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The Lonely, Fragile Reflections of A Scanner Darkly

“If the last to know he’s an addict is the addict, then maybe the last to know when a man means what he say’s is the man himself” – A Scanner Darkly , Philip K. Dick.

I have spent more nights than I care to admit high on drugs. In fact, I will go ahead and admit, I am an addict. I guess it started like most things do, in my mid-teens. Trying marijuana, drinking for the first time, being handed my first cigarette and so on. I spent much of my late teens and early twenties the same way, following patterns I wasn’t really aware of. When it came to that mid-twenties period of fixing up and knuckling down, I did the best I could. I had spent so long in these cycles and patterns by then that I didn’t even notice I was becoming addicted to other things. Sex, alcohol, gaming, over the counter painkillers, all of these addictions came and went and it wasn’t until going through therapy and an eventual stay in rehab that I realised I was masking a deep-seated pain that had been there since childhood. This had been my pattern of behaviour for so long that it had just become a way of life.

It would have been around the late ’90s whilst already deep in this pattern that I first heard of Philip K.Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly (1977). I believe it was with the release of John Woo’s Face/Off (1997) and hearing it compared to the novel in certain media circles due to its themes of identity. Around this time a Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys) directed film version was in development as were plenty others of Dick’s novels, with studios looking to adapt them into big-budget sci-fi movies with scowling heroes against futuristic cityscapes thanks to the success of Blade Runner (1982) and Total Recall (1990).

We then ended up getting Screamers (1995), an adaptation of Dick short Second Variety, and then Imposter (2001) and eventually a masterful version of Minority Report (2002), directed by Steven Spielberg. It wasn’t really until the mid 00’s that audiences felt ready for a proper adaptation of Dick’s work, which was always more drenched in paranoia and questions about reality than action. Being John Malkovich (1999) screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wrote a fairly faithful adaptation of A Scanner Darkly but the project never got off the ground.

One of the few hallucination sequences in A Scanner Darkly.

I read the novel in the mid-’00s just as I was settling down and masking my pain with other things. It was the first Philip K.Dick novel I had read despite knowing he had been a big influence on my favourite writers of the time, William Gibson and Michael Marshall Smith. What struck me immediately—apart from Dick’s scattershot, occasionally stream of consciousness style—was that Dick understood the drug experience perfectly. Dick captures accurately what it’s like to be high and surrounded by friends. The rambling giggling conversations, the little adventures to somewhere not far away that become sudden epic journeys, and the eventual paranoia when everyone had gone home. The novel felt authentic to me, and, not wanting to advocate this behaviour at all, Dick captured what the good times felt like. But he also captured the bad side too. I finished reading the book in a couple of days and immediately started the book again. A Scanner Darkly had become my favourite book of all time.

A Scanner Darkly takes place in the then-futuristic year of 1994 in Orange County. The government is losing the war on drugs thanks to an epidemic of addiction to Substance D, a highly addictive drug that eventually causes a kind of schizophrenia and brain damage. Here we find undercover cop Fred, posing as addict Bob Arctor, spending his time with the demented Barris, the hippy Luckman, and the object of his affection, Donna. The problem is Bob/Fred isn’t quite sure which one he is anymore. Although he reports back to his superior Hank, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Fred has taken more Substance D than advisable.

In 2006 director Richard Linklater (Boyhood) released an adaptation of A Scanner Darkly in cinemas. The film was filmed live action in Austin, Texas and then overlaid with the rotoscoping animation that he had previously employed in the film Waking Life (2001). Produced by Steven Soderbergh’s Section Eight productions and released by Warner Independent Pictures, the film really didn’t do terribly well at the box office despite the presence of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder, but got some good reviews, and was eventually appreciated more on DVD later on.

The film version of A Scanner Darkly is kind of a mixed bag for me. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been head over heels in love with the film the way I am the book, despite the film version being almost too faithful to the novel. The problem for me has always been the tone. Whilst I read the book and saw a reflection of my own experience with drugs, the highs and the lows, it always felt like Linklater read the same book and took the same from it, except the balance in the film seems more directed towards the lows. Now I am not saying that drugs equal good times, but there is something to a shared experience with friends in the book that only Linklater briefly does justice too.

The rest of the film is taken up with the long term damage this lifestyle causes. In that sense, it is as perfect an anti-drug message film as Requiem for a Dream (2000) is. Thankfully, aside from the rotoscoping technique causing a suitably otherworldly and lost atmosphere, we are not subject to over the top trip sequences we would have been in a lesser filmmaker’s hands. When a hallucination does occur it’s not a selling point but is used to underscore the deterioration of the characters mental state.

Bob Arctor begins to deteriorate in A Scanner Darkly.

Linklater’s film adaptation is perfectly cast. Robert Downey Jr was here on the verge of becoming a megastar after his own drug troubles and proves a perfect fit for the too-intelligent-for-his-own-good character of Barris. Woody Harrelson is likewise perfectly cast as the hippy, harmless Luckman. Winona Ryder is adorable in this film as Donna, but has the mystery required for the role as well and Rory Cochrane hits every note and mumbles perfectly as the too far gone Freck.

The actor who carries the film is Keanu Reeves as Fred/Bob. When released the film got the tired “most animated Keanu has ever been” nonsense, but Keanu has always been best when playing a character with a slightly off moral centre, like in The Gift (2000) or Constantine (2005). Here Reeves combines this along with his gift of blankness that carried audiences through The Matrix (1999) and it may well be his best performance. Now that Keanu is officially the internet’s boyfriend, it’s a performance ripe for rediscovery. The inner confusion and monologues of the novel are delivered perfectly by Reeves and when the tragedy starts to unfold, Reeves carries you with him and you can’t help but feel moved.

Both the book and the film capture the experience of being high and the conversations and hijinks that occasionally follow. What the film version captures perhaps better than the book is the sense of sudden isolation, paranoia, and dread when all your friends have gone home: you are still ridiculously high, and you are faced with yourself, your thoughts, and the decisions that lead to this lifestyle.

In the film and book, this is underscored by three or four sequences. The first finds Fred in his scramble suit, about to give a speech on dangerous drugs and the epidemic of Substance D to some Orange County sheriff’s department made up of over the hill middle-aged men. At the start, Fred hesitates at what he is going to say, not necessarily agreeing with the anti-drug propaganda that he is about to spew forth robotically, but then he delivers it perfectly, citing the danger to the children that Substance D presents. Fred stops part way through, his experience with his friends and the drugs causing the first signs of schism. He then delivers a sad monologue about how the drug causes despair and the destruction of friendships; His eventual fate being hinted at and seemingly unavoidable. This sequence perfectly illustrates the sudden feeling of moral inadequacy that occurs in your mind when you are alone. You know it’s wrong, for the world judges it to be so, and yet you could not help yourself.

Things take a turn for the worse in A Scanner Darkly.

Later, Bob Arctor thinks back to the choices that brought him to where he is. He may or may not have once been a family man with two young daughters, until he realised he was bored doing everything he was expected to do and fell into a life of addiction, seeking comfort through unpredictability. Now he dwells in his house with the ghosts of the family he abandoned and his friends constantly questioning reality.

Arctor sees something huge behind the curtain of his own house; some kind of massive drug conspiracy that he himself is supposed to be investigating. He has a vague internal hope that he can be saved, that the surveillance equipment in his house sees him as a good person and not as lost as he feels. Many a time I have had these same sessions within myself, my thought patterns changed by narcotics. Every choice that hurt someone seems a thousand times worse, amplified by the drug and the loneliness; The reflection of yourself suddenly seeming twisted by experience and the quiet. The realisation of being lost sets in, and hope seems far away.

Of course, these thoughts and moments of self-reflection lead a user to doing what they started to do to escape in the first place: simply use more. The path to self destruction is set, and is perhaps unavoidable. Dick captured perfectly the friends and loved ones he had lost along the way. These characters are simply too familiar to be anything but based on the kinds of characters you encounter in the midst of your addiction.

Bob/Fred is the sullen, thoughtful type, never seemingly helpless to his addiction but whom others seem to latch on to. Barris is the more worrying of these characters, too intelligent for his own good and someone for whom paranoia is a way of life; he is out to hurt you before you hurt him. Luckman is the harmless guy, always along for the ride and always there with a smile and an encouraging word; he is perhaps too good for this group. Freck is the person you should have recognised needed help long ago and has instead become the butt of everyone’s jokes thanks to his mental deterioration; he is the reflection of where they are all going that they choose to ignore. Finally, Donna: she represents that seemingly unobtainable person that you can’t help but be attracted to. She talks a good game and is perhaps the loneliest of all of them, but is simply not who she appears to be.

The user becomes the used in the end of A Scanner Darkly.

“Imagine being sentient but not alive. Seeing and even knowing, but not alive. Just looking out. A person can die and still go on. Sometimes what looks out at you from a persons eyes maybe died back in childhood.”A Scanner Darkly, Philip K.Dick

The conclusion of the book version of A Scanner Darkly took me some time to get my head around and I’m still not entirely sure I get it. Richard Linklater took that ending and literally translated it along with Philip K.Dick’s moving eulogy to the fallen he knew along the way. Despite his doubts, Fred and Bob were always the same person. It was someone else, someone both of them trusted that had used and deceived him. Fred and Bob have been used as a tool, the user has become the used and now “Bruce” brain, damaged and simple, is all that remains. He is positioned in a rehab facility, a place where it has been suspected they are using former addicts to farm the toxic flower that is used to create Substance D. Hank/Donna hopes that something sparks in Bruce to remind him of the cop he used to be, and he can maybe lead them somewhere, but Bruce only remembers he once had friends.

Despite my personal connection to the material, I now see A Scanner Darkly in both versions as a reflection of the war on drugs as a whole. I remember being a child and being told that drugs were bad and to just say no. Wide-eyed, innocent and naïve, I was thinking I would never succumb to this and not know the grim realities that life can throw at you. I firmly believed that it was a war that would have been won by now, but here we are. The reality is that this war cannot be won because people are always looking in the wrong places. You can lock up dealers and addicts and people found in possession all you want, but in the UK in particular, a hypocritical government is forever cutting funding for mental health services to the point where unless you have money, treatment is virtually non-existent.

So with a lack of help or options, people are always going to seek out self-medication for their pain and the cycle continues. Sure, it makes a good sound bite for a campaigning politician to talk about harsher penalties or legalisation, but again, we are just being used by those with power, and the war continues. A Scanner Darkly is perhaps the most fitting tribute to the casualties there has ever been, an elegy to a quiet war with no real winners. As one of the characters says near the end “it’s easy to win, anybody can win.”

Written by Christopher Holt

Christopher Holt currently fights hypocrisy and evil on the fringes of reality whilst producing and co-hosting the Lunch Hour Geek Out podcast. He has spent twenty years writing a novel which will do nothing less than change the world...when it's finished.


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  1. It was actually based on the neighborhood I grew up in , Santa Venetia California in the 70’s . When I read the book I spotted all the landmarks . I’ve taken friends to the house . I thought the movie captured the neighborhood vibe before the tech industry boom destroyed such little neighborhoods

  2. @Chuck 12 Monkeys is mentioned in brackets just to remind you of what Gilliam has done, I don’t think it was relevant to the text.

  3. Can you make it clearer that although Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys” used some philosophy and/or plot ideas from Philip K. Dick, it was mainly an adaptation of Chris Marker’s “La Jetée”?

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