In this corner: the Book. A collection of words that represent ideas when filtered through the lexical systems in a human brain. From clay tablets to bound collections of wood pulp to units of stored data, the book has been around in one format or another for some 3,800 years.
Book vs. Movie: The Adjustment Bureau
March 10, 2011
And in this corner: the Movie. A 112-year-old kid born in France to a guy named Lumiere and raised primarily in Hollywood by his uncle Charlie "the Tramp" Chaplin. This young upstart has quickly made a huge impact on society, rapidly becoming the most financially lucrative form of storytelling in the modern world.
Both square off in the ring again as Box Office Prophets presents another round of Book vs. Movie.
The Adjustment Bureau
Back in the early 1950s, science fiction was beginning to gain a great deal of popularity. The knowledge that science could take us into the stars or eliminate the human race entirely was beginning to enter the popular consciousness and a great many people were fascinated by it. With fewer competing forms of media in the mid-twentieth century, the most common form of sci-fi entertainment was most likely pulp sci-fi magazines. Magazine racks all over the country were brimming over with brightly-colored magazines with names like Amazing Stories, Fantastic Universe, Startling Stories Imagination and Time To Come. Those interested in making money as writers quickly found an eager market in sci-fi pup magazines.
One such writer was a rather nice guy living in California named Phil. Phil wrote stories furiously to make ends meet. At some point in early 1953, he kicked out a rather interesting idea involving a secret organization that adjusted the course of events in history as they happened. The story was published in Orbit Science Fiction in the fall of 1954. Over half a century later, Philip K. Dick is one of the most acclaimed sci-fi authors in history. His ideas have been turned into films like Bladerunner, The Minority Report and a host of others. This fall, Universal Pictures releases a film based on that fifty-plus year-old story. The Adjustment Team of 1954 becomes The Adjustment Bureau of 2010 — a George Nolfi film starring Matt Damon.
The Adjustment Team was published only a brief period of time before his debut as a novelist. It was a period in his life when he was feverishly writing stories that were rapidly getting published in numerous magazines. The types of stories he was writing were disparate and sundry. The Adjustment Team had a number of ideas packed into a very, very small package.
The story opens as a clerk with a clipboard approaches a green, stucco house and proceeds to have a conversation with a dog in the back yard. It gets a little weird from there. The clerk is ensuring that the dog knows its job. The dog assures the clerk that it knows its job. Time passes and the husband (Ed) and wife (Ruth) who live there are preparing for the day ahead. She leaves for work. He narrowly avoids making it out of the door when a salesman drops by to sell Ed some life insurance. The dog barks, but it’s too late — one $10,000 insurance policy later, Ed is late to work.
There’s something strange about Ed’s office when he arrives. He prepares for the worst, knowing full well that people are bound to be angry with his tardiness...he is rather surprised to find that this is NOT the case. The building turns out to be “a ghostly, indistinct gray.” A section of it falls to the ground in “a torrent of particles.” Undeterred, Ed walks in to find that everyone in the building is completely motionless. They turn to ash at the slightest touch. Nevertheless, Ed continues on to his office — a real estate business. Once there, Ed sees the first living people he’d laid eyes on since entering the building—men in lab coats. They rush after him shouting strange things about him not being “de-energized.” They chase him out of the building, which promptly collapses into ash as he crosses the street - only to find everything perfectly normal when he looks back at it. It’s solid as ever.
Later on, Ed approaches his wife to meet her for lunch. The two discuss things over lunch. She’s remarkably level-headed about the whole thing and encourages him to come with her back to his office. Whatever was waiting for him, they would face together. She’s a remarkably strong female character for sci-fi of this era. Evidently she’s very attractive as well, as people who work in the building comment to Ed as he and she return to his office.
The office is perfectly normal — exactly the way it always had been, so his wife leaves to head back to her workplace. Ed goes to face his boss and attempt to explain why he is late, only to find that his boss was younger and looked nothing like he had before. Ed panics and runs away. The men in the lab coats trail him, capturing him this time. They explain to him that they are part of an organization that keeps track of things, nudging them in a direction that’s positive for civilization. There’s a rather crucial real estate purchase that the older head of the business wouldn’t have gone for. Only a younger head of the business — one more willing to take risks would’ve gone for it, so they replaced him. They replaced everyone else in the office to make sure no one suspected anything.
Ed was supposed to be replaced as well, but he hadn’t arrived at the office on time. Ed doesn’t want to be replaced by an exact replica of himself, so he agrees to keep quiet about things. The one problem with this, of course, is the fact that he’d told everything he knew prior to that point to his wife. If he told her, they would both have to be “de-energized,” and replaced with exact replicas (the Adjustment Team needs to work in complete secrecy, evidently.) He assures the team that she thinks he’s just had a nervous breakdown. They trust him, but will obviously be watching him very closely. Of course, Ed’s wife is concerned about him and demands to know where he was for the rest of the day when he gets home — evidently he didn’t return to work. He tries to tell her that he merely went for a walk for the rest of the day. She’s not buying it, but everything seems fine. She drops the subject entirely as the dog begins to bark in the back yard. She’s distracted enough to forget about it. Somehow, it’s likely that things are going to work out after all.
It’s kind of a weird story — not really satisfying, but compelling enough with quite a few bizarre visuals to keep it interesting all the way through. The ending is kind of weak and there are a few basic plot holes here revolving around the exact capabilities of the Adjustment Team, but the story’s flaws are far outweighed by its merits. Philip K. Dick went on to have his first novel published and likely forgot about this one with a dozen others he had worked on in the early ‘50s. Years later, Hollywood returned to the concept
Rather than immediately beginning with a strange mutation on a traditional domestic drama, the film opens as a simple personal/political drama. Matt Damon plays David Norris — a man running for Senate in New York. There’s really no reference to much of anything fantastic in the first 15 minutes or so. The promising, young politician seems to have things going very well for him until news breaks of an instance in which he was a bit less than charming. As he navigates through the challenges posed by the news, he runs into a charming and mysterious woman named Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt.) The two meet in a public restroom. A few minutes into the conversation, they engage in a passionate kiss (it’s that kind of conversation). She walks briskly out of the restroom and out of his life, as he has no way of contacting her and New York is a very big place, but they are destined to run into each other again.
As romance begins to establish between the two, we see men in fedoras and business suits making mysterious references to mysterious things. As Norris boards a bus (not many politicians do that on a regular basis, so clearly this guy's different) we see one of the men rushing off to try to catch it. As merely having him collapse in a heap or run out of breath wouldn’t be dramatic enough, the man chasing after the bus in the fedora gets hit by a cab. He glances at a book a couple of times a complex diagram is almost completely wiped out. Clearly things aren’t going well for the men in fedoras.
The fantastic end of things doesn’t really hit until about 20 minutes into the film. Norris is off the bus, walking into his campaign office. There he sees the aforementioned men in fedoras with a group of guys in what appears to be some vague mutation of riot gear. The men he expected to find in the office are completely motionless. They are being subjected to strange lights. A chase ensues and the film begins to bear some stronger resemblance to the story it’s based on. The premise of the film begins to match the premise of the story.
Rather than being about a simple mix-up in which the protagonist failed to become “de-energized,” with the rest of the people in his office building, the film focuses on a simple chance meeting between the dancer and the politician. Evidently they can’t be together or things will not go as they should — so says the Adjustment Bureau. Marrying the premise with star-crossed lovers gives the film a beautifully Hollywood kind of heart about it. It’s much easier for audiences to grasp the questions of free will and identity that are posed by the premise when it mixes quite directly with love and politics.
The romance wouldn’t be nearly as compelling - it needs to be to hold the center of the film - were it not for the fact that Damon and Blunt do a brilliant job of rendering the a compellingly charming connection in their all-too-brief time together in the first half of the film. As an audience, we kind of want to see them together, which serves to hold the much longer narrative of a film together much better than a casual mix-up at the office likely would have done.
The problem with the film is that it lacks the sense of the quirky fantastic that so brilliantly fills the story. We aren’t treated to the kind of intricately surreal visuals that fill the short story. Instead we get a lot of drama and the full force of the premise being delivered almost exclusively in dialogue. The film develops the premise of the story without remaining all that true to the spirit that inspired it.
Philip K. Dick’s short story The Adjustment Team is driven by a fascination of how things happen and why we are the people we are. Written in a flurry of other work, the short story is packed with an inspired density of ideas and a love for the bizarrely surreal. The film limits the visually surreal end of the story, preferring a much deeper and more romantic look into the nature of the premise that works as a fantasy romance that feels refreshingly sophisticated in comparison to the fantasy romances that have been cluttering multiplex screens over the past decade or so.