The Indy Film Club

Why A Scanner Darkly remains the most faithful adaptation of Philip K Dick’s work

His 1977 novel may be patently dystopian but, as Clarisse Loughrey explains, its hero’s descent into addiction hell reads as pure biography

Friday 10 July 2020 13:08
Deep undercover: Keanu Reeves plays narcotics officer Bob Arctor
Deep undercover: Keanu Reeves plays narcotics officer Bob Arctor

“Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw,” Philip K Dick once claimed. His 1977 novel is patently dystopian, as a narcotics officer ends up so deep undercover that he’s assigned to spy on himself. In the near future, fears of corruption have led the police force to don “scramble suits” – body gloves that cycle through “a million and a half physiognomic fraction-representations” of different individuals. The images flash by so fast, the wearer appears as nothing more than a blur. Cops are left clueless as to the identities of their own colleagues.

The “scramble suit” is a product of the author’s own Promethean imagination – out of which also sprang “precogs”, android hunters, and memory implants – but the hero’s descent into addiction hell reads as pure biography. “Substance D”, the stimulant at the centre of the novel, shares similarities with speed, which Dick abused throughout much of his career. A Scanner Darkly was his first completed novel not written under the influence.

Its protagonist, Bob Arctor, once lived the quiet, suburban life – a wife, two kids, and a lawnmower included. Dick’s fourth wife Nancy left him in 1970, taking their daughter with her so that he was now alone in their four-bedroom house. The people he found to fill that void, mostly drug addicts, brought him into their vortex of self-destruction. A Scanner Darkly ends with a dedication to the friends who died or whose bodies were forever scarred (himself included, listed as suffering “permanent pancreatic damage”). “Let them play again, in some other way, and let them be happy,” he writes.

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