One of the best films of 2011 is still “The Adjustment Bureau,” George Nolfi’s sci-fi romantic thriller that has at its core a boggling theological question: How much are our lives predetermined by a higher power, and how much comes about as a result of free will? The movie, which is still in theaters, comes out on Blu-ray and DVD combo pack from Universal Studios Home Entertainment on June 21.
Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1954 short story, “The Adjustment Team,” the film revolves around David Norris (Matt Damon) a politician bent on pursuing the woman of his dreams (Emily Blunt), though angel-like figures in fedoras strive to keep them apart. These members of the Adjustment Bureau can even stop time to thwart the lovers, lest their affair foil the cosmic plan designed by The Chairman, an entity who could either represent God or Big Brother.
I decided to track down the film’s writer-director, George Nolfi, after reading Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin’s thought-provoking review in the Journal, titled “Finally, an Action Thriller for Religious Thinkers:” “Judaism, Christianity and Islam all believe in an all-powerful and all-knowing God who controls everything that happens in the world,” Korobkin writes. “What, then, is the role of our own decisions? Does man truly possess free will, or does he only have the “appearance” of free will? …The best line of the movie for me was when the Damon character is finally confronted by one of the higher up angels, who tells him that he must conform to his predestined fate. Damon looks at him and says, “What about free will?” The angel’s response (I’m paraphrasing from memory) is classic: “We tried giving humans free will and look what we ended up with: wars, pogroms, the Holocaust. That’s why we’ve been forced to take it away. You think you have free will? You only have the illusion of free will.”
Nolfi – a former academic whose screenwriting credits include “Ocean’s Twelve” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”—told me the Adjustment Bureau and its Chairman could represent God and His angels – or not. And he declined to outline his own religious beliefs, except to say that his father was raised Catholic while his mother was an Episcopalian.
“My own beliefs don’t matter in terms of the movie,” Nolfi said by phone from his Los Angeles home. “What matters is the question of how much we’re determined and how much we’re free, which – no matter how you look at the world – is a pressing one. If you look at the movie through a theological lens, that’s fine; it’s just that you don’t have to.”
Here are some further excerpts from our conversation:
NPM: You have quite an academic pedigree for a filmmaker – studies in philosophy and political science at Princeton and on a Marshall Scholarship at Oxford; and a master’s degree from UCLA. It all makes sense when you consider the themes of “The Adjustment Bureau” —but how did you first become interested in these issues?
GN: After my parents split up when I was a [child], I lived with my mother, who was pretty interested in religion and was also a fairly regular churchgoer. I became interested in philosophy as a way of looking at the world. But for most of human existence, philosophy and theology have been merged, so on those two fronts I became fascinated with this issue of how much do we get to choose our own path through our actions and choices, and how much do outside forces set us on a path or constrain us. You can view those larger forces as societal, like the culture you were born into, the language you speak, your religion, your parents—or as biological, such as how healthy you are and what kind of biochemistry you have. And/or you can view things through the lens of some larger plan that a universal God has for you. Whatever the lens you choose, I’m fascinated by this question of how much do you get to rise above or challenge the circumstances that have set you on a certain course.
NPM: You certainly did that yourself when you decided to leave academia for Hollywood.
GN: While near the end of my college experience, I started watching movies really for the first time in my life, and was really impressed by the ability of the best films to leave you thinking about its issues long afterwards. I realized that… if I pursued academia, the very issues I was most interested in would have to be studied in a very narrow way and talked about amongst a very small group of people. But I was more interested in a conversation with the public at large, which is what appealed to me about films. I got an agent, who basically said it’s almost impossible to break into Hollywood from 7,000 miles away. So I left Oxford, [transferred] to UCLA, and started writing scripts.
NPM: How did you come to read the Philip K. Dick story?
GN: I was not an avid science fiction reader, but my producing partner was, and he pitched me the premise: the notion of fate not as an abstract issue but as a group of individuals – fate personified as a bureau of agents. I thought that was a great original premise for a film – I hadn’t seen it done before, and it would allow me to get into those areas I find most fascinating.
NPM: What are some of the differences between the story and the movie?
FN: The concept of a higher power is in the story, but with a much more cynical attitude toward it, which is what one might expect from Philip K. Dick and his concerns. [Dick – whose work inspired the 1982 film, “Blade Runner”—drew on his personal experiences with drug abuse, paranoia and schizophrenia to explore social and metaphysical issues in stories that often featured authoritarian regimes and corporations.] I optioned the short story in 2003; one day, my business partner suggested that we could transform the narrative into a love story, where it’s a guy fighting fate for the woman he loves. We were talking on the phone and I said, “I want to do that; I think I can tell that story.” I was intrigued by the potential to cross genres; in this way, the film wouldn’t just be a dark, dystopic science fiction movie—it would stand outside of the genre but use elements of it.
NPM: Have you come to any conclusions of your own about free will versus predestination?
GN: I think it’s both: We are both completely constrained and we’re also completely free, which is paradoxical, but that’s what makes it interesting.
NPM: In the movie, it is also both. Not just because David Norris chooses to fight his own predestined fate. A high-ranking “angel” tells him that The Chairman backed off and allowed humans to run things during certain periods in history; but The Chairman took back control when those periods resulted in catastrophes such as World War I, the Depression and the Holocaust. Was that scene in Dick’s story?
GN: No, that was a complete invention. The story is tonally very different from the film; the concerns are much more: “Is this reality or is this a sort of mental construct? Is this really happening to the main character, or is he going crazy?” Also, it seems to me that Dick believed that no matter how much time you spent philosophizing or trying to use religion to grapple with these issues, it wasn’t going to get you anywhere.
NPM: You’ve pointed out that the free will debate is a recurring theme in Judaism, Christianity and Islam—as is the question of suffering and pain.
GN: Again, I’m not saying that people must put a theological lens on the movie, but if you do, then immediately you run up against the problem of evil—certainly in any monotheistic religion I’m familiar with. You very quickly get to, “If God is benevolent, all-powerful and all-knowing, why do we feel thwarted all the time, and why do all these bad things happen?” The movie gives a potential answer to that which is, we wouldn’t be able to understand, appreciate or use our free will if we didn’t also encounter obstacles to it.
NPM: I can’t imagine that studios were dying to make a movie that tackled such heavy theological questions. Did anyone challenge you on this?
GN: Shockingly, no. People were incredibly supportive—partly because there was the script I had written, so they could see how it played through.
NPM: Matt Damon championed you getting signed on as the director – giving you the chance to make your directorial debut with a major studio film.
GN: I showed the script to Matt right after I did “Ocean’s Twelve” with him. He was going off to do “The Bourne Ultimatum,” which I had been called in to [rewrite]. I went to England and worked on the script as they were shooting it for a long time, so he was very familiar with my work.
NPM: You’ve done panel discussions with clergy after screenings of the film – what did you find most interesting about those conversations?
GN: The most profoundly interesting thing was learning that Judaism and Islam have strong strands of thinking both in terms of a deterministic view of God, and a free will view. I had known more about that in the Christian tradition, so it was interesting to hear the historical arguments within other religions as well.
NPM: One theological argument opines that angels have no free will, because they were created by God only to be good. But members of the Adjustment Bureau are more complex.
GN: Call them angels or call them agents— if they embodied just pure good, they wouldn’t be very interesting as characters, and furthermore you wouldn’t be able to set up a conflict between them and the [protagonists]. The trick was to make David’s agenda one that viewers could buy into and see as good—and to make the Bureau’s agenda contrary to that, but then come around to seeing that their agenda was “good” as well. That was an incredibly complicated screenwriting problem for me.
NPM: The first “person” you thank in the credits is The Chairman. You’re obviously very good at what you do, but the Chairman has been with you – or at least, the studio’s chairman.
GN: That was definitely one of the tongue-in-cheek aspects of thanking The Chairman.
“The Adjustment Bureau” is currently playing at theaters such as the Culver Plaza Theatre and the Pacific Sherman Oaks 5. Check listings for more details.