction of the animals’ woodland home by the heavy machinery of the farmers. In Anderson’s hands, however – and the hands of the many animators and photographers who brought the tale to life – Mr. Fox and his friends and family grow larger and more memorable. By adding characters and changing a few family dynamics, Anderson adds some of his own touches – many of his movies feature strange, strained family relationships, so the relationship between Mr. Fox and his son Ash fits right in. The larger scope of the film is inviting to broad audiences, of adults and children alike, and is very much updated to appeal to 21st-century kids (and adults) in the same way that Dahl’s original work appealed to mid-20th-century kids (and adults). A more literal adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox would most easily be accomplished with a brief half-hour of traditional drawn animation…and would not contain at all the same vibrancy and spirit that Anderson puts in his creation, full of the fun and winks to the audience that Dahl’s original is.
  4. “Fantastic Mr. Fox: This Roald Dahl Adaptation Gets It Somewhat Right”, Mar. 18, 2010
    As its title suggests, this article is not the most ringing endorsement of the film, but it takes an approach I found in several sources: contrasting this film’s success with that of the Spike Jonze adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, also made in 2009. This piece, like many, land firmly on the side of FMF being the stronger work.

    “The character of Fantastic Mr. Fox in Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel is uncomfortably aware of the weirdness of his own anthropomorphic self”, Sept. 2014
    This Reddit thread didn’t really take off, which is a shame because it could have been an interesting discussion, but it’s fascinating to see the way fans take to the internet to discuss these ideas across so many varying platforms.

    “Museum of the Moving Image: Great Adaptations”, May 2011
    This is the flyer for a film series advertised by and shown at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City, where FMF was one of the featured films.

    “Songs of Innocence and Experience: Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson and the Post-Boomer”, from issue 41, no date given
    This in-depth analysis from Cinema Scope again contrasts Jonze and Anderson, specifically by focusing on their 2009 adaptations of beloved children’s literature, Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox, respectively. The conclusion here is also that FMF is the superior film, but the argument is made (and well-supported) that WtWTA is the more radical of the two films.

  5. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson demonstrates a level of artistic freedom that is in direct contrast with what we saw in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. By taking the original text and adding so much to it, including his own thematic quirks and traits (and those of his co-writer, Noah Baumbach), Anderson makes his film almost in defiance of those who would decry the differences between his work and the beloved book of their childhood. This is no criticism of the Potter film, which was made in a very different manner for quite different reasons, but it allows for pleasing reflection of the real sense of discovery inherent in film adaptations. “Why do this?” is a question every writer and/or director who proposes a literary adaptation must answer. Is it to pay homage to a book? To give a new view of a known reality? To open up a story to a broader audience who might not otherwise be exposed to it? Anderson’s answer to that question lives inside this adaptation itself. Anderson is known as an auteur and has won many awards for his original screenplays. Fantastic Mr. Fox is the first film that he ever directed from someone else’s story, and he has stated that the book was tremendously important to him when he was young. Anderson’s adaptation, by its expansiveness and the personalization within it, demonstrates the way this director holds up adaptation as a way to add to the world of a beloved story and to share it with a broader audience.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004

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photo courtesy
  1. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the third of seven novels about Potter, the young wizard who is raised not knowing his magical background until he is ten years old, when he is summoned to Hogwarts School to learn with other witches and wizards. The overall themes are coming-of-age, the importance of friends and chosen family, and the triumph of good over evil. In the third book of the series, Harry is turning thirteen at the start, and the tone of the series begins to change over from “children’s adventure” to take up some of the more serious themes of betrayal and trust and how they begin to outline the story of Harry’s parents’ “chosen family” and their untimely death. The biggest narrative action in PoA is a reveal of the way Harry’s parents were killed when he was just an infant, and the human actors who brought about that betrayal. Voldemort, the villain of the series, does indeed kill Harry’s parents, but in this book it is revealed that he did not act without human assistance, the ultimate betrayal within any family, chosen or blood. While there are still lively and comedic interludes about Harry and his friends (his own chosen family – he truly has no other kind) growing up and going to school, this third novel in the series starts showing some of the true threat facing Harry and the wizarding world.
  2. Alfonso Cuarón’s film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban showcases a number of challenges to the director over and above portraying the growing sense of real foreboding in the universe of this film series. The director must work with a large number of actors chosen by another director, he must film on sets built for another director, he must work with some pre-existing (and already-well-beloved) musical cues, and perhaps most dauntingly he must take over the reins of the hugely lucrative film series based on the most successful book series of all time and deliver a film that changes the entire tone of the series. Cuarón takes on these challenges with aplomb, taking the familiar sets of Hogwarts (and other locales such as the Leaky Cauldron and the Dursleys’ home) and infusing them with a new level of menace. The menace in the third film is human, unique to that point in the Potter film series. It appears to be housed within Sirius Black, but when he is shown to be not only misunderstood for his role in the murder of the Potters but also in  his role in their – and Harry’s – lives, it plays up the theme of the harm of betrayal. Cuarón’s lighting and colors are more muted than in both earlier films (each directed by Chris Columbus), which underscore the menace of the dark prison guard Dementors and give a gravity to the increasingly real-feeling dangers faced by Harry. Harry must face them with his friends, his own chosen family, and by building on those established relationships Cuarón begins to set up the striking parallels between Harry and his own parents that will continue throughout the series.
  3. Cuarón’s adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban faced some truly outsized expectations, and met them all with aplomb and usually with sure-handed success. Working within a highly unique situation, the director needed to frame the next chapter in a hugely popular work of fiction…before the ending of that fiction was written. While it is true that in movie three he could not reasonably be expected to carry any responsibility for movie seven (or eight…), he did need to work under extreme scrutiny from a fanbase versed front-to-back in Harry Potter minutiae. As the books got longer (PoA was longer than either of the first two books in the series), the time constraint of a film became a greater challenge. Fans wanted to see every favorite detail on screen, but Cuarón needed to make a film that advanced the plot and upheld the spirit of the work without taking four or more hours to do so. He also had to add in the first truly human peril, betrayal, anger, and mistrust in the series – the themes were growing up along with the main characters. With his darkened palette, maturing young actors, and new tones worked into John Williams’ beautiful score, the director managed to walk a very fine line indeed.
  4. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (film)”, no date on page
    The Harry Potter wikia site is one of many obsessively detailed fan sites that is dedicated to all things Potter. This entry includes a helpful, highly detailed list of differences between the book and the film.

    “The Five Worst Book-to-Film Adaptations”, Feb. 16, 2013
    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the top of this list, though the author concedes that he loves the movie as “a stand-alone film” and his most vehement quibble seems to be with the appearance of the werewolf…

    Search history for “prisoner of azkaban movie” at The Leaky Cauldron, various dates
    To showcase further overwhelmingly robust curated fansites, The Leaky Cauldron is where Robyn Joffe’s essay (already included as part of our class readings) also appears…along with hundreds of other articles about the movie.

    Video Game: Harry Potter, various dates
    Part of consideration on this adaptation (the whole series of adaptations) from the start was the way the franchise would play out in other media. The video game industry is hugely profitable, moreso than Hollywood in recent years, and this tertiary level of adaptation of Rowling’s works would have been involved in the earliest talks on the movie, at least in boardrooms. This in-depth clearinghouse of information covers the video game versions of each Potter film.

    “Grade 4 Class Adapts ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ Into Their Own Movie!”, Jun. 25, 2015
    A very recent item from MuggleNet, which claims it is “The #1 Harry Potter site.” It has a long history, like The Leaky Cauldron, as a home for Harry Potter fans. This tale of a classroom of kids in Calgary, Alberta who chose to make a movie instead of doing a regular book report goes to show the enduring visual nature of these books and the long shadows cast by their “original” movie versions as well!

    “CFP: Harry Potter on the Page and on the Screen: Adaptation/Reception/Transformation”, Jul. 13, 2014
    This call for papers (deadline long past, alas) shows one of many online forums for scholarship based on “fandom” activities – around Harry Potter and many other “fandom” worlds.

    (Point of interest: the course abstract for this course as it was presented in Summer 2014 is on page 4 of a Google search for “prisoner of azkaban adaptation”)

  5. One of the greatest achievements of J.K. Rowling’s book series became one of the biggest burdens for the film series of Columbus, Cuarón, Newell, and Yates and most of all the screenwriter for seven of the eight films, Steve Kloves – they were not really just adapting books. They were adapting a cultural phenomenon. The first two films did receive some criticism for being almost “too literal” in trying to keep all the details from the books on-screen, and in both the assigned readings and other research on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban there was outcry over even small details that Alfonso Cuarón (and Kloves) left out. The books and film series straddled the turn-of-the-century, and from the release of the first film adaptation in 2001 it was clear that the new century posed whole new challenges for communicating with an audience via film. Since her book series was not complete when the movies began to film, Rowling consulted on each film so as to help preserve the most key plot points. In the face of overwhelming public scrutiny, this guidance must have been invaluable. With the 21st-century problems of discussion boards, leaked scripts and stills winding up online, online invective hurled over every tiny decision, Alfonso Cuarón took a bold leap with the third film – and also bore some of the heaviest burden of scrutiny to that point in the series. The success of the third Harry Potter film – both financially and critically – is in itself a huge testimony to the degree of work that Cuarón faced in this project.

Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, 2006

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Photo courtesy
  1. Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly speaks with dark humor and paranoia about the nature of the society we live in, the nature of the reality we live in, and how unknowable those are. Written in 1977 and set in 1994, Dick’s work describes an American landscape where surveillance is a given, and a huge percentage of the population is addicted to Substance D, a plant-derived drug which has no “casual” users. Seeming to prefigure the “Just Say ‘No’” Reagan years ahead, and to already glimpse their darker side, the characters in A Scanner Darkly move through various “stoner studies” of their own minds as they question their own reality. No character does this more than Bob Arctor, AKA “Officer Fred,” a Möbius strip of a man who is a narc posing as a stoner who is assigned to surveillance duty on himself. As Bob/Fred succumbs more and more to the effects of Substance D, readers must face how little they know of the book’s reality as it is filtered through these altered consciousnesses.
  2. Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly uses rotoscoping animation to suffuse the performances of well-known actors with a sense of shifting reality/unreality. It also enhances the hallucinatory nature of some sequences. Linklater’s film also takes a humorous, paranoid look at a highly surveilled society, which takes on a heightened significance in its post-9/11 setting. Rather than tie it to a specific year, Linklater’s film is set “seven years from now,” but it was made in 2006 so any point “seven years later” from a given viewer will be in (at the very least) the 21st century. The animation heightens the sense of the unknown/unknowable both in the “real world” and in that inhabited by Substance D users. The use of technology – such as the “scramble suit” and the hologram-replay machine that is a part of the suite of surveillance cameras – also enhances the audience’s sense that the film’s “real world” is also slightly alien and unknowable.
  3. Linklater’s adaptation of Dick’s A Scanner Darkly is highly successful visually and thematically. By showing a vivid, colorful world inside the society of Substance D users, there is a certain indictment of years of a failed “war on drugs” that in fact did result in people being “punished entirely too much for what they did.” Along with the post-9/11 perspective on surveillance culture in America, the themes that Dick addressed in 1977 resound in a whole new way in the 21st century. The visual animated effect of the scramble suit is striking and illuminating. When Bob/Fred can no longer discern himself, he says “What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly because I can’t any longer see into myself.” This sense of the unknowable pervades both book and film, and the film translates it well. There is sensible use of voice-over to cue the audience to Bob/Fred’s deteriorating sense of reality. And the long, meandering “stoner conversations” with the residents of Bob’s house provide another sort of thematic narration on their own, as the paranoid ramblings of some residents veer closer to the truth than they might ever suspect.
  4. “Richard Linklater”, Jun. 14, 2006

    The AV Club’s interview with Richard Linklater just before taking A Scanner Darkly to be presented at the Cannes Film Festival.

    “Looking back at Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly”, Oct. 29, 2014

    A fond and interesting revisiting of the film from late last year, it is interesting to examine the ways in which paranoia and the surveillance culture in U.S. society have only become more and more prevalent.

    “How animation stabilizes A Scanner Darkly’s shifting reality”, Nov. 18, 2014

    This particular article focuses narrowly on the rotoscoping animation technique employed by Linklater and Bob Sabiston and how it enhances the many varied realities of Dick’s story.

    “The Religious Experience of Phillip K. Dick by R. Crumb from Weirdo #17”, no date

    This Philip K. Dick fansite has put up scans of Crumb’s work on this graphic novel “adaptation” of some of Dick’s writings about his religious or mystic visions.

  5. Considering that the title comes from Christian scripture (St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”), there is very little direct reference to theological thought in Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly. Linklater worked closely with Dick’s estate to make the film and his adaptation shows a great depth of knowledge of and interest in Dick’s work, so it must be inferred that this decision was made consciously. Obviously in an adaptation some things “must go” – but it does a disservice to the story, ultimately, to leave out these reflections. The story is about the nature of reality and how we perceive it. Linklater chose to play up this examination as reflected in society (drug use, drug treatment, trust and mistrust in a surveillance state), not in personal or theological reflection. It is interesting to examine the one place where he brings in a direct reference to God. At the end, when Donna (…who is Audrey…who we just discovered has been Officer Hank, Fred’s boss, all along…) is speaking to her fellow agent-for-change Mike, they are discussing whether Bob has a chance in hell of finding anything out about New Path while “undercover” (and half-braindead) in their treatment center. Mike says to Audrey, “I believe God’s M.O. is to transmute evil into good and if He’s active here, he’s doing that now. Although our eyes can’t perceive it. The whole process is hidden beneath the surface of our reality. It will only be revealed later.” That is a direct call to the quote referenced by the work’s title, and underlies what may well be Dick’s insight into what he wants his work to accomplish. There is much at work in the world and reality that we cannot perceive, and as Dick came to believe later in his life, all of that is not only from God, but is God. To show characters with three layers of identity discussing things “hidden beneath the surface of our reality” and yet not to have brought in more various theological underpinnings throughout the film may have saved some time, but mostly removed one of the work’s own many important layers.