I sometimes think that the only SF books that get read in Hollywood are written by Philip K. Dick.  He certainly seems to be the only SF writer who has a decent number of his works made into films.  Although, as Charlie Jane Anders points out in this excellent piece, there are a few likely candidates of his still to see the silver screen.

As for the vast panoply of other authors from the so-called Golden Age, you can’t tell me that America wouldn’t embrace movie versions of Heinlein’s books to its gun-toting, Bible-thumping bosom?  Some of his Young Adult (as they would now be called) books are the finest in the field – and would be guaranteed that all-important popcorn-shifting 12A (or PG13).

The case can, and often has, been made that short stories make better movies than full novels.  Well, if that’s so, why don’t we get more Harlan Ellison?  He’s written one or two stories in his time!  Ray Bradbury?  Every work is a poetic masterpiece!  I’m not saying that these other authors don’t get their work made, of course they do … But they don’t seem to get as many big budget, big name movies as Dick does.  I’m also not saying his work doesn’t deserve greater recognition, it certainly does.  But so do many other authors.

Anyway, The Adjustment Bureau is, in case you hadn’t already guessed, based on a Dick short story.  It’s called Adjustment Team from 1954 and you can read a facsimile of its original magazine appearance here

If you do trouble to read it, you will doubtless not be surprised by the differences twixt written text and filmed adaptation.  The main character’s name and status have changed, his talking dog sidekick has been replaced by a kindly black man in a hat (make of that what you will) and the story is, suddenly, a love story.

In Gary Westfahl’s annoyingly excellent review of the film, which you can read here, he suggests that this is because of Hollywood’s very own Adjustment Bureau; the people who ensure that every major film (and, be under no misapprehension, the presence of Matt Damon in the lead role makes this a major film) is carefully altered and manipulated to make sure that it conforms to what The All-Powerful Studios believe their audiences want.  It is very rare that a big, expensive Hollywood film stretches an audiences expectations (Rango is an interesting exception I’ll come to in a later blog entry) but, on the other hand, it is rare that a story by Dick fails to stretch your expectations.

But ah, there’s the rub, the friction that exists between director Nolfi’s dreams of being dangerous and challenging, given pause by the Studios’ need to be friendly and familiar.  It must also be said that the film’s marketing really hasn’t helped.  The TV adverts deliberately make The Adjustment Bureau look like an action/chase movie when, in fact, it’s a fantasy/ romance (I’m sorry, purists, there’s no hint of science in this fiction now). 

See?  Then there’s the, frankly, appalling poster which, at least in the UK, proudly sports Total Film’s doubtless, entirely spontaneous blurb proclaiming the film ‘Bourne Meets Inception’  which, of course, the marketing people felt compelled to use in all the UK advertising.  

thanks to for finding the source of that rather unhelpful blurb
Bourne Meets Inception.  Really?  Does Matt Damon’s character kill loads of people?  No.  Is he fighting a one-man battle against a ruthless, faceless power that will stop at nothing to kill him?  No, they want to help him.  Does his girl-friend get killed?  Nope.  Okay, so, Inception … Is the plot ferociously complex?  Not really, you do need to pay attention, though.  Is it a redemption story?  Oddly, for a Hollywood movie, no.  Does it switch between levels of reality?  Ah, well, sort of, yes.  Right, so, like Inception, it’s quite clever and plays around with reality, but the only similarity it has with Bourne is Matt Damon and, I imagine, he would be quite insulted if people really expected him to play every role like Jason Bourne.

The dismal poster, which doesn't look at all like Matt Damon's head Photoshopped onto a stock shot.
See, this is a much better poster (albeit derivative of The Social Network's), it's moody and classy and more likely to appeal to the adults who would actually enjoy this film.

Alright, so, enough about what the film isn’t … What is it?  It is certainly an engaging attempt to tell a very traditional story in a non-contemporary way.  I imagine, in an alternate universe, Frank Capra could have made almost exactly this same film in the 1940s.  At least the hats that The Adjusters wear would have been in period and not as anachronistic as they here appear.

The film begins with an unlikely protagonist, since Matt Damon is a politician called David Norris.  Is it possible to be sympathetic towards a politician?  Ah, but it’s okay, Norris’ first act is to lose his election; so he’s a rubbish politician.  That’s alright, then.

On election night he meets Elise (played by a radiant Emily Blunt) and falls instantly head over heels.  She inspires him to start telling the truth in his concession speech and that, then, is the key moment in his life.  Four men in hats watch this unfold with a sense of a job well done.  They have ensured the future.  All that needs to happen now is that they ensure David and Elise never meet again.  Well, there wouldn’t be much of a movie if they succeeded, now would there?

The film has a soft heart.  It tells us that the right kiss from the right person at the right moment can change your life.  Which it can.  We humans are fairly simple beings and once an idea – such as true love – embeds in our heads, there’s really no shifting it.  Damon and Blunt are magical together, there being a real and natural chemistry between which means we also genuinely believe in their love and that Damon will defy the universe for her.  This is proper, traditional romance, not post-modern pastiche or comedic parody, and the film is all the better for it.

"See, in the story there's a talking dog.  I told you!"
 But The Adjustment Bureau also has a soft head. It is implied that these characters who oversee us and influence us are Angels and The Plan is written by God, with the best interests of everyone written into it.  That is a stupendously simplified view of Fate and Destiny which, I suppose, I could go along with, if these Angels actually understood the people they are overseeing.  But they don’t.  They can’t, otherwise they’d know that putting obstructions in the way of David and Elise’s relationship is only going to make its consummation all the more inevitable.  We’re simple creatures, but we’re also stubborn!

The Men In Hats are a lovely, simple idea.  They have a sort of diplomatic immunity to the laws of physics and can turn any door into a door to someone else.  That was a nice idea when Pixar used it in Monsters Inc (2001) and it bears expansion and development here. These are people with awesome supernatural powers but who are bound by bureaucratic red tape and hierarchy, just like you and me (without the supernatural powers, in your case). 

As such, the frustration felt particularly by Case Manager, Richards (played delightfully by John Slattery) is palpable.  He has to ensure everyone sticks to The Plan but it is above his pay grade to know why.  He’s strictly Middle Management and, when his repeated attempts to keep Norris on-plan fail, he has to call in Senior Management, in the form of Thompson (Terence Stamp, giving one of those killer cameos he specialises in these days).

When the film reaches its inevitable conclusion after, I must say, rambling around for a good reel more than it needs to, I, for one, was left with a few questions about the credibility of what I’d seen (and, yes, credibility is essential even in a fantasy … I’d say especially in a fantasy) and about whether surrendering one’s free will to an omnipotent benign organisation would really be such a bad thing.  It also left me with a niggling suspicion that I maybe shouldn’t trust people in hats.

Another Dick adaptation that features a hat, as well as romance against which the forces of evil conspire, and which also happens to be the finest movie ever made, is Blade Runner (1982).  If you haven’t seen the Blu-Ray edition, I encourage you to rectify that immediately.  You can thank me later.

Meanwhile – whether you wear a hat or not - if you have any thoughts on traditional (or even brand new) SF authors who don’t get enough screen time – that’s what the comments section is all about.  Have your say!
Dir: George Nolfi
Stars: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, John Slattery, Terence Stamp
Dur: 106 mins

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