A Scanner Darkly (2006) / Philip K Dick

A Scanner Darkly Story Version Notes
This full length novel was written in 1977 and is pretty much a straight autobiography by Philip K Dick of his life after he divorced his wife. He wasn't an undercover cop - but he did live in a run down old house with a few friends, and they all did drugs constantly. One friend was obsessed by bugs. Another one was completely paranoid. They worried about narcs infiltrating their group.

This story is written almost stream-of-consciousness so you have to kick back, relax and go with the story. The story is set "in the future" from 1977, which still happens to now be in our past - 1994. Fred, a cop, is undercover in a druggie-filled house under the name of "Bob Arctor". He is trying to figure out who is dealing a powerful drug, Substance D. When he's in the police station, to hide his identity, he wears a "scramble suit" - a full body outfit that hides who he is. Nobody at the cop station - including his boss - knows what he really looks like. They only know he's assigned to a certain druggie-filled house. So shortly into the story he's told by his boss to focus on a certain person in the house - Bob. I.e. himself.

The house is set up with cameras and audio recording houses, so soon Fred (the cop) is watching videos of Bob (the druggie, the same person) hanging out with his friends and having really long, nonsensical conversations. But are they really nonsensical? They worry about narcs (which is valid). They worry about being watched (which is valid). In twisted ways, many of the things they ramble about are true, that many "normal" people wouldn't have picked up on.

Being a Philip K Dick story, there's a twist, and the story ends on a realistic note, not a Hollywood one. But as always Dick gives you the sense that things really can get better, if the average person just reaches out and tries.

Lisa's Reaction to the Story Version

I can see why some people have problems with this book. It's not a straightforward plot of X happens Y happens Z is the reason. Instead, it's a complex interplay of personalities. Each person in the story has a rich world both in reality and in their fantasy mind. Part of what Substance D does is split the brain into parts so that a person can literally believe two things at once ("the gas tank is full" and "the gas tank is empty"). So sometimes when Fred is at the police station he knows that his undercover personae is Bob - and sometimes he completely forgets and thinks Bob is one of his druggy friends that he distrusts. Barris, one of the druggie house-mates, seems both a brilliant scientist and a completely inept crazy. He sits and watches as another druggie chokes to death, timing his call to the police so that he gets all the glory of reporting the tragic death. Donna, the only female in the story, sometimes has brilliant ideas and at other times seems completely lost. One of the druggies is obsessed with bugs - so another druggie dutifully helps him collect up the imaginary insects to bring in for scientific review. Both are shocked when the jars later are empty.

This isn't just a story about "drugs eat your brain, drugs suck". The book talks a great deal about how most of the people were hooked involuntarily and are now stuck with the addiction. It shows how those who supposedly help people break their addiction are heartless and cruel. The other members of society discard the druggies as being worthless, abandoning an entire group of their population to certain death. The druggies expect to steal from each other, lie to each other, and eventually die - sooner rather than later. It's not just a problem with the drugs. It's a problem with the entire society and how it treats those who have been hooked.

So a lot of the story is told in the small interactions with people. How Bob feels about Donna, his girlfriend who does't like to be touched. How Barris likes his friends while activly plotting their destruction. How the feelings which are real interleave with those which are imaginary. As hard as any character tries to pin down "what is really happening', reality shimmers. In one scene Bob sleeps with a random girl he met - and thinks for a moment he slept with Donna. Even later, in the police station, watching the recording of the scene, he sees that same vision. Is his basic sense of reality so skewed that it cannot be distinguised from the things he sees? Do any of us know what we really see - or what we think we've seen?

I really did love many of the scenes in the book, including the classic 10-speed-bike scene. How each character reacts to the situation is priceless. They each have their own agenda and motivations.

This isn't a murder mystery where the end of the book wraps up everything neatly and explains why each person did what they did. In fact, the book ends with a list of Philip K Dick's actual friends and family who were harmed or killed by drugs. He includes himself and his ex-wife on the list. The book is an insight into what drugs really do to groups of people - and what our society suffers as a result. It's a wake-up call for people to start caring - and to start listening.

Movie Version Notes
The movie was a labor of love by director Richard Linklater along with actors Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey Jr.

Lisa's Reaction to the Movie Version
This is a movie you definitely want on DVD - because you'll want to watch it first with just the movie playing, and then after that with the audio soundtrack that includes director Richard Linklater, actor Keanu Reeves and most importantly the daughter of Philip K Dick. The insights that she provides into the movie and the storyline are priceless.

It's important to realize that Philip K Dick usually wrote about characters, not action sequences - and specifically, he wrote about those in society who did not "fit in" well. If you look through his stories, you'll find they often feature people who are misfits, who society overlooks or forgets. In A Scanner Darkly, the featured 'oddballs' are druggies hooked on Substance D - a drug that is never really described, but apparently causes paranoia and hallucinations.

The key here is to sit down with a glass of wine, a big bowl of popcorn and settle back for a character-driven story. This isn't a Rambo or Dirty Dozen story - it's about how people relate to each other, in many subtle ways. It's a study of interactions.

I really appreciate that this was done in a combination of real life acting and animation. It floors me that in modern times anyone might look down on this because it is a "cartoon". Is a Renoir less worthy than an Ansel Adams because a Renoir was done by hand? Animation isn't inherently kiddie. Hand drawn works can contain quite mature topics. In this case it is *ideally* suited to the story - because a main aspect of the tale is that the characters never quite know what is real and what is imagination. Are the bugs really there? Can he trust what he sees? All signs point to NO. The viewer is caught up in this same confused world. If this had been live action, then 'odd things' would have instantly stood out. But the point of a drug haze is that everything seems 'unreal' - and so odd things fit into that flow much more smoothly.

If you don't know druggies, rest assured that characters like this are quite average - and this story is in essence an autobiography of Philip K Dick's life in the 70s. He lived in a house just like this with his two brothers after his divorce. He lost his wife and two young girls. He was very paranoid that one of his house-mates was a narc, spying on their druggie activities. One of his friends did think bugs were crawling on him. At the end of the movie is Dick's actual ending to the story - a list of his friends who were damaged or slain by drugs. Included on this list are his ex-wife and himself.

So what you have in the movie are the druggies at turns being nice to each other, being very cruel to each other, mistrusting each other, and turning to each other for help. One of the druggies - Bob - is actually a narc cop code-named Fred. He's gone undercover to figure out who is supplying Substance D to the area. Unfortunately, he's gotten himself hooked during his undercover work. Even worse, part of what Substance D does is to destroy your brain - so he's developed in essence split personalities. The Bob-Druggie part forgets most of the time he IS a narc. The narc half of him, when he's in the police station, knows he's spying on this group of druggies but forgets that he is one of them. So when the narc is told to specifically spy on "Bob", he literally doesn't realize that this is him.

Here's where the movie - trying to stuff a dense book into under 2 hours - has some problems. If you haven't read the book, it's not clear at all that Narc-Fred forgets who he is when he goes undercover as Bob. It's a big twist in the book, but in the movie it seems clear to the watcher that it's the same person, and it's not made clear in the story that he's forgetting his "other half".

Other than that, the story is really pretty straightforward, plot-wise. The druggies are paranoid about the world around them and plug on with their lives. The cops are trying to figure out who the supplier is, so they bug the house and try to get that information. Like most Dick stories, there's a twist, although to be honest I thought it would be a much larger twist. Also, like most Dick stories, there's little female presence and the ending is only slightly hopeful. These aren't happy-go-lucky romances that he writes - they are dark warnings about where society is heading when it marginalizes those who don't fit in perfectly.

If you're confused about the movie, I definitely recommend reading the novel. That might be easier to grasp and give you more insight into the characters. Then go back and watch the movie again - taking it slow. Pay attention to the nuances of what they say, and how the characters relate. See how they feel society is treating them - and then take a look what society actually does with these people. Maybe they aren't quite so paranoid after all - maybe there is some resaon for how they feel.

Philip K Dick Stories Made Into Movies
A Scanner Darkly
Blade Runner
Minority Report
Total Recall

Philip K Dick Homepage