Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

The Adjustment Bureau

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The Philip K. Dick short story “Adjustment Team” that inspired The Adjustment Bureau has already passed out of copyright, so you can read it here or here. I was talking about the film a bit on Facebook earlier tonight and was forced to admit that when it comes to PKD film adaptations my aesthetic judgments are simply unreliable: so help me, I like them all, even if they’re all bad.

The film version is essentially a by-the-numbers thriller, in which our heroes are chased by a sinister supernatural conspiracy that hides in plain sight. They are functionally omniscient; they can manipulate chance events; they can travel the city using ordinary doors as wormholes. It’s all stuff we’ve seen before. In this respect the film is a bowdlerization of the paranoid logic of Dick’s original, which (true to its science fictionalization of schizophrenia) has the conspiracy operating through much more oblique means:

The dog studied the house. The shades had been let up. The kitchen light was on. Beyond the lace curtains dim shapes could be seen, stirring around the table. A man and woman. They were drinking coffee.
“There they are,” the dog murmured. “The man, you say? He’s not going to be harmed, is he?”
“Of course not. But he must be at his office early. Usually he doesn’t leave until after nine. Today he must leave at eight-thirty. He must be within Sector T137 before the process begins, or he won’t be altered to coincide with the new adjustment.”
The dog sighed. “That means I have to summon.”
“Correct.” The Clerk checked his instruction sheet. “You’re to summon at precisely eight-fifteen. You’ve got that? Eight-fifteen. No later.”
“What will the eight-fifteen summons bring?”
The Clerk flipped open his instruction book, examining the code columns. “It will bring A Friend with a Car. To drive him to work early.” He closed the book and folded his arms, preparing to wait. “That way he’ll get to his office almost an hour ahead of time. Which is vital.”

In this way apparently disparate events are revealed to be intimately connected, once the dots have been connected and the paranoid totality has been grasped: the Clerk requires the dog’s bark at a precise moment to summon the Friend, and when the dog barks a minute late a life insurance salesman is summoned instead. As a result of this misstep Ed misses the Adjustment at his firm, discovering first the Adjustment Team reorganizing the office and later recognizing the subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes:

Ed said nothing. He advanced slowly into the inner office. The office had been gone over. He could tell. Things had been altered. Rearranged. Nothing obvious — nothing he could put his finger on. But he could tell.
Joe Kent greeted him uneasily. “What’s the matter, Ed? You look like a wild dog. Is something — ?”
Ed studied Joe. He was different. Not the same. What was it?
Joe’s face. It was a little fuller. His shirt was blue-striped. Joe never wore blue stripes. Ed examined Joe’s desk. He saw papers and accounts. The desk — it was too far to the right. And it was bigger. It wasn’t the same desk.
The picture on the wall. It wasn’t the same. It was a different picture entirely. And the things on top of the file cabinet — some were new, others were gone.
He looked back through the door. Now that he thought about it, Miss Evans’ hair was different, done a different way. And it was lighter.
In here, Mary, filing her nails, over by the window — she was taller, fuller. Her purse, lying on the desk in front of her — a red purse, red knit.
“You always. . . have that purse?” Ed demanded.
Mary glanced up. “What?”
“That purse. You always have that?”
Mary laughed. She smoothed her skirt coyly around her shapely thighs, her long lashes blinking modestly. “Why, Mr Fletcher. What do you mean?”
Ed turned away. He knew. Even if she didn’t. She had been redone — changed: her purse, her clothes, her figure, everything about her. None of them knew — but him. His mind spun dizzily. They were all changed. All of them were different. They had all been remolded, recast. Subtly — but it was there.
The wastebasket. It was smaller, not the same. The window shades — white, not ivory. The wallpaper was not the same pattern. The lighting fixtures . . .
Endless, subtle changes.
Ed made his way back to the inner office. He lifted his hand and knocked on Douglas’s door.
“Come in.”
Ed pushed the door open. Nathan Douglas looked up impatiently. “Mr Douglas –” Ed began. He came into the room unsteadily — and stopped.
Douglas was not the same. Not at all. His whole office was changed: the rugs, the drapes. The desk was oak, not mahogany. And Douglas himself . . .
Douglas was younger, thinner. His hair, brown. His skin not so red. His face smoother. No wrinkles. Chin reshaped. Eyes green, not black. He was a different man. But still Douglas — a different Douglas. A different version!

Nothing in the film captures, or even approaches, the story’s wonderfully hallucinogenic sense that reality itself is slowly but surely breaking down…

Written by gerrycanavan

March 5, 2011 at 12:23 am

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  1. […] Gerry Canavan on The Adjustment Bureau […]


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