A Scanner Darkly Book vs Movie Review

You can read the blog, or you can click on one of the icons below to listen to the podcast version! Click HERE for more listening options!

**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick (1977)

A Scanner Darkly directed by Richard Linklater (2006)

Philip K. Dick is a very famous sci-fi author and a lot of his books have been turned into movies. This certainly won’t be the last you’ll hear about him!

While reading this book I couldn’t decide whether or not I liked it. However, the more I read, the more it pulled me in, and it’s one that will stick with you after you’ve finished. It’s not a book I would recommend to just anyone though. After you’ve listened to this, you can decide for yourself if it’s the kind of book or movie that you yourself would like.


Based in an alternate future, we have Bob Arctor who is addicted to “Substance D”, along with his roommates (Barris and Luckman) and the various druggies that he knows. But Arctor is also an undercover Narc, who, when reporting to his superiors, goes by the name of Fred. He and all the other undercover people (the one he reports to is named ‘Hank’) wear scramble suits when meeting, so that his cover won’t be blown. He buys his drugs from a dealer named Donna, and he keeps upping the amount in hopes that she will eventually have him deal directly with the guy above her. And eventually meet whoever is the maker behind Substance D.

Then, Fred is told to keep a close watch on Arctor, because the cops got an anonymous tip that Arctor is up to something. They put cameras in his house and tap the phones and put Fred in charge of watching the hologram tapes and bringing them whatever parts of the recording he thought were important.

The mix of Arctor having these two identities, watching himself and his buddies for hours on the recorded tapes, and his addiction to D, causes him to go crazy. He doesn’t realize that he is Arctor, he forgets things that he’s done, and starts not knowing what’s real and what isn’t. Meanwhile, while watching these tapes he sees how untrustworthy Barris is. But really, they are all paranoid and on the edge of sanity. 

In the end, Arctor’s brain is really messed up and his superiors at work have Donna drive him to a rehab center called New Path. From there he withdrawals off Substance D, but his brain is forever messed up and has with no memory of who he is/was. New Path has other locations that rehabilitated drug addicts can go to, such as a farm where they can go to work. They only allow the people whose brains are totally gone to work on the farm, and a guy who works at New Path suggest Arctor (who is now going by the name Bruce) to go work there.

Turns out that was the plan all along, to get Arctor hooked on D, turn his brain into slush, and have him admitted into New Path. The guy we meet at New Path (the one that suggests he go work on the farm), along with Donna who we find out is also undercover, planned this to happen so that they could infiltrate the New Path farms. Which, we find out in the end, are the ones that are growing and making Substance D.

My Thoughts on the Book

That’s the basic plot, but the real story here is the consequences that come from being addicted to drugs. We have some stories within the story that are humorous, showing where the drug addled mind goes. How one person can have a paranoid thought, and everyone takes that idea and runs with it, which leads to some entertaining conversations. Then there are stories that are just plain sad and upsetting. 

This is a crazy book. I watched the movie a while back and remembered the main points, so I knew it was going to be weird. But the book is even more trippy. There’s a line, when Arctor is watching the tape of what’s going on in his home he says it’s just, “miles and miles of tripped out tape.” I think that’s a good way to describe the book as well.

The title comes from a passage in which Arctor is pondering the camera’s/scanners that are monitoring his house, “What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a …scanner, see into me—into us—clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.” 

There are greater minds than mine that can analyze this book and all the symbolism, and I’m sure it has been done. But I will leave that to those that are better educated at doing so, not just that, but those that are more eloquent than I am.


The movie doesn’t add any scenes as far as I can think, but they do leave scenes out, and the ones they include they shuffle around a bit. They do stick to the book pretty close and it’s filmed in a unique animated style, they were trying to make it look like the art in a graphic novel. After filming, they turned it over to the animators, and it took them a year and half to complete! I think this was genius though, it gives you that trippy feel, while also making it easier to show the hallucination scenes as well as the scramble suit. If it was live action, then the CGI of those scenes may have been poorly done and just been a negative distraction. The soundtrack is also really well done and contributes to that weird vibe they’re going for. K, now let’s get into the acting.

the scramble suit


Keanu Reeves isn’t a favorite actor of mine, I know he has been in some great movies, but I think there are far more talented actors out there. Having said that, he does a good job in this. I could see someone else having done better, but overall, like I said, he does fine. Though side note, in the book multiple people refer to Arctor as being ugly, and Reeves certainly isn’t ugly.

Winona Ryder plays Donna, and I don’t have any complaints with her acting in this. The only critique is that Donna was 19 or 20 in the book, and Ryder was in her early 30’s.

Robert Downey Jr. is perfectly cast as Barris. Though maybe I’m biased, since I had watched the movie first, so when I read the book I automatically started picturing Downey in the role. Nonetheless, he is the perfect representation as this character who, as Linklater says, is someone who is” intelligent, evil and humorous”. As everyone knows, Downey had his own drug addictions he had to overcome. He had only been sober about two years when filming this. I always wonder if roles like this help the actor who is a recovered addict. And I would think they can portray the character all the better, since they know what it’s like to be there, in one way or another.

Rory Cochrane plays a combination of Jerry Fabin and Charles Freck, and he does a great job playing the paranoid, going out of his mind druggie. Cochrane, you might recognize (though it might be hard to tell with the animation) from Dazed and Confused which was also directed by Richard Linklater. He plays the long-haired guy names Slater.  

Woody Harrelson doesn’t have too big of a role in this, but he does well playing the crazy druggie.

Movie Differences

The movie and book starts out the same, with the guy thinking there are bug jumping all over his apartment and on him. However, in the movie they have the Charles Freck character be the one with the bugs. In the book, Charles Freck had been roommates with a guy named Jerry Fabin and Fabin was the one with the bugs. He gets checked into a rehab though and after that first scene, from then on, he is referred to but never again seen. 

As I said, they do shuffle scenes around in the movie. For example, in the movie, they start doing tests on Arctor pretty early on. In the book there were a number of events that took place before being tested. The reason they want to have him tested in the first place, is he is talking to Hank about when Barris got the bike that was missing gears. The movie shows this scene, though not in its entirety. Also, in the book it is a ten-speed bike, but they only see the 8 gears, in the movie it’s supposed to be an 18 speed bike, but they only see like 9 gears I think. Anyway, in the book they take it on the street and ask the first person they see how many gears the person can see on the bike. The person sees the same amount as them but shows that how the gears work and that it really is a ten speed. (I don’t know anything about bikes so this part kind of confused me). Basically, them not being able to logically see how the gears work, showed that they had lost brain function.

inspecting the bike

The movie also shows that Barris is the informant very early on. In the book, Arctor suspects it’s Barris but doesn’t know for sure. Near the end is when Barris shows up in person to the station. 

There is the scene in the book and movie where they-Arctor, Barris and Luckman-are working on the car and then Freck comes over. In the book we see Freck on the way over and he has a trick he is going to play on Barris. He doesn’t like what a cocky know it all he is, so he is going to say that he found someone who can sell him some kind of drug plant-but the drug he mentions is one that is made in a lab. So, he knows Barris will reply, trying to make Freck look dumb, saying that plants of that drug don’t exist because it isn’t an organic drug. Then he will show Barris by saying he didn’t mean a plant plant, but a plant like a factory. Then everyone will laugh at Barris and Freck will feel proud of himself. When he gets there, they are too engrossed in the car so when he says the plant line they aren’t even phased. The movie has the scene where Freck comes over, and in both the book and movie they make fun of him for sounding like Donald Duck when he gets worked up. And in both Freck drives off, because he doesn’t like the tense, violent vibe at their place.

Harrelson as Luckman, Reeves as Arctor, and Downey Jr. as Barris

The book goes on to show Freck’s internal dialogue about how it always used to be chill and mellow. But now, Fabin is in an institution, and Arctor and his roommates are just always on edge and that one of them is bound to kill the other. He says the line, “How can days and happenings and moments so good become so quickly ugly, and for no reason, for no real reason? Just-change. With nothing causing it.” As he’s driving away, it says,

“’The most dangerous kind of person,” Arctor said, “is one who is afraid of his own shadow.” That was the last Freck heard as he drove away; he pondered over what Arctor meant, if he meant him, Charles Freck. He felt shame. But… why stick around when it’s such a super bummer? … Don’t never participate in no bad scenes, he reminded himself; that was his motto in life. So, he drove away now…Who needs them? But he felt bad, really bad, to leave them and to have witnessed the darkening change, and he wondered again why, and what it signified, but then it occurred to him that maybe things would go the other way again and get better, and that cheered him. In fact, it caused him to roll a short fantasy number in his head as he drove along avoiding invisible police cars: THERE THEY ALL SAT AS BEFORE. Even people who were either dead or burned out, like Jerry Fabin. They all sat here and there in a sort of clear white light, which wasn’t daylight but better light than that, a kind of sea which lay beneath them and above them as well. (They listened to Hendrix play on the stereo) …and then immediately the fantasy number blew up because he had forgotten both that Hendrix was dead and how Hendrix and also (janis) Joplin had died…OD’ing on smack…And then he heard in his head her song “All Is Loneliness,” and he began to cry. And in that condition drove on toward home.”

I know that’s a long passage, but it shows the sadness that comes from drug use. Arctor shows the decent into madness and psychosis. Then Freck shows the depression. (Granted, they are all depressed and crazy, but you have certain characters highlighting these emotions). I think he was the most likeable character, and his story ends with him trying to commit suicide. Though it takes an ironic and dark humorous turn when he realizes that the downers he was going to OD on, actually weren’t what he thought, and what happens instead is that he has a drug trip that feels like it’s lasting forever. That’s the last we see of him in the book. The movie shows this scene very well, and has a narrator reading the scene the way it is written in the book, as Cochrane goes through the actions. In the movie, we later see Freck at New Path with Arctor…or do we…?

Freck in bed with his “artifacts” after taking the downers

Anyway, sorry about the long tangent on Freck. Another change is that in the movie they tell Barris that he is under arrest. He was never arrested in the book though. When thinking back on the book, it made me wonder if they were even interested in Barris? Or was he in on it to get Arctor to go crazy? And was Barris even on D? Or like Hank says, had he learned to just pretend to take it?

Omitted Scenes

There is also a scene which is left out where Arctor is watching the recording and sees Barris answer the telephone. The person on the other end asks for Arctor and Barris lies and says that he is Arctor. The guy on the line says that the check Arctor gave them to change the locks bounced and he needs to come down and pay. Barris is very rude and says he doesn’t care and hangs up. Arctor can’t believe this and suspects Barris of looking for Arctor’s checkbook and accidently grabbing one that had belonged to an old one that was no longer valid. Not knowing this, Barris, posing as Arctor, writes the check to the locksmith. He of course doesn’t care if it bounces, because he won’t get in trouble anyway, Arctor will. The next day Arctor goes to the locksmith and pays the money and they give him the check. When looking at it, he sees that it’s his handwriting. He then speculates what truly happened. If he really had hired that locksmith and actually gave them the check himself. Just another scene to make you confused and disoriented.

Downey Jr. as Barris

There is also the plot about who is messing with Arctor’s stuff. His car is messed with by someone, as well as this expensive machine he has called a cephscope. This is a made-up thing, but I guess you hook yourself up to it and it gives you a chill high or something like that. Anyway, it’s expensive and someone who knows what they’re doing breaks it. Barris offers to fix it for him, and Barris tells Freck he thinks Arctor broke it himself. Meanwhile, Arctor things Barris did it. We never do find out who messed with that or his car.

The movie shows the car gas pedal giving out and them almost crashing on the highway. What they don’t include is the scene prior to that. In the book they drive to San Diego and Arctor drops off Barris and Luckman to find a deal on a new cephscope, meanwhile Arctor goes to visit this girl he knows there. She is an addict along with her boyfriend. The two often get in fights and cops get called on them. While there is drama going on, Arctor is talking to the old couple that lives below them and they tell him how they constantly hear the two arguing and fighting. Then they add that the worst part is that they never clean up their dog’s poop, so the elderly couple ends up stepping on it all the time.

Later, on the drive home, when they are on the side of the highway, Arctor smells dog poo and starts hallucinating it. Then when he gets in the car he throws up. He later suspects that the sickness was caused by Barris poisoning him.

Which, another thing he sees Barris doing, is studying a book about mushrooms. Then going out and bringing some home that look like they could be the psychedelic kind. He then calls people up to try and sell these bum mushrooms to them. The other scramble suits are watching his video as well and says that certain types of mushrooms can kill people and that Arctor should warn someone that Barris could be selling poisonous mushrooms. 

One last scene they left out, Arctor is looking for a drug dealer and suspects that he is in hiding at New Path, posing as an addict looking for help. The only way he can try and get a look in, is to act like he himself wants help. The whole thing ends up being useless, but the main thing I noticed with the whole scene was how harsh the rehab workers were. Telling him he’s pathetic and how he doesn’t have the courage to leave the filth.

Speaking of New Path, the book and movie show “Bruce” is in the facility, before transferring to the farm, however in the book they we see way more of his time there. There were scenes that just kind of confused me though. So, I thought it was a good idea for the movie to not bother showing any more of the rehab than they already did because I didn’t really get the point of dragging it out the way they do in the book.

The biggest change in my opinion is that it lacks that slow burn of going crazy. Arctor not identifying as himself starts out slow and gets progressively worse and worse. In the movie it happens a bit too suddenly. They also relied too much on hallucinations as a way to show him going crazy. The book does a good job using internal dialogue as well as describing how Arctor is acting, as a way to really make you feel the craziness he’s feeling. What makes it crazy/trippy, is the fact that he doesn’t even know that he’s going crazy. He doesn’t know what’s real from what isn’t. The movie didn’t really show this as much, and honestly, hallucinating is unnerving, but what’s trippier is not knowing that what you’re seeing is a hallucination, and not knowing who you yourself are. I guess it’s easier for a book to show that, since it relies solely on words. Because a movie is visual, they tried to show us visually how crazy he was. There is one (of many) scenes I’ll share from the book, showing how far removed he was. In this scene he is Fred, watching Arctor on camera and here is what he is thinking about Arctor, “…He’s getting worse. Reading aloud to no one messages that don’t exist and in foreign tongues. Unless he’s shucking me, Fred though with uneasiness. In some fashion figured out he’s being monitored and is…covering up what he’s actually doing. Or just playing head games with us? Time, he decided, will tell. I say he’s shucking with us, Fred decided. Some people can tell when they’re being watched. A sixth sense. Not paranoia, but a primitive instinct.” 

So, he’s suspicious of the way Arctor is acting, thinking he must know he’s being watched. Talking to himself as if he himself isn’t even Arctor! And that is just one example. The book just keeps getting progressively more and more trippy. (Sorry, I know I’m using that word a lot, it just seems the best way to describe this book!)

The book will have Arctor’s internal dialogue, or him listening to someone else talk, and this German poem will cut in and out. There is also a scene where he hears a distinct voice other than his in his head. Yet he doesn’t think anything of it, he just thinks that what this voice is saying is a good idea. 

The movie has only one scene where he is thinking and refers to Arctor in the third person. That one scene though doesn’t at all make you feel the disassociation he has. 

Final Thoughts

The book begins with Jerry Fabin who from the start has gone off the deep end. He thinks he and his apartment are crawling with aphids. They jump up from the carpet, they are all over him, they are all over his dogs, and they were brought in by “carriers”. People who have these bugs on them and don’t even know it. At first his friends think it’s funny and makes joke about it. Eventually though, Fabin goes to a facility because he has gone to crazy and it isn’t safe for him to be out in the world. He becomes a warning to the others in a way. Although of course the others still continue their addictions. But Arctor realizes that they are pieces in a board game, Fabin may have reached the final destination first, but they were all on the same path, headed for the same end. 

Philip K. Dick wrote this book based on his own experience. He is quotes saying that, “Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw.” In the book and movie, Arctor kicks his wife and kids out of the house, but in PKD’s life, his wife left him. “[M]y wife Nancy left me in 1970 … I got mixed up with a lot of street people, just to have somebody to fill the house. She left me with a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house and nobody living in it but me. So, I just filled it with street people and I got mixed up with a lot of people who were into drugs.”

Writing the book was a difficult process because of its semi-autobiographical nature. His wife at the time said she would find him crying after a writing session and she would help him get through it.

 In the author’s note in the end, he dedicates this book to all those friends of his. They all just “wanted to play, but they played too long and were punished with consequences which were far too severe”. He then lists the names of those he knew and lists what happened to them. A lot are deceased, some permanent psychosis, brain damage, vascular impairment, and he lists himself as having permanent pancreatic damage. The movie also includes this list as well as a quote from the authors note at the end before the credits role.

“Bruce” taking a flower to give to his friends

It’s a weird book, has some dark humor and crazy stories, yet in the end it just left me with a feeling of sadness. It’ll stick with you too. Addiction is a scary thing, no one sets out with that as their goal. If you are able to dabble in certain drugs, or drink, with-out being an addict or an alcoholic, it’s nothing about you it’s really just luck. And just because you aren’t an addict/alcoholic now, doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen down the road. They all laughed at Fabin, saying at least they weren’t burned out like him. But they were on that same board game, Fabin just reached the end first.

Book vs Movie

I’m sure you’ve already guessed, but the book is definitely better than the movie. If you love to read, the reason is probably because, when a book is well written, you get carried away in the emotions and events of the characters life. This book will make you feel the insanity that Arctor is feeling. It isn’t a book I would recommend to a wide audience. In fact, I can think of vary rare instances in which I would recommend it. It can also be crude at times, which is to be expected considering its’s about drug addicts. I don’t know if I would even read it again, maybe way down the road. 

The movie does a good job staying true to the story, but as I said above, they just done totally capture what’s going on in Arctor’s mind. However, if you haven’t read the book and you watch the movie, I’m sure you would like it because you don’t have the book to compare it too. I  myself, had liked the movie when I watched it years ago. Now having read the book, I still think it’s a well-done movie, it just isn’t on the same level.

Side note, in my post on I’m Thinking of Ending Things book and movie comparison, I talk about how the director and writer Charlie Kaufman is an expert at the distorted reality, dream like quality in movies. Had he done this movie, I think he would have really gotten in our heads the way the book does. And turns out, he had written a screenplay for A Scanner Darkly! Unfortunately nothing happened with his adaption of this book.

I know this is a long post, but, this book had a surprising impact on me. For those that have read the book, or seen the movie-I would love to hear your thoughts!