A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly is one of my best-loved PKD books and also one of my favourite film adaptations.

The book is a remarkably humorous near-future tale of an undercover Orange County police anti-narcotics agent known simply as Fred to his colleagues and as Bob Arctor to the dopeheads and Substance D addicts he lives with. Substance D is the most dangerous drug ever to have found its way onto the streets of America and Fred is tasked with trying to find who is supplying the pill-based drug to his would-be girlfriend Donna to then sell on to him in larger and larger quantities. Bob slowly becomes addicted to the drug and suffers the escalating side effects – hallucinations, confusion, and ultimately complete mental breakdown.

Bob has to contend with his suspicious housemate Barris who Bob suspects is trying to engineer his death by various means such as rigging the accelerator on his car so he almost crashes on the freeway. Barris seems indifferent to the fate of their other housemate Luckman who almost chokes on some food while Barris just sits and cleans his pipe. Barris seems more concerned about the cats and dog that live in the ramshackle house with them.

Charles Freck is another drug-addled friend who sometimes pops around to visit and shows us the debilitating effects Substance D a.k.a. Death has on the body and moreover the mind. He is convinced giant aphids infest him and his dog and he showers repeatedly and sprays himself with bug spray to try to kill his hallucinations. Freck eventually tries to take his own life with hilarious consequences and instead ends up at a New-Path rehabilitation clinic where according to Freck the first thing they do is cut your pecker off. While this is not necessarily true New-path do run a tight ship where no police scanners are allowed. You have to go through a process of cold turkey and a ‘game’ where the other patients verbally insult you – breaking you down, erasing your addictive personality.

The title of the book is a biblical reference to St Paul in 1 Corinthians who talks about seeing imperfectly “through a glass, darkly” – a quote that has been used before by PKD in earlier books. The scanners record everything that happens in Arctor’s house and as Fred he has to review them for evidence. As the two hemispheres of Fred’s brain compete under the influence of Substance D he loses all sense of his own identity and ends up spying on himself. It is darkly comedic tale undoubtedly based on PKD’s experiences of the Berkeley drug scene, government agency raids upon his house and the associated paranoia.

The book, written in 1977, is dedicated to the numerous people PKD knew that had died, gone insane or suffered permanent health issues due to their ‘play’ i.e. drug use. He places himself on the list at the end of the book as he suffered irreversible pancreatic damage which probably contributed to his untimely demise shortly before “Bladerunner” hit the big screen in 1982.

The film is an adaptation directed by Richard Linklater and released in 2006. The film was first shot as live-action and then the live footage was animated over the top using a laborious rotoscoping process. I remember feeling quite ill after watching it for about half an hour with Siggy at a swish cinema in Nottingham (it seemed to be on limited release) but having watched it numerous times on TV and again last night for the purposes of this post I didn’t find the “Rhubarb and Custard” wobbling style quite as vomit inducing as previous.

It stars Keanu Reeves as Arctor, Woody Harrelson as Luckman, Timothy Leary’s god-daughter Winona Ryder as Donna, and Robert Downey Jr. as Barris. Harrelson and Downey junior are particular funny as Arctor’s drug muppet housemates. Rory Cochrane is also hilarious as the completely bat-shit Freck.

The film is massively loyal to the original story and text – I would guess over 80% of the script is taken from the book’s dialogue or descriptive sections (and then turned into film dialogue). There are of course some minor plotting shortcuts which help to tighten up the action and storytelling – but, unlike some PKD books, the story needs little help – it’s not a patched up short story but a wonderful coherent tale of escalating incoherence. The 20% or so of changed dialogue is to allow for rates of inflation e.g. household spray containing cocaine costs $3 not the 98 cents of the book, technological advances – Barris claims to have planted micro cameras in the house instead of a tape recorder and the discussion over gears revolves around an 18 speed rather than a 10 speed push bike, and recent cultural events e.g. the conversation about the man pretending to be a famous imposter that prompts Arctor to almost blow his cover refers to the Leonardo DiCaprio film “Catch Me If You Can”. These tweaks help ground it in a contemporary society rather than it having a paranoid Seventies vibe.

And now please observe this –

SPOILER ALERT !

– if you intend to read the book or watch the film.

The major plot difference is that in the film Donna, rather than being revealed as a federal agent, is Hank, Fred’s supervisor in the film – unrecognised by Fred because of the scrambler suits the undercover police wear. This is a minor point really as the eventual outcome and guilt ridden speech by Donna towards the end of the tale about how they have destroyed a man, committed a small evil, to try to combat a larger evil (that of the supply of Substance D) is still in place, and the final immensely significant and poignant flower plucking ending is consistent between both book and film.

Also the film is perhaps funnier than the book and had me chuckling away quite nicely again last night even though I have seen the film about six times now. There are only a few etymological lines in the film (where they’re funny) and very little German – unlike the book which is frustratingly peppered with it. Keanu evidently translated the German text in the book to get a better insight into his character and that means he’s a better man than me, because I’ve read it about the same number of times that I’ve seen the film and still can’t be bothered to translate the German.

Watch the film, read to book, or read the book and watch the film. They’re both Freckin brilliant.

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