Sunday, October 11, 2009

Some Thoughts on 'Adjustment Team'

As the adaptation of Dick's 1954 story 'Adjustment Team' (filming as 'Adjustment Bureau') is currently in production, I decided to revisit Dick's story to see what those guys have to work with. I just don't read enough of PKD's short stories. They're so good, but there's so many, and I'm just starting to get a handle on the novels. All things in due time, I guess. Anyway, 'Adjustment Team' is pretty cool.

What surprised me about the story was how derivative it was. I mean that in the most complimentary, Lethem-esque, cultural contamination kind of way, and by no means is it a criticism.

First of all, when Ed Fletcher accidentally interrupts the 'adjustment' his lifeless coworkers appear to be made of an ash-like substance:

" The hall was dim, gloomy with clouds of ash. The overhead lights flickered fitfully. He reached for the door handle. The handle came off in his hand. He dropped it and dug his fingernails into the door. The plate glass crashed past him, breaking into bits. He tore the door open and stepped over it, into the office.
Miss Evans sat at her typewriter, fingers resting quietly on the keys. She did not move. She was gray, her hair, her skin, her clothing. She was without color. Ed touched her. His fingers went through her shoulder, into dry flakiness.
He drew back, sickened. Miss Evans did not stir.
He moved on. He pushed against a desk. The desk collapsed into rotting dust. Earl Hendricks stood by the water cooler, a cup in his hand. He was a gray statue, unmoving. Nothing stirred. No sound. No life. The whole office was gray dust -- without life or motion."

This reminds me of Fitzgerald's famous 'valley of ashes' scene from The Great Gatsby:

"About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight. But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground."

As a scholar I can't help but see the similarities, but perhaps I am imagining a connection where none exists. Dick could also be working on a metaphor about the unreal, counterfeit nature of the 9-5 office job.

What I found far more interesting was the rationale for the 'adjustment.' Warning, what follows could be considered a spoiler:

"The Old Man waved his hand. Behind him in the shadows an immense map glowed into existence. Ed caught his breath. The edges of the map faded off in obscurity. He saw an infinite web of detailed sections, a network of squares and ruled lines. Each square was marked. Some glowed with a blue light. The lights altered constantly.
"The Sector Board," the Old Man said. He sighed wearily. "A staggering job. Sometimes we wonder how we can go on another period. But it must be done. For the good of all. For your good."
"The change. In our -- our Sector."
"Your office deals in real estate. The old Douglas was a shrewd man, but rapidly becoming infirm. His physical health was waning. In a few days Douglas will be offered a chance to purchase a large unimproved forest area in western Canada. It will require most of his assets. The older, less virile Douglas would have hesitated. It is imperative he not hesitate. He must purchase the area and clear the land at once. Only a younger man -- a younger Douglas -- would undertake this.
"When the land is cleared, certain anthropological remains will be discovered. They have already been placed there. Douglas will lease his land to the Canadian Government for scientific study. The remains found there will cause international excitement in learned circles.
"A chain of events will be set in motion. Men from numerous countries will come to Canada to examine the remains. Soviet, Polish, and Czech scientists will make the journey.
"The chain of events will draw these scientists together for the first time in years. National research will be temporarily forgotten in the excitement of these nonnational discoveries. One of the leading Soviet scientists will make friends with a Belgian scientist. Before they depart they will agree to correspond -- without the knowledge of their governments, of course.
"The circle will widen. Other scientists on both sides will be drawn in. A society will be founded. More and more educated men will transfer an increasing amount of time to this international society. Purely national research will suffer a slight but extremely critical eclipse. The war tension will somewhat wane."

Those of you who have read Asimov's Foundation Series may immediately see the similarities. I was especially struck by the description of the sector map, which sounds very much like the Prime Radiant, a device that stores and displays the long equations used in Hari Seldon's Psychohistory. Asimov's first installment, Foundation (1951), came out a few years before 'Adjustment Team' and I think it's pretty clear (to me at least) that Dick is riffing on some of Asimov's ideas.

But I also like that the reasoning for the adjustment confounds both Marxist and Free Market readings: Douglas must be younger, a more ambitious and determined capitalist, willing to take chances and think big. But the ultimate goal of all adjustments is a utopian world where scientific reasoning transcends national borders. Very much in line with what Asimov seems to imagine.

It's also clear, based on the recent interviews with the film's stars, that the movie will bear little resemblance to the original story. I hope they keep a lot of the original stuff in though, because it's pretty cool.


palmer_eldritch said...

Minority Report 2, I reckon. Only without the laughs.

ct-scan said...

It had been a while since I read Adjustment Team, so I went back for a quick re-read (one of the benefits of short stories). I certainly do see the utopian theme, although I have not read any Asimov. I think this story could make an interesting premiss for a film...but I'm also thinking it could just end up as another Paycheck or Next.

In general, science fiction is a pretty sub-par genre when it comes to film. (Then again, it might just be the industry as a whole today.) So whether they're using PKD, or regurgitating ideas from any number of other authors...seldom is the mark of a good film ever hit.

I think the preliminary plot-line of the movie sounds good...the whole making "adjustments" to government...but I'm jaded based on the number of good films based on PKD stories (by my count there's only one, and I'm aware that like half the world disagrees with me on that number).

Here's to hope. On the plus side, I keep adding books to my [re-]read pile.

sclr said...

it seems to me like it would easier to adapt this story than trying to tackle even the beginnings of asimovs foundation.
i think dicks short stories are the best. when i really started getting into finding them and collecting more of his short stories i came to the conclusion that short stories are the best, most condensed that a writer has to offer. i became a big fan of the short story and to this day find that its the greatest art/tool authors have.
my favorite pkd short story is 'faith of our fathers'. at first this story repulsed me and really messed with me but its kind of how i got into pkd. after re reading it a few more times i realized how great of a story it is. that story has a lot esoteric connection and mind expanding potential. theres a lot of jung and marx in it too. all wrapped up in a little story about alien invasion.

The History Rat said...

As with any Dick story set for the big screen, one often wonders about the special effects to make the reality appear real (if one can be serious and ironic at the same time). That, in and of itself, ought to be the challenge for the director.

Jerry said...

I have a 5 book set of Dick's short stories (I think its supposed to be the complete collection) and I read through them all, story to story, book to book, and I think that was a mistake. Now they're all merged together in my mind. Add to that the years since this epic read-through, and now it's thoroughly congealed. The end result though is that I have this odd feeling that PKD now lives in the back of my head.

As with all PKD adaptations on the big screen, I both look forward to this one, but also fear disappointment. I just hope the joy I feel at his posthumous success is somehow trickling in to the part of him that is sitting at the back of my head.

I just want to take this opportunity to tell you how much I enjoy all your articles and observations here.

Anonymous said...

Halcyon filed for Chapter 11 recently.

Pantomime Horse said...

The Wikipedia article on "Adjustment Team" has a link to a scan of the original magazine appearance with the illustrations on Wikimedia Commons. Think it requires a free DejaVu plugin to see. Article also has a link to a full text version on some apparently Google owned site.

My favorite line in the story is "The natural process must be supplemented--adjusted here and there. Corrections must be made. We are fully licensed to make such corrections. Our adjustment teams perform vital work." Who does the licensing and under what power? Those questions are raised but not answered while the Old Man and his agency/team otherwise seem a typical depiction in 1940s and 1950s movies of an often indirectly named God and angelical heirachy interacting with live people where it's just assumed there's a monotheistic supreme God and angel underlings who do what they do because... Because it fits a rather generic depiction of the major American religions influencing such films and there was an assumption the theological reasoning audience members would fill in those blanks.