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The Adjustment Bureau

March 6, 2011
The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau is a tense, cerebral sci-fi thriller in much the same spirit as Inception was. It’s cool, clean, and painstakingly assembled. Unfortunately, it would be better if it hadn’t been based on a 1954 short story by Philip K. Dick.

In a minor miracle, the full text of “Adjustment Team” is available on the internet, free of charge. I highly recommend that you go and read it if you haven’t, even if it may give away some of the movie. There’s something wonderful about short science-fiction stories from that era; they’re exquisite clockwork miniatures that can engage a reader’s sense of wonder with a minimum of stage decoration.

The big drawback for adapting these stories is that there’s not really a feature film in any one of them. They make great episodes of The Twilight Zone, or occasionally Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories. But to make a feature film out of a short story that is already so tightly wound, you have to start by unwinding it. And once you open it up, it’s never quite so neat as it started.

So instead of the unassuming Ed Fletcher, we have Senate hopeful David Norris (Matt Damon). On the night he badly loses his 2006 bid, he runs into Elise (Emily Blunt) hiding from hotel security in the Waldorf men’s room, after being caught crashing a wedding. She inspires him to an unprecedented level of candor in his concession speech, which puts him into an excellent position for when the other New York seat opens up in 2010.

A month or so later, two men speak in the park outside Norris’ apartment building. The older one (John Slattery) tells the younger one (Anthony Mackie) that he has to make Norris spill his coffee onto his shirt no later than 7:05. However the younger man dozes off and misses Norris passing. Norris catches his bus, where he happens to meet Elise again. They immediately feel a strong connection, and Norris continues to work, elated to have run into her again.

When he gets there, everybody is frozen in place, although in his haste he doesn’t notice. He rushes into his friend Charlie’s office to find a team of strange men waving glowing wands around Charlie’s head. He tries to escape, but the men capture him and decide to explain their situation. They are tasked with making small adjustments to the world to make sure that everything goes “according to plan”. Charlie, it seems, needs to be willing to invest in experimental solar panel technology, and so he needed to be adjusted. Norris missing his bus would have made him show up after the adjustment was over, and nobody would have been the wiser. And it also would have kept Norris from running into Elise again, which is also part of the plan.

And here’s where the story goes off of Dick’s finely-tuned rails. In the original story, the consequences of the minor adjustment are spun out, and the alternate result makes the adjustment’s necessity clear. The idea that small changes can have dramatic consequences is relatively common now, but when he wrote it, Dick was certainly influenced by Bradbury’s 1952 story “A Sound of Thunder”. Dick’s genius was to take this idea of sensitive dependence and couple it to the Adjustment Team’s intentionality.

But the movie never explains very far down the line. Even when a more senior agent (Terence Stamp) shows up to try and convince Norris to give up on a life with Elise, everything is cast in at most two levels of cause and effect, and the arguments are all personal. The current details of the plan are no longer important for the survival of the world, but only in how they will affect Norris’ and Elise’s futures.

From here, the movie slides down into a predictable romance and a creatively structured chase scene. It’s well-acted, well-directed, and it looks very cool; I’d love to see a lot more movies made like this one. In particular, there’s tons of room in science fiction that’s not the space-opera the genre seems identified with in the movies these days, and I very much appreciate the effort to explore some of that room. But in practice I couldn’t really get into this particular movie. Ironically, by expanding on the story they managed to make it smaller.

Worth It: it could go either way, depending on your tastes. Good movie; mediocre sci-fi.
Bechdel Test: fail.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2011 20:44

    While I enjoyed the movie, their failure to make the stakes significant to more than just the people involved was a mistake. Thank you for articulating that so well.

  2. David Keller permalink
    August 15, 2012 19:08

    Your link to the short story is dead. Try the Wikisource page for the author at

  3. August 15, 2012 19:26

    Thanks, David; I’ve made that change.

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