A Scanner Darkly

1: Analysis of the Book

A Scanner Darkly, written by Philip Dick, is partly autobiographical about Dick’s personal experience in the drug world of the 1970’s.  Apparently, he was quite a user himself and nearly suffered the fate of many of his friends – those names at the end of the film. The book chronicles the story of a group of “guys” who live a drugged out life of depravity in Southern California. Their shabby surroundings mirror the chaos of their minds and relationships. On one level the book is an anti-drug parable—who would want to use mind-altering drugs after reading this book? However, digging deeper, one perceives that Philip Dick had a much larger scope in mind. The book uses the mind-altered drug state as a metaphor for the philosophical concern about the nature of reality. What is real depends on the mind of the person asking the question….Of equal importance is the dystopian theme of a society completely controlled by an omnipresent government. The corporation NewPath is a metaphor for a government that controls its citizens by addicting them to drugs and then “rescuing” them from this very addiction—after they have lost their sense of individual purpose and identity. In sum, “A Scanner” provides a very dark view of the world indeed.

2: Analysis of the Movie

The film of this book is creatively done using the technique of rotoscoping on top of the image of actual actors. This is a very creative technique, developed by Linklater in his film “Waking Life,” that is not often used, yet it lends itself perfectly to Philip Dick’s book. The scramble suit, an imaginative and artistic tour de force is a skillful adaptation to film of the book’s focus on drug-induced hallucinations. By making a smaller budget, more personal film of this autobiographical book, Linklater pays respect to the author who gave us other thought-provoking sci-fi stories such as “Minority Report.” Film critics as well as fans of P.K.D. material hail this adaptation as worthy, provocative and effective. The film was screened at Cannes in 2006, the year it was released, and was also nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 2007.

3: Analysis of the Adaptation

The movie adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly” is said to be the most accurate adaptation of Dick’s many stories. Other adaptations of his work include movies that take their ideas from Dick’s literature,

4: Online Research

. Among some of the more interesting reviews of “A Scanner Darkly” are:


After a brief plot summary and movie background, there is a list of the movie’s tropes. Examples of these tropes are:

a. The Dead Have Names. This refers to the list of names at the end of the film which were Dick’s friends who were harmed or killed by drug use.

b. Full Body Disguise. This refers to the scramble suits


This review does a succinct job of reviewing the plot, cinematic effects and genre concerns of the movie. It also sets the book/movie into the body of Dick’s work, making it clear that Linklater did a faithful and respectful job of adapting this difficult piece of work. It makes the distinction that while it is essentially a “downer” movie, its intelligence makes it “near essential viewing.”


This mega-review site contains many excellent summaries of both the book and movie. Of the published reviews, most affirm Linklater’s adaptation of this complicated, layered book. With this book, Philip K. Dick secured his place as a serious sci-fi writer with an important message to deliver. One such reviewer said of the book, “Caustically funny, eerily accurate in its depiction of junkies, scam artists, and the walking brain-dead, Philip K. Dick’s industrial-grade stress test of identity is as unnerving as it is enthralling.

5: Critical Argument Paragraph

In the film, the flower that is the main ingredient of Substance D, or “Death,” is called Mors ontologica, which translates as ontological death, or death of being. How does this flower represent the main philosophical concerns of the film?

The little blue flower that Bob/Agent Fred sees growing in the dirt under the stalks of corn in the cornfield is the main ingredient of the drug “D,” also known to druggies as “death, “ as in, “Let’s go home and do some death.” It is ironic that this flower’s name in the film is Mors ontological – or death of being. One of the main themes of the film is how the drug D affects its users by loosening their ties with what we commonly think of as “reality” and leaving them empty and depressed. This emptiness is characterized by a loss of human feelings along with a loss of rational thinking. The relationships of the characters to each other, all of them addicts, are shallow and devoid of empathy. When Woody Harrelson’s character, Luckman, falls to the ground and almost dies, Robert Downey’s character, Barris, can barely rouse himself to call emergency services. Similarly, there is no love lost in the unromantic sex scenes between Bob and his girlfriend, Donna. In fact, as her face changes in front of him, it is clear that he is not exactly sure who she is. Later it turns out that she is an agent who is using Bob/Agent Fred, making him an addict and sending him to New Path as an unwitting undercover agent. She feels slightly guilty about this, but her co-agent tells her not to. In a world where few if any know who they are or who the other people are, it is nearly impossible for anyone to have a grounded, whole sense of being. This loss of the valued human traits of empathy and rationality is what is meant by “mors ontological.”


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