Shameless Deviancy in The Adjustment Bureau! How closely should movies stick to the text?

Posted on 19 March 2011 by ShepRamsey

Assuming you’ve seen a trailer or read pretty much anything about The Adjustment Bureau, then you can rest assured that this is a spoiler-free article. Yay.

George Nolfi has written a lot of movies I didn’t like. Movies like Timeline and Ocean’s Twelve and The Sentinel. Perhaps he didn’t care for them too much either, and maybe that’s why he made his directorial debut with the new sci-fi romance The Adjustment Bureau, based on a Philip K. Dick short story called “Adjustment Team.” Perhaps Nolfi was a big fan of the legendary science fiction writer and wanted to personally see to it that the material was done justice. Perhaps?

If you’re unfamiliar with Dick, shame on you. Along with the likes of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, he was one of the greatest modern science fiction writers. Cinematically speaking, his stories and novels have provided the basis for many a great sci-fi film like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly. Of course, they’ve also turned into films like Paycheck, Next, Screamers, and Imposter, so he’s not a guaranteed home-run on the book-to-film front.

For my money, however, The Adjustment Bureau can go down as one of the greats. I saw it the other night and completely loved it. Last week, in my review of Battle: Los Angeles, I said that that movie was so bad that it made me question why I even liked movies in the first place. I’ve promptly been given an answer—movies like The Adjustment Bureau are exactly why I love movies.

I can, however, see how some might not like the film. I can understand if someone think that the bureaucratic metaphors go a tad too far; I can understand if someone thinks that the “doors” and “hats” are cheap devices to serve nothing but the plot. I don’t agree, but I get it.

After I saw the movie, I checked it out on good ol’ RottenTomatoes to see what the majority thought. And while no one was quite in my ballpark of ecstatic enthusiasm, most people seemed to be into it. There are a few detractors, as there are for anything; and of course Armond White had something completely nonsensical and ridiculous to say, but all in all, nothing too harsh. One did stand out, however, and now we can finally be brought to the point that I’m taking forever to get to.

Like everyone else, I’ve only heard of a small handful of the critics whose reviews get thrown in the RottenTomatoes mix, and I’d never heard of Tony Macklin. He’s got his own website at http://tonymacklin.net and he’s a freelance film critic and a member of the Las Vegas Film Critics Society, as well as a former film professor with all sorts of other qualifications that make him a much more credible source than I am in these sorts of matters.

And yet I vehemently disagree with his review of The Adjustment Bureau, or rather his lack thereof. You can check it out here for yourself, but it’s really just a rambling piss-&-moan-fest of how the movie is nothing at all like the Philip K. Dick story upon which it was based. Which is true. It’s nothing like it. OK. Moving on. What about the movie?

The only thing he really says about the movie is that it’s “somewhat entertaining.”  Somehow, I would’ve expected more out of a former film professor, but I guess that will have to do.

Am I being unreasonable? Is that a sufficient review? To what extent should allegiance to the source material factor in when giving criticism to an adapted work? These aren’t rhetorical questions–too often, when I write articles like these, I try to have some sort of answer; to support one side or the other. But let’s just consider this one a question for the audience, because I frankly don’t know—there doesn’t seem to be a real black-and-white answer.

There are a few things, however, that I will say I know for sure. And one is that The Adjustment Bureau, in my estimation, has done no wrong. It does not owe an apology to the estate of Philip K. Dick for taking liberties with his story. In fact, one of the executive producers on the film was Dick’s daughter, Isa Dick Hackett (whose name sounds really dirty). In his write-up, Macklin chastises her, mocking her with “Daddy wouldn’t care about his plot or his characters.” Yeah, because I’m sure Philip K. Dick was really invested in all 18 pages on a day in the life of real-estate salesman Ed Fletcher.  Such allegiances are the only reason I haven’t yet sold the film rights to the short stories I wrote in 7th grade English.

While he’s not “wrong” in what he says, it is an exquisitely bad argument. It’s true that not the plot nor the characters–pretty much nothing of the original story–can be found here. However, we’re talking about a short story that doesn’t exactly have the most richly defined characters or a particularly intricate plot—after all, it’s a short story. One way or another, in the translation to film, the plot and characters were going to have to be embellished. There’s just no way around it.

I will say, however, that Nolfi’s movie does change things to a much larger extent than most adaptations. The characters are gone. All of them—names, jobs, motivations, everything. However, having read the story, I can assure audiences that they really aren’t missing anything in that regard.  In the short story, these details don’t really matter.  The fact that Ed Fletcher is a real-estate agent doesn’t matter nor are we emotionally attached to him at all.  He’s merely a catalyst for unveiling Dick’s larger idea.  In the movie, however, Damon is David Norris, a New York congressman running for Senate, and his political ambitions are vital to the plot and theme, and we share in his emotional journey.  I didn’t miss Fletcher.

The plot is different, too. In both the film and in the movie, our lead character discovers that a secret behind-the-scenes bureaucracy is manipulating human behavior so that everything goes “according to plan.” Where Dick’s original 1954 short story was about the smallest details being put in place to prevent worldwide disaster in the wake of the Cold War, Nolfi’s film is a romantic suspense thriller that questions the existence and nature of free will. It’s lofty and accessible—a win-win if there ever was one.

In the movie, Damon’s fate, according to “the plan,” is not supposed to include the woman he loves, played by Emily Blunt. He spends the movie fighting for his free will and the right to be with the love of his life. Maybe I’m just a sentimental schmuck but this concept totally works for me, and I was sold from the first trailer right through to the end credits.

And it’s a damn bold direction in which to take the idea.  So many filmmakers, good and bad alike, would have turned such a concept into a high-stakes unveil-the-truth-and-round-up-the-cavalry blow-up bonanza, and the romance would be just a superfluous subplot—you know, like Shia and whatsername in Transformers. Instead, The Adjustment Bureau is like a Hitchcock film, taut and classy, playing out like a battle of wits between Damon and the forces holding him back; the romance is the motivating factor that sets it all in motion and is the heart and soul of the movie.

Really, in Dick’s “Adjustment Team,” all the ingredients are there for a quick and easy effects-driven summer blockbuster. When Fletcher arrives late to work, he sees an ‘adjustment’ being administered that is quite different from the one Matt Damon witnesses in the film. There’s a cloud of fog in the air, his hands and feet pass through the walls and floors, and the people, frozen stiff like in the movie, disintegrate into dust with his touch. The “sector” has been “de-energized” so that mental and physical adjustments can be made to the subjects that inhabit it.

As ripe as all that is for cinematic eye candy–especially in a science fiction film–none of it made it into The Adjustment Bureau.  In the movie, the titular adjustments are generally much more subtle, revealing themselves as the driving force behind random acts of chance and coincidence.  They can mean the difference between making it someplace five minutes early or five minutes late, and in many circumstances make all the difference in the world.  Nolfi’s route is a much more clever way that stays with us and dares us to look for the curtain covering our own everyday lives. Think the Truman Show effect, but now the joke’s on everybody.

So no, the movie is absolutely nothing like the story it’s purported to be based on in any way—not in character, plot, or even theme. And surprisingly, it wasn’t that last one that Mr. Macklin so much as even mentioned, but rather the interchangeable details like character names and occupations. He even bitches about the omission of the talking dog, which would have surely translated to film disastrously. And according to Macklin, because these details fell by the wayside, that makes The Adjustment Bureau a bad film.  Two out of five stars.

Now, The Adjustment Bureau is not the first film to take liberties with its source material and it won’t be the last. But is the extent to which it changes the details and scope of the story a blight on its quality? Again, I’m not being rhetorical, I’m posing a real question here.

It’s a complaint that you hear people burst out of movies with all the time. If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone brush off a movie with a snide “The book was better” or “That’s not how the book was at all” then I could afford to buy tickets to The Adjustment Bureau for Tony Macklin and all of his extended family. But does that sort of deviation make it a bad movie? Are the scores of people who haven’t read the book ignorant fools for liking it? Or perhaps it’s a good thing that the movie exists with an identity all its own and was able to achieve something without copying the source material beat for beat.  Maybe?

To that effect, I’ve actually been taken aback by certain movies that I felt were shockingly faithful to the novels upon which they were based. The Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men is a great movie, to be sure, but I had read the original novel by Cormac McCarthy and the first few times I saw the movie, I was wildly distracted by just how faithful the movie was. In fact, I would say that the majority of dialogue in the movie was taken straight from the book. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen was less faithful.  And the Coens won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for that script. Now, I love that movie, but is that what book-to-film adaptation is supposed to be? You can say yes—I’m genuinely curious.

Perhaps it’s a case that for some books, plays, and stories, huge deviation is okay—maybe the ones that haven’t found their right audience yet and therefore won’t piss too many people off. In this case, it’s not about making art but about treading lightly, and the judgments can only be determined by popular opinion. So by that logic, you couldn’t adapt, say, “A Tale of Two Cities” and change it the way George Nolfi changed “Adjustment Team,” or you’d have lynchings on your hands.

In this scenario, The Adjustment Bureau walks a fine line. The short story isn’t exactly legendary, but Philip K. Dick sure is. He’s a great writer with legions of fans, but “Adjustment Team” is just one of his 8,000 short stories. It’s among the better ones, perhaps, but I don’t know of anyone who would put it in the same league as “The Man in the High Castle” or “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” So what’s the etiquette here?

Let me return to Hitchcock for a second. After skimming some of Macklin’s other reviews, I noticed that he mentions Hitchcock a lot. So do I. He’s perhaps the greatest moviemaker that ever lived. And you know what? A great many of his movies are based on outside source materials that bear precious little similarity to the classic Hitchcock pictures with which they correspond. Hitchcock had a philosophy when it came to adaptation. He didn’t believe in adapting material to film that had already found its perfect medium. For example, he saw no point in making a movie out of “Crime and Punishment” because “Crime and Punishment” is a masterpiece as a novel, and doesn’t need to be adapted as a film.

Instead, Hitchock’s adaptations were of novellas, short stories, plays, and the like which existed as they were in a state of imperfection, but he thought they could be improved upon through film. In Francois Truffaut’s book “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” he explains, “What I do is to read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema.”

If you ask me, Philip K. Dick’s “Adjustment Team” is one such imperfect story, and I would wager to say that even Philip K. Dick himself would tell you that. He wrote it very early in his career when he was writing stories simply to pay the bills. It’s a good story with good ideas, but flawed and not as great as it might be. Personally, I’m glad to see that an innovative writer-director picked it up and ran with it in such a refreshing, unique, and classically cinematic way.

But it wasn’t enough for ol’ Tony Macklin. It was Dick’s way or the highway. It didn’t even matter to him that the movie was “somewhat entertaining,” it obliterated an above-average 18-page short story by a writer who’s done way better. And for that, Nolfi shall sit in Tony Macklin’s Movie Jail. The scum. Okay, now this one is rhetorical—am I being unreasonable here??

5 Comments For This Post

  1. Floyd Earl Smith Says:

    Thanks for this. A really nice and thoughtful essay bringing up some important topics about film and its sources in a thoughtful and open-minded way. As a fan of both Philip K. Dick and the movie, I really enjoyed it.

  2. amps Says:

    very nice review. i loved this movie. i just read a very disturbing review of it from some website (http://minx.cc/?post=312899–just remove this link if you want) and i told myself i will look for all the good reviews and agree with all of them just because of that one very biased one i saw. this movie was very good, Blunt and Damon really worked well and although some may call the plot flimsy i still believe that it takes more than just a mastery of words (to write) and a good eye for the screen (to make a good movie) to make something like this work.

    thanks again, this post was very informative and sooo worthwhile to read (i really wish that other review wasnt on top of google results)

  3. Dick Says:

    If you like this movie you are stupid

  4. New mystery novel Says:

    I’ve read several just right stuff here. Certainly worth bookmarking for revisiting. I surprise how much effort you place to make any such magnificent informative website.

  5. James Says:

    Leave it to the liberals in hollywood to change the character to a democrat defying God to be with a dancer instead of changing the world through sacrifice. And we’re suppose to applaud at the end? What a waste of film on an interesting idea by Phillip Dick. Which incidentally has a last name that describes all liberals.

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