A Scanner Darkly was written in 1977 by Phillip K. Dick, and in 2006 it was adapted and directed by Richard Linklater into a feature film. The story follows Bob Arctor who is an undercover cop (code-name Fred) as he attempts to bring down a few people associated with the meth-infused hallucinogen “Substance D.” In this review, I will discuss the book and movie in detail, and summarize my opinions of each, and which, if either or both, you should sit down and enjoy. Please skip to the end, the “Overall,” if you do not want to know plot details, as I will spoil both the book and the movie in the sections- but the last section is completely spoiler-free.
Phillip K Dick’s book, to put it extremely basically, it about the dangers of drugs, although he states at the end of the novel that the story is not a warning, but just an example of what can- and does happen. The story follows Bob Arctor and his small group of friends as they hang around and do drugs, such as Substance Death (or “Substance D”) which is a sort of acid in the novel. Aside from just doing the drug with his friends, he is also an undercover narcotics officer (code-name “Fred”) who is a part of the group of friends to make a drug bust. However, the use of the drug causes the users’ left and right brain hemispheres to split, resulting in associative identity- an entirely different left brain and right brain. So, the reverse of Fight Club happens (Fight Club, of course being the story in which BEGIN SPOILERS the main character realizes that he is actually two people in one, and at the end of the film, they “become” the same person), and Bob splits into Bob and Fred- the drug abuser and the narcotics officer END SPOILERS. Following that, he becomes crazy, completely losing his grip on reality and eventually is taken into a rehab center, where he spends the rest of his life with no idea what is going on and no idea that anything is abnormal.
The chapter in the novel in which the reader gets the sense that Bob is going through some unusual mental transformation was challenging to read as the novel doesn’t say “hey, here’s where things get weird,” so it took me a bit to get a grasp on what was going on, but Phillip K Dick does an amazing job putting the reader into the psyche of this man who is becoming crazier and crazier throughout the novel. In just 100 pages, we witness what seems to be a completely organic transformation, nothing hurried or “unnatural” which I thought was handled very well. Also, Dick’s use of punctuation and narration through thought really kind of gave me the sense that I was in the mind of somebody who has taken too many drugs- sentences had weird pauses, and a single thought was separated by a period instead of a comma which was slightly jarring, in a very effective way. I thought Dick did a wonderful job in making this a very “tangible” futuristic novel, in which the sci-fi aspect seemed reasonable and practical- similar to Minority Report. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the ideas that Dick put forward in the novel, such as the suits the characters wore which made them blurs to those who saw them- an idea that would be very useful in law enforcement and undercover operations (again, similar to Minority Report).
The characters were also very well written, and although not all of them were as memorable as others, Arctor, Donna, Barris, and Luckman had personalities that were very different from each other, and they were characters I was always glad to see come into the story at various times. Bob Arctor was fantastic in the story, and his “alter ego” Fred was equally as brilliant- they were the same people, but they felt different, and they even felt different as they evolved into their own separate characters in the latter half of the narrative. Bob’s relationship with Donna was humorous, especially in the scene in which they first sleep together. The relationships in general between characters was always entertaining, whether Barris and Luckman’s comical relationship with Arctor, or Fred’s relationship with Hank- who often had conversations that lasted pages upon pages, and the dialogue was always intriguing and vital for the story. This novel was a real page-turner (do people say that?) and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I thought a lot of the narration (Dick) was very insightful and interesting, and I stopped a good 3 or 4 times and just marveled at the story and the writing.
For the most part, the story in the film stays very true to the story of the book- but the biggest difference is that the WAY the story is presented in this medium is different. Specifically, the order in which some scenes take place varies, which doesn’t change the big picture, but it did change my perception of certain characters, which changed parts of the experience. For example, we know almost 30 minutes into the movie that Barris is no real friend to Arctor since he’s reporting Arctor to Hank as a drug dealer. In the book, the friendship that Barris, Arctor and Luckman have is a lot of fun, but knowing that Barris is “bad” takes away that entire dynamic. Furthermore, the scene in the novel in which Barris leaves the front door unlocked with a note on it is humorous, but in the film, we get the sense that he did that out of malice for Arctor, and instead of laugh with or at the characters, we just grow to hate Barris more as an antagonist for Arctor. While this is effective for the means of making him a villain, I prefer the book in this regard which had Substance D as the main villain, instead of Barris for the first half or so. Now, all scenes which might’ve had tension in the novel since the reader is unsure of who to blame now has somewhere to put that blame in Barris, even if it’s incorrect.
One thing that the movie did very well updated the story into the modern world. Since the novel is a great case of retro-futurism, some aspects had to have been made modern for the story to work, and Linklater did that very well- and I’m sure Phillip K. Dick would have agreed [Richard (Dick) Linklater and Phillip K. Dick… coincidence?!]. The most obvious aspect of the film is the animation, which took a little bit to get used to but ended up serving the film very well on many levels. The first and most notable is the “trippy” feel that it gave me as if I was having a strange acid trip as shapes and proportions were constantly changing- and seeing how this film is about acid (and meth), the aesthetic fit the narrative beautifully. Also, this made the suits that Bob wore possible to be brought onto film, which was something I was curious about. There were many ways in which this film stayed true to the novel, such as dialogue. Some scenes and lines of dialogue were kept perfectly intact, and I recognized them instantly. The Freck suicide scene was just about word-for-word, and it’s bringing to the screen with visuals marvelously honored what I assume was Dick’s vision (and the way Linklater used narration through the radio was brilliant, as well). The casting was also perfect, especially in Robert Downey Jr and Woody Harrelson as two drugged-out loser friends of Arctor’s; they were perfectly cast, and the way they played off of each other was much better than I even imagined it in the novel.
In the book, we start to get a sense of Arctor slipping from reality through the narration that begins using their names (Fred and Bob) no longer interchangeably, but rather as two separate people. In the film, we get visual cues that Arctor may be going crazy, but these are just written off as hallucinations. We start to get a sense that they are different people in the same scene as in the novel: after his surveillance scene in which he sees Connie and Donna as a different, and the same, person in bed with Arctor…. or himself. In the film, it’s just as much of a “surprise” that he is losing grip, and I have to applaud Linklater for the way he delivered this scene. The entire story is drastically shortened and I didn’t get a sense of the “natural transformation” that I got in the book of Arctor’s descent into madness. It seems very abrupt and only minutes after we are first told that he may be losing grip, that he begins to go completely insane. In the novel, we see him go from trillions of brain cells down to two, but in the film, it seems as if it goes from one to another without any gradual shift. There is a twist at the end of the film in which we find out that Hank is actually Donna, and this is not something I got in the book. I may have misread it, or skipped over the page accidentally, but whether it was Linklater or Dick, it was a very well-written twist and it was one that I was waiting for while reading the book all along. The same goes for the twist that New Path is the manufacturer of Substance D: it was much more obvious in the film with the visual cues instead of in the novel.
While the movie shared the overarching story that the novel told, it is a mere acronym of what the novel was. Think of the term “National Football League,” for example. Now, think of the acronym “NFL.” You know what “NFL” stands for because you’ve heard “National Football League” before; you know what’s there even though it’s shortened so much. There are so many little things missing, even if the “big picture” is still there- and that’s the sense that I got with this adaptation. Three of my favorite scenes in the novel are not in the book, and all of them occur towards the end- the movie was only 100 minutes long, which is short for any movie, but there was so much that could have been added to make the film more like the book (which would have been great). The novel was a very great read, and actually, it is definitely one that I will enjoy reading again, and knowing what goes on this time, might even be a more pleasant and less confusing experience in round 2. I’d have to rank this amongst one of my favorite novels I’ve read, seeing how I haven’t read that many- but not downplaying the enjoyment I found with this. Should you read the novel? Yes, I definitely think so. Should you watch the movie? Maybe- but definitely read the novel first, if you’re going to do both. If you have no interest in reading, then watch the movie and then call it a day- but I would recommend the novel over the film, and read it before watching. I’m going to give the novel an 8+/10 with a green recommendation, and the film a 6/10 with a yellow recommendation. As always, thanks for reading, comment any opinions you have, and I’ll see you soon!