Tag Archives: speculative fiction

The Adjustment Bureau (US 2011)

Anthony Mackie (nearest camera) and John Slattery (in focus)

I’ve been asked to run a day event on ‘dystopias’ – especially as envisaged by the American SF writer Philip K. Dick. A good excuse then to catch The Adjustment Bureau which may become my study text. It’s interesting to note that most of the films based on Dick’s work have drawn on the short stories that he wrote as a ‘pulp’ writer for various magazines in the 1950s (the exceptions are Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (as Blade Runner), A Scanner Darkly and Confessions of a Crap Artist). Radio Free Albumeth is awaiting a distributor, I think. This short story focus may be because some of the early 1950s work is now in the public domain or was acquired cheaply some time ago – Dick only saw a few dollars from many of his stories.

Orbit Science Fiction was published for just five issues in 1953-4

The Adjustment Bureau is ‘freely adapted’ from a story called ‘Adjustment Team’ (written in 1953 and published in Orbit Science Fiction in 1954). Writer-director George Nolfi has expanded the 24 pages offered by Dick to a full length feature script. In the process he has changed the central character from an ‘ordinary Joe’ into a potential Presidential candidate and placed him in a romance and a form of ‘conspiracy thriller’. Dick’s story was much simpler – but more terrifying in its exposure of the ‘unreality of the everyday’. It begins with a talking dog – Dick wrote several ‘fantasy stories’ in the early 1950s – and finishes with an open ending but one that is definitely not part of a romance. Witnessing an ‘adjustment’ is a much more terrifying experience than is depicted in the film. Dick’s protagonist is married and his wife doesn’t trust him. Having said that, Nolfi appears to know his Dickian stories and several aspects of his film work in recognisably ‘Dickian’ ways. Overall, I’m not sure that the film works completely but it is an enjoyable diversion and as Dick adaptations go it sits alongside Imposter and Screamers as one of the better ones. (I would agree that the narrative also resembles those of classic TV shows such as The Outer Limits.)

The simple premise of this dystopia is that a mysterious group of ‘adjusters’ are able to ‘fix’ future events by carefully nudging individuals into particular meetings and situations. At various points of history and geography they can then ‘stop’ time and re-arrange the world to ensure that events follow a set pattern. This is a perfect scenario for speculative fiction since some schmuck somewhere will inevitably fall through the gaps in the planning. In this case it is an adjustment operative who dozes off and fails to stop David Norris (Matt Damon) from boarding his morning bus to the office. As a consequence, Damon not only meets again the young woman who inspired him to make a great speech after he lost a senatorial election but also to arrive at his office in the middle of an ‘adjustment’.

Norris now finds himself trapped in a situation where he will risk forcible ‘re-adjustment’ (or a ‘lobotomy’ as he terms it) if he pursues Elise (Emily Blunt) the woman who has stolen his heart. The Adjustment Team warn him in no uncertain terms about what might happen. They appear to be like ‘angels’ in their powers and motives. At this point astute film fans might think of A Matter of Life and Death (or Stairway to Heaven in the US), the classic Powell and Pressburger film in which David Niven defies Heaven in order to pursue his love for Kim Hunter. Unfortunately, Matt Damon isn’t David Niven – or Roger Livesey. He’s a good actor and clearly a bright guy but for me he doesn’t have any charisma. I’ve read that some think he is the ‘sexiest man in America’, but I can’t see it. Emily Blunt on the other hand is terrific in this film. I’m not quite sure if she’s meant to be a Brit in the script but she doesn’t attempt a strong American accent and her dialogue is peppered with colloquial British English. I don’t think I’ve heard someone dismissed as a ‘tool’ (i.e. a ‘prick’, a ‘dick’, a penis) since the 1970s. (I realise ‘tool’ means something else in modern American slang, but this is Elise/Blunt speaking.) And to hear an actress in a Hollywood movie saying ‘bugger’ is a joy. In fact there seems to be quite a lot of swearing that’s got past the censors for a 12A. The image below is quite suggestive of all kinds of possibilities for Nolfi’s mise en scène and the overall look of the film lensed by John Toll (New York locations in particular) is attractive but I’m not sure it all adds up to much.

Elise (Emily Blunt) and David (Matt Damon) meet 'by chance' at the start of the narrative.

In some ways Damon is perfect as a Dickian ‘ordinary Joe’ – rather than as Presidential material. The possibility that the adjusters are some kind of divine intervention also fits in with the Dickian sense of paranoia and interest in various religious ideas which is there in most of the stories but comes to the fore in the later work. Dressing the adjusters with coats and hats like 1950s/60s FBI agents (see the image at the start of the post) is a stroke of genius and casting Anthony Mackie, John Slattery and Terence Stamp is also a good move. Overall then this movie has things going for it. Of course, a lot of the latter part of the narrative is based on chase sequences. But if that draws in audiences and makes a Dickian adaptation more successful, I guess that is a positive.

The reviews/user comments on the film are interesting, partly because of the divergence towards science fiction or romance rather than both and for the inevitable claims that the film is ‘Inception lite’. The truth is that Inception was inspired by Dick, as are dozens of contemporary films. In fact the Dickian view of the world has now almost become the norm – in itself a Dickian outcome. Dick wrote over a period of thirty years or so. He was amazingly prolific in terms of story ideas and his writing developed during major changes in American society – and dramatic changes in his own personal situation. Adapters are able to take the ideas and attempt to fashion them into workable narratives for contemporary audiences but I’m not sure that mainstream Hollywood is the best place for such adaptations. Presumably Nolfi needed Hollywood to stage his story and this meant that he needed a star like Damon. An adaptation of the original story closer to Dick’s intention would have worked well without stars in a low-budget flick. It’s the terror of discovering that behind the façade of everyday reality there is a team of adjusters that should be the draw, not the excitement of a chase or the possibility of a fulfilled romance. Dick did feature strong emotional relationships in some stories – but rarely are they fulfilled.

Never Let Me Go (UK/US 2010)

Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan as they appear in the 1980s segment of the film.

Never Let Me Go is an interesting film that is, in relative terms, ‘failing’ at the box office. It’s in some ways a brave film. It doesn’t always happen, but the spread in Sight and Sound (March 2011) in which novelist Kazuo Ishiguro and writer-director Mark Romanek make their case for the film, is for me quite convincing. Unfortunately, the audience who do go to see the film probably won’t read the journal and may well be disappointed.

I’m not going to ‘spoil’ the film narrative, but most potential viewers will know that the film is ‘dystopian’ and will therefore expect the characters to be struggling against some form of tyranny or chaos. But many such stories end with a triumph of some sort. Some potential viewers may also expect a strong romance element and a consequent depiction of the agonies of love – the pain and the passion. All of these expectations might be dashed.

Ishiguro’s novel is set in an alternative history of the UK. This makes it an example of speculative fiction. All we are told at the beginning of the film is that medical science has helped to transform lives. In the Sight and Sound piece, it becomes clearer that the basic premise is concerned with an alternative to the success British science had in the 1940s re nuclear physics. ‘What if’ all that research work had gone into medicine and ways had been found to extend life-spans to 100 years or more for most of the population? I’m not sure if this starting point was more explicit in the book, but in the film, apart from a single onscreen statement, we first see 28 year-old ‘Kathy H’ (Carey Mulligan) watching a medical procedure. This is the mid-1990s and we flashback to the late 1970s when Kathy is at a boarding school with her close friend Ruth and new boy Tommy, who is having problems settling in. Later, we meet the three characters when they have left school but have been transferred to a hostel in a remote rural setting – this is the mid 1980s. The older Ruth (Keira Knightley) has by then developed a relationship with Tommy (Andrew Garfield), but Kathy remains celibate working to maintain her friendship with Ruth and repressing her desire for Tommy – she was the first to befriend him. So far, so ménage à trois, but we know something terrible is going to happen (we actually learn what this is, but not all of its consequences, during the boarding school phase).

Audience expectations

Part of my fascination with this film is to disentangle the original proposal and its treatment in an industrial/commercial context and the ways in which it has been approached by several distinct potential audiences. The first adaptation of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel was The Remains of the Day in 1993 which proved to be a major arthouse success starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. There would certainly be an audience of Ishiguro readers who would consider another adaptation favourably, although speculative fiction offered by ‘literary’ authors is sometimes a more difficult sell. This audience may also be concerned by the ways in which film adaptations can emphasise action over reflection, changing the tone of the novel. With this audience in mind, Never Let Me Go could perhaps have been a small-scale ‘specialised film’. When the film production got underway, this might still have been possible. Carey Mulligan was cast on the basis of early sightings of her performance in An Education – before she became a celebrity figure. She persuaded her friend Keira Knightley (and the producers) to appear as Ruth. Knightley is a major star/celebrity figure, but she has appeared in smaller films without noticeably disrupting those films via her star image. However, I think that in this case the casting of Andrew Garfield probably helped tip the scale. As with Mulligan, when production began Garfield was a highly regarded young actor, but not a big ‘name’ Hollywood star. Now he is a lead in a hit film, The Social Network, and is currently ‘in production’ as the new Spider-Man . When Never Let Me Go opened in the UK, there must have been a potential young audience, longing for a sight of these stars in a mainstream romance film. At the same time, the specialised cinema audience which enjoys intelligent and intriguing speculative fiction/science fiction may have been put off by the prospect of a Hollywood-style romance. So, three different audiences all with possible problems. My first inkling of the problem was during the London Film Festival when I couldn’t help overhearing the woman behind me telling her friend that she’d seen Never Let Me Go as the Opening Film of the festival. She had found it so harrowing that she had immediately bought the biggest box of chocolates she could find and taken it to a screening of the Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz film Knight and Day as an antidote.

How can I explain what Never Let Me Go is about without a spoiler? Let’s just say that the three young people face a terrible prognosis of what is in store for them. This is hinted at quite cleverly in the opening sequence of their early schooldays. They don’t have full names – just a first name and an initial, rather like the character in Kafka’s tales of paranoia. There is something decidedly spooky about the school – not least Charlotte Rampling as the headteacher. In a Hollywood movie our heroes would intuit the danger, find out the true story and then fight to be free. In real life, as Kazuo Ishiguro argues, most people faced with a terrible prognosis don’t fight it in a Quixotic way (though a handful do – and they often become the subject of biopics or melodramas). Most of us would focus on mundane daily routines and on our relationships with those nearest to us. Under pressure and frightened of losing control we look for something we can hold on to. In this film, the trio have only each other and the complicated feelings they have for each other. They each love the other two in different ways. But what is love? What do you want for the person you love and how do you express that love?That’s what this film is about and how it ends, how that love is expressed, is the key to the film’s resolution. The film’s title is echoed in a ‘fictional’ song that the child Tommy gives to Kathy on a music cassette and in a way ‘letting go’ becomes the crucial question for the characters – whatever it may mean. I confess that while I enjoyed the film as I watched it, I found the Sight and Sound material very helpful and I’ve thought about it at some length since.

Technically, the film is very well made with cinematography, editing and sound beautifully representing the tone of the narrative and the fictional world – the ‘not quite there’ feeling of the time periods and the strange but familiar English landscapes (at least one location in Scotland though). The casting and acting performances are excellent all round and the young actors morph into the well-known faces in quite an uncanny way. I did feel sorry for Keira Knightley in that her role is as the least sympathetic of the main characters and the least likely to gain favourable notices. On the other hand, Carey Mulligan couldn’t ask for a better role and she is extremely good. She’s now at the point where she will be offered the roles that could make her a major star. I hope she chooses wisely.

Afterthought: I meant to mention that the script adaptation is by Alex Garland, known recently for his two science fiction scripts for Danny Boyle (28 Days Later and Sunshine). This may have contributed to audience expectations. By all accounts, his script keeps close to the novel’s narrative.