Philip K., Diminished: A Review of The Adjustment Bureau

by Gary Westfahl

The operatives of Hollywood’s Adjustment Bureau had gathered to map out strategies for their latest assignment: given this quirky little story by Philip K. Dick, “Adjustment Team” (1954), how could they “adjust” its plot to transform it into a crowd-pleasing blockbuster? A few problems were obvious, like the story’s protagonists, a working-class Joe named Ed Fletcher and his wife Ruth, living in suburbia. Sorry, Philip K., but films about your sorts of ordinary people are for arthouses, so we’ll turn the characters into David Norris, handsome young politician and future Senator, and his girlfriend, a beautiful ballerina and rising star named Elise Sellas. And they can’t just be minor players in the master plan of the world’s secret controllers; no, they must be absolutely central figures, literally destined to “change the world.” As for that family dog, actually an intelligent agent of the conspirators, who’s assigned to alter Fletcher’s schedule on one key day, well, this writer really does have a crazy imagination, but it’s too far out to please the focus groups, so we’ll replace the dog with a friendly guy, without entirely forgetting his canine origins because we’ll call him “Harry” (“hairy” – get it?). Finally, to extend the brief story of Fletcher stumbling upon mysterious beings subtly altering reality, getting captured, and then being warned not to say a word about it, we can keep passing Norris’s case from one bad guy to another, repeatedly separate and reunite the lovers, and throw in exciting chase scenes whenever things quiet down – all, for Hollywood, strictly routine “adjustments.”

Some will object to characterizing The Adjustment Bureau, even farcically, as the end result of many manipulators working together, since the film was written, directed, and produced by one man – George Nolfi – and hence apparently represents the product of one individual’s vision, not ameliorative groupthink. But in the contemporary film industry, the number of names in the credits really doesn’t matter; even if every single aspect of the adaptation, and every word of the script, came directly from the mind of Nolfi (and one can never trust film credits to be accurate), he still was required to recognize, and follow, innumerable conventions of corporate filmmaking in order to secure funding, recruit talent, and guide his production through the arcane processes of preparation, filming, and marketing. So whether a film has one writer or forty writers, it will always seem like the work of a committee.

From one perspective, this is entirely admirable: drawing upon on decades of experience and extensive research, Hollywood has mastered the art of making entertaining films, which by one argument is what it should be doing, and no one can deny that The Adjustment Bureau is a very entertaining film. You will be intrigued by its plot, you will admire its heroes and despise its villains, you will be thrilled by its action scenes and touched by its romantic moments. But it remains saddening to observe such a smoothly functioning machine constructed out of a typically ragged and unsettling story by Philip K. Dick. And when George Nolfi first read “Adjustment Team,” I’m quite sure this wasn’t what he wanted to do. But in the end, he just couldn’t help himself.

Indeed, if professors of film studies want to enlighten their students about what Hollywood wants to be, and what Hollywood really is, I can imagine no better lesson than to have them read stories and novels by Philip K. Dick, then having them watch the films that they inspired. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) / Blade Runner (1982), “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) / Total Recall (1990), and “The Minority Report” (1956) / Minority Report (2002) would all be obvious items for the syllabus, but “Adjustment Team” / The Adjustment Bureau might actually be the most illuminating assignment. This would be the theme of the class: today, everyone in Hollywood wants to be different, to be innovative, even to be strange; hence, they are inexorably drawn to the works of Philip K. Dick, because perhaps more so than any other science fiction writer in the business, Dick is consistently different, consistently innovative, consistently strange. In the 1950s, he tossed out dozens of bizarre little stories like firecrackers, many of them still not properly appreciated; in the 1960s and 1970s, his ideas more often poured out in inchoate novels that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, but were never dull.

Facing the task of adapting these appealingly bizarre stories for the screen, though, writers and directors inevitably feel the need to make certain “adjustments” in order to transform them into acceptable popular entertainment. Members of Dick’s proletariat join the bourgeoisie; rough edges in the plots are smoothed out; provocative ideas are retained but dumbed down; conventional happy endings replace the outcomes that pass for happy endings in Dick’s works. Blade Runner does these things brilliantly, Total Recall does them risibly, while Minority Report (review here) and The Adjustment Bureau fall between those extremes. True, one might protest that Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (1977) inspired a remarkably faithful film adaptation (2006) (review here), but the fact that that animated film never broke out of limited release, and made less money than its production costs, only proves Hollywood’s point: pure, undiluted Dick is box office poison, so wise producers will call in the Adjustment Bureau before filming.

So, when “Adjustment Team” made it to the screen, many of its virtues were necessarily lost in translation. As indicated, Dick is a poet of the working class, but Hollywood prefers the lifestyles of the rich and famous. In opening scenes, when we observe senatorial candidate Norris (Matt Damon) hobnobbing with real-life political celebrities like Michael Bloomberg, Andrew Cuomo, Madeleine Albright, and Jesse Jackson, we are immediately thrust into a milieu that Dick would have found alienating and boring – rich people in fancy hotels and corporate boardrooms – and Norris’s soulmate, Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) introduces us to New York’s artistic elite. (For an added touch of class, Sellas has a British accent.) In contrast, the everyday people that Dick would have been interested in – a cab driver, bartender, police officer, farmer – are only bit players here. Further, Dick did not believe in love stories: he preferred characters who, like most people, had already found partners, whom they sometimes loved and sometimes hated but tended to stay with, regardless, because they didn’t want to be lonely. But Hollywood loves love stories, so Nolfi concocts out of whole cloth a passionate romance between Norris and Sellas and makes it central to the film, because these mysterious modifiers of the world do not simply want to keep Norris away from a certain building at a certain time, to conceal how they are altering events, but rather are desperately anxious to keep the lovers apart so that Norris can become President of the United States and Sellas can become the world’s greatest choreographer. In Dick’s world, of course, characters with such ambitions would be sadly delusional.

Hollywood also loves a mystery, but not a mystery that remains unsolved, and in “Adjustment Team,” Dick never identifies precisely who his secret manipulators are or how they gained their vast powers. All we know is that they have benign intentions, since they alter Fletcher’s boss so he will purchase some land in Canada and allow scientists to discover “anthropological remains” that will lead to an international society of scientists and lessen world tensions. However, since this whole business of Canadian land is much too complicated for average filmgoers, the film’s manipulators simply change Norris’s colleague and campaign manager Charlie Traynor (Michael Kelly) from an opponent of investing in solar panels to a proponent, briskly demonstrating they are environmentally friendly and hence are good guys too. (Also, because all but one of the politicians associated with Norris are Democrats, and because his campaign is damaged by an exposé in the Republican New York Post, we can be sure that Norris is a Democrat, and hence a Hollywood hero that the world’s secret masters should properly promote as presidential material. Norris was even born around 1973 or 1974, at the height of the Watergate scandal, a propitious time for Democrats.) But rather than leaving their identities unresolved, Nolfi cannot resist dropping big hints that the beings bedeviling Norris and Sellas are none other than God Himself and His minions. When asked directly if he and the other agents are “angels,” Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) doesn’t deny it, but merely says “we’ve been called that” and confirms that they “live longer than humans.” Later, senior agent Thompson (Terence Stamp) tells Norris to “show some respect” to the “Chairman” who designed “the Plan,” again suggesting He is God. This anodyne overlay would have been anathema to Dick, who with characteristic paranoia depicted God as an evil Chinese Communist in “Faith of Our Fathers” (1967). It also doesn’t make a lot of sense, since it’s hard to imagine a divine being forced to rely on these consistently inept operatives to carry out His instructions, but then again, error-prone angels are another time-tested Hollywood trope, as observed in scores of popular films.

Finally, Dick had the courage to embrace heterodox and unpalatable ideas, and follow them to their logical conclusions. In “The Minority Report,” he has no problem in imagining that certain people may be destined to commit crimes and thus may be properly punished before committing them, and he concludes “Adjustment Team” with its system for constantly changing people to bring about desirable events intact and destined to keep operating indefinitely. This means (gasp!) that he did not necessarily believe in “free will,” and was even willing to entertain the possibility that, all things considered, an absence of free will may not always be a bad thing. But nothing is more repugnant to Hollywood than heroes who do not control their own destinies, which drove Steven Spielberg to homogenize “The Minority Report” and drives Nolfi to homogenize “Adjustment Team.”

True, the writer-director does allow Thompson (Terence Stamp) to make the case for intelligent overseers controlling human society: in one of the film’s most interesting sequences, he tells Norris that they advanced the species from hunting and gathering to the glories of the Roman Empire, but experimentally left people to their own devices to fall into the Dark Ages; after resuming control and getting progress back on track with the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution, they loosened the reins again in 1910, resulting in world wars, the Depression, the Holocaust, and the world-threatening Cuban missile crisis, before they again stepped in to take charge. This is, as college professors will note, an extremely Eurocentric vision of human history, since regions other than Europe, notably the Arab world, made significant progress during the period of the Dark Ages, and even the twentieth century cannot be properly characterized as a succession of horrors, since it also brought astounding advances in medical care, decolonization, and the civil rights movement. But Thompson has a point: based on the historical record, there is no reason to be confident that people will always do the right things, creating a justification for a secret system to make sure that nothing goes terribly wrong.

But cinematic heroes can be trusted to always do the right things, so they must always have the power to break whatever chains bind them and triumph by doing what they choose to do. Thus, without revealing any details about the film’s conclusion, one can generally say that it transforms Dick’s story into an uplifting parable about the power of human sticktoitivity: if people will only have the courage and determination to doggedly pursue their dreams, despite all obstacles, all of their wishes will come true, and all will be right with the world. And to iconographically buttress this message and wholesomely tie it to truth, justice, and the American way, Nolfi takes Norris and Sellas to the Statue of Liberty. The sound you hear is Philip K. Dick, doing a 360 in his grave.

One can grumble about Nolfi’s adaptations on other grounds of less import. Dick spent most of his life in California, eventually settled in the Los Angeles area, and surely would have hated living in New York, so it is unfortunate that his story, with an unspecified location that nonetheless suggests southern California (with “lawns and sidewalks,” “parked cars,” and a shining sun), was transplanted to New York City, with scenes filmed on city streets and famous locations like the Brooklyn Bridge and the new Yankee Stadium. (Various New York logos in the closing credits strongly suggest that the motive for this was financial incentives.) Also, although the film’s plot carefully justifies all of Norris’ actions, feminists can readily deconstruct the film as the story of a man who repeatedly treats a woman like a complete jerk, then shows up at her door saying, “Gee, I’m sorry, I know I’ve been a complete jerk, but I really really love you and I want you to come back to me” – and she agrees, making the same mistake twice. This is one aspect of the film that comes right out of the 1950s, when Dick’s story was written, since today, any woman would be strong and savvy enough to reject this creep in favor of the bland but reliable Adrian Troussant (Shane McRae). And, settling into yet another objectionable but traditional pattern, The Adjustment Bureau also evolves into the story of an assertive Caucasian hero with a supportive African-American sidekick.

There is one line in the film, more so than any other, that perhaps sums up why Hollywood adaptations of Philip K. Dick are so problematic: discussing his plans to elude the system’s agents, Norris suggests an “improvisation” and Harry is pleased, explaining “We have trouble with that.” For as I have argued elsewhere (commentary here), Dick was one of the great improvisers of science fiction, happy to begin a story without knowing how it would end and letting it find its own conclusion; in contrast, improvisation is the one thing that contemporary filmmaking cannot tolerate, since every single move must be carefully planned and road-tested before allowing a film to reach theatres. Even as I speak, members of the Adjustment Bureau are surely hard at work, transforming other Dick stories into palatable entertainment for the masses, but to really understand what this singular writer had to say, one may always need to read his original works.

Gary Westfahl’s books include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent publications include the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature (2009), its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993 (2009), and the co-edited anthology Science Fiction and the Prediction of the Future (2011).

5 thoughts on “Philip K., Diminished: A Review of The Adjustment Bureau

  • March 6, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    Spot on, Gary! This is the best analysis on PKDs adaptations I have read in a long while. Thank you for your insights!

  • March 7, 2011 at 8:34 am

    While I agree with your general analysis of PDK’s work as adapted for the screen, I prefer not to see The Adjustment Bureau as a PKD film — it does differ so radically from the original — but to remember it as a reasonably pleasing romance with some metaphysical overtones. People run around too much towards the end but, overall, it’s quite enjoyable rubbish.

  • March 7, 2011 at 10:55 am

    What interesting variation on the “Dark City” theme. I loved the chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. I’ve always felt that any good movie has at its core a love story (e.g., boy-girl, father-son, etc)–and, “The Adjustment Bureau” definitely has one in those first two acts.

  • March 7, 2011 at 11:46 am

    >>the story of an assertive Caucasian hero with a supportive African-American sidekick.

    On the other hand, you could see Harry as the only being smart enough to realize that the plan was flawed…

  • March 14, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    No question that in total, film adaptations of PKD rarely reflect either the theme or the tone of the source material. Sought out & speed read through “Adjustment Team” after seeing “Adjustment Bureau”. I don’t see the movie as an adaptation so much as lifting an idea from the story & going off in a different direction. Totally agree it would have been a more interesting movie if Norris were more like Fletcher than a future president. I didn’t interpret the allusions to God the same way. It was a necessary question for Norris to ask as a surrogate for the audience, who are not all confirmed atheists. The Chairman is neither infallible nor demands worship.
    There are few similarities to Dark City, and only at the very surface.


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