Think Philip K. Dick, think questions. Big questions. Questions of self, questions of society, ethics, and questions of the very fabric of reality. Dick referred to himself as a fictionalising philosopher and continuously questioned human experience to a depth matched by few other 20th Century writers.
In his 30 year career Dick published 121 short stories, 44 novels, numerous poems and non-fiction essays. To date there are 12 feature films adapted from his fiction, the most recent The Adjustment Bureau, directed by George Nolfi and starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt.
Dick’s work typically focuses on paranoid questioning of the self in relation to the rest of the world and our individual perception of reality. Characters are frequently fractured from reality. In Total Recall, based on Dick’s short story “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale”, A Scanner Darkly based on the novel of the same name, and Blade Runner adapted from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, characters are forced into questioning the authenticity of their realities. What is real? What is human? Does it matter? Questions of fate and free will are also classic Dick themes explored in Minority Report and also in The Adjustment Bureau. These are the questions that keep The Adjustment Bureau moving forward. Are we in charge of our own actions? Should we be in charge of our own decisions? What if someone else can make better choices for us that result in the greater social benefit? And what if we don’t like those choices?
‘The Adjustment Team’ operates on the basic premise as the film. The mysterious Team works to push everyone towards the right decisions that will lead to world peace and universal harmony. The film introduces a personal level to this idea and carries it much further. In The Adjustment Bureau David (Damon) discovers the true workings behind the curtain of reality – a team of mysterious men in hats headed by the never seen Chairman, operate across the world making sure that The Plan, a type of pre-written fate plays out accordingly. According to the Bureau whenever humankind takes control of its own free will civilisation and the planet is threatened. From the fall of The Roman Empire, World War I, The Holocaust, the Cuban Missile Crisis, every black mark on human history is where we’ve made the decisions for ourselves. So to keep us all on track and to stop us destroying the planet, the Bureau makes our big decisions for us – our jobs, our lovers, everything. We can choose our preferred toothpaste or beverage, but that’s about it.
Matt Damon referred to The Adjustment Bureau as the least Philip K. Dick of the adapted films. Perhaps this is because the film centres on a love story between David and Elise (Blunt) rather than exploring the more typical Dick shades of social paranoia woven through the film. The romantic element is unique to the film and one of the major points of departure from ‘The Adjustment Team’, much to the chagrin of some critics. While it maybe more romantic than a typical Dick story, the romance plot is used as a device to explore the idea of fate and free will. What makes people feel they belong together? What if they’re wrong? Do we get to decide who is right for us? Is the One True Love fate? Is choosing to pursue love free will? If David pursues Elise then she’ll never be a world famous choreographer and he’ll never be President of the United States of America. The problem is David wants both the woman and the Top Job. So, witha minimally explored regard for Elise’s perfect future, David fights for free will. In ‘The Adjustment Team’, the central character Ed is more content to sit back and let the Team run the show. In each version free will loses in the end. Ed surrenders, promising never to reveal the truth and the Team makes sure he doesn’t. David and Elise fight to plan their own fates but the result is that the Chairman simply changes the pre-written fate so that their apparent personal choices work in with everything else. David and Elise haven’t escaped the operation of the Bureau or a pre-written fate at all.
So what’s the answer? Is it better to trust our big decisions to a force that knows better? Millions of people do this everyday through religious belief, something the film alludes to by hinting at the Bureau and the Chairman as the equivalent of God and angels. Fate or The Plan is operating on the idea of the best outcome for the most people at the expense of free will. This idea, a type of undemocratic democracy, is a valuable question in election times where democratic citizens are asked to choose someone to make their choices for them. Are we really responsible enough to make our own decisions? According to The Adjustment Bureau, No.