For someone who once famously said, “You would have to kill me and prop me up in the seat of my car with a smile painted on my face to get me to go near Hollywood,” writer Phillip K. Dick certainly has a good Tinsel Town track record. Films based on his novels and short stories have made more than $1 billion, a figure that is bound to increase with the release of this weekend’s The Adjustment Bureau.
Based on Dick’s short story Adjustment Team, the film stars John Slattery as a mysterious Adjustment Bureau agent who must keep star-crossed lovers Matt Damon and Emily Blunt apart. It follows along with at least one tradition typical of Dick’s Hollywood adaptations—a title change.
Blade Runner was based on the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale became Total Recall and Next, the Nicolas Cage movie, was loosely based on the short story The Golden Man.
“Phil often commented that he couldn’t write good titles,” said Dick’s ex-wife, Tessa. “If he could, he would have been an advertising writer instead of a novelist.”
Blade Runner is arguably Dick’s most famous film, but an early draft of the script so displeased Dick he went on the offensive, deriding it as “Phillip Marlowe meets The Stepford Wives.”
Later, however, when shown 20 minutes of special effects shots, the author came on board, saying the footage of Los Angeles in 2019 looked “exactly as how I’d imagined it.” Ironically, director Ridley Scott later let it slip that he had never even read Dick’s book.
Total Recall also had a similar rocky development from page to stage. Early on, David Cronenberg was attached to write and direct but walked from the project when producers told him they wanted to change the story into something akin to “Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.” Eventually it was made as an incredibly violent Arnold Schwarzenegger film Roger Ebert called “one of the most complex and visually interesting science fiction movies in a long time.”
Despite the fact that Dick died in 1982 of a heart attack, interest in his work remains unabated. Disney is planning an animated adaptation of King of the Elves and Ridley Scott is reported to be producing a mini-series based on The Man in the High Castle for the BBC.
“The Adjustment Bureau,” a new film starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt as star crossed lovers, is a hard film to categorize. It’s a sci fi movie, with some action, romance and even a bit of metaphysical drama about two people who run afoul of The Adjustment Bureau, a shadowy group of men whose job it is to tweak or adjust people’s lives to make sure the overall plan for their life stays on track.
“The Adjustment Bureau’s” story exists at the intersection of chance and fate, exploring the nature of destiny and the role that free will plays in people’s lives. Key concepts imported the from Phillip K. Dick short story that forms the backbone of the movie include questions about humanity’s ability to truly do the right thing for themselves and the planet and whether or not we have free will or simply the appearance of free will.
Heady stuff. But like the best sci fi it’s not simply about the ideas, it puts a human face on its theories. Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are David and Elsie. He’s a charismatic but impulsive politician whose frat boy behaviour just cost him an election. She’s an up-and-coming ballerina with a wild side. It’s love at first sight for both of them, but somehow, for years, they are kept apart. When they have a second chance meeting David is determined not to let her go, but the mysterious men from the Adjustment Bureau are just as determined to keep them apart. Will David be able to accept his predestined path and let her go, or will he try and create his own free will?
Much of the success of “The Adjustment Bureau” is due to its cast. Damon and Blunt have great chemistry and are completely believable as a couple. The sparks that fly off the pair as they meet for the second time on a New York City bus light up the screen and provide a very human edge to a weird but quite wonderful story. Without that the idea of a group of fedora-wearing men who control every aspect of humanity’s interactions would feel overreaching, but put a human face—well, two faces as appealing as Damon and Blunt’s—on it and you get a story that transcends genre.
Add to that some situational humor, some interesting supporting actors like John “Mad Men” Slattery, Anthony Mackie and Zod… er, I mean Terence Stamp in full-on metaphysical mode and you have a strange, but strangely appealing look at humanity