A Whole Truckload of Reasons You Should See “The Adjustment Bureau”

Even if you’ve seen the preview and decided this isn’t your cup of tea. 

It’s a high concept story that has traces of, well, some creative and contemporary blending of fantasy, science fiction and The Twilight Zone

Why should you see this movie? 

Because you’re a writer.  That should be reason enough.

Because, like a med student who doesn’t consider those cadavers in Pathology 101 her cup of tea, either, we need to pursue every possible avenue and opportunity to wrap our heads around the craft of storytelling.  And nothing says “ah-hah!” quite like seeing it done well.

And if you’re about to invoke your rights as a novelist who feels above the craft of the screenwriter, think again: story is story, and there’s no more transparent tutorial for it than in a solid flick.

If you were a budding tennis player and Roger Federer was in town for an exhibition, you’d go, right? 

This story is like a 2-hour crash course in concept, story structure and theme.  Which, if you’ve been paying attention here on Storyfix, are two of the six things we need to master before we can produce publishable work.

The other three essential core competencies are on display, too, but it is these three – concept, structure and theme – that are sometimes best internalized by seeing them in full glorious action, rendered by skilled professionals.

The Adjustment Bureau, while a pretty good movie (my opinion), is a clinic in those three particular core competencies.

Let’s start with story structure.

I won’t belabor it (again), but there are four parts of a story – novel or movie – each with different contextual missions, each separated by specific milestones that have their own mission statements.

Internalizing that little gem alone can set you apart from the workshop crowd.

Over half of my new book defines what those parts and milestones are, and they’re available on this site in my Story Structure series (see the Categories and Archives tabs for those).

Take a notepad to the theater for this one, see if you can pick out the hook, the first plot point, the first pinch point, the context-shifting mid-point, the lull before the second plot point, and the second plot point itself.

If you can’t, then I hope you’ll go back to study up on them.  Because they’re dramatically evident in this movie (they might as well scroll font across the bottom of the screen when they show up).

A Killer Concept

There’s little doubt that the first spark of creative life for this story began with its concept.  Such a spark can theoretically come from any of the four elemental core competencies, by the way – concept, character, theme and story sequence/plot – but in speculative stories like this it’s concept that is often the ignition point.

Chances are, too, that the creator of the original story (Phillip K. Dick, upon whose short story this film is based) used the tried-and-true “what if?” technique to get there:

What if our fate is really being controlled by forces we cannot see or control?  What if we try to defy them in the name of love?

See this film to experience how many directions a powerful “what if?” concept can take you, and why a descending decision tree of creative choices becomes the most powerful story-design technique ever devised.

That alone is worth the price of admission… times a thousand.

An Eternal Theme

Often when we stumble across a compelling and powerful “what if?” concept, we are milliseconds away from encountering an equally provocative thematic landscape.

Go to the film’s official website and you’ll see the theme announced in the title graphics.  You can watch the trailer, too, which reveals (as they often do) of several of the story’s major milestones.

Watch and learn. 

And grab some popcorn while you’re at it… just don’t get any that that greasy stuff that is supposed to pass for butter on your notes.  Because you’ll want to go over them in detail later.

(Storyfix is an affliate of Amazon.com. Somewhere out there is a guy in a cheap suit making sure this is noted.)


Filed under Six Core Competencies

15 Responses to A Whole Truckload of Reasons You Should See “The Adjustment Bureau”

  1. Exactly! I plan to see it again. I so enjoyed watching it tonight be it begs for another viewing to take notes.

  2. I had the same thoughts while watching it at a screening a few weeks ago. A friend and I even came up with an alternate ending!

  3. Martha

    Philip K. Dick was a genius — an insane one — but a master story teller. I was afraid Hollywood might have fiddled with it and lost the story’s power, so I’m pleased to know you recommend seeing the flick.

  4. Curtis

    “…a descending decision tree of creative choices becomes the most powerful story-design technique ever devised.”

    I caught that. 🙂 I hope that was a teaser to see if the class was paying attention. Future blog post?

  5. I was very wary — it looked like an Inception knock-off. But if it’s a Philip K. Dick story, then I may have to watch it. I have re-read his short stories and loved them. And after a glowing review re: story design, I’ll definitely have to catch it.

  6. Matt

    Saw it last night, and, yes, each time one of the plot points or pinch points happened I would think, “Yep, there it is.” A great example of very clear, effective story structure. And the Harry character flat out states the theme at the end.

    I thought it was also great on characterization – Norris is easy to empathize with and has inner demons galore. Great chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. And the antagonists are perfect – a bunch of bureaucratic demigods dressed like Mad Men!

    The only thing I wondered was why a former Congressman starting a new, lucrative job at a venture capital firm would take a bus to work (the first day, I know why every day after that), but whatever.

  7. Curtis

    Matt. Sounds like the first bus ride did its job.

  8. Monica Rodriguez

    Hi there, I’m a few days behind on your posts, haven’t finished reading your guest post, either, but I had to pop in to say how excited I am — I just ordered your book, Story Engineering! Yay! I’m ready to devour it as soon as it arrives! Congrats on the publication, Larry.

  9. Pat Perez

    Thanks for pointing these out to us, Larry. Indeed ADJUSTMENT BUREAU delivers a high concept story in a well-crafted structure, & it also executes the theme of choosing to love in a different level altogether. All these minus the usual stunning visual effects. Beyond that, the dialogue was so supreme I wanted to take note of the lines, (especially those about Free Will, and Choices — but the popcorn got in the way!)

  10. Kenneth

    Thanks for suggesting this movie–I loved it.

    I hope you can do an analysis on this movie.

  11. DarthJedi

    Good movie. Very enjoyable. But the concept for the movie and even a few lines were lifted from an episode of the 90’s version Twilight Zone. The episode “A Matter of Minutes” was about a couple that was stuck in between time and blue people were constructing time. The foreman “Adolph Caesar”
    explained how each minute is constructed before you experience it and the blue people were responsible for the construction. They sometimes get things wrong; that’s why your keys sometimes are not where you think you placed them and so on……… It was a really good episode and for years I have blamed the blue people for every missing or missed placed item.


  12. @Darth — I remember that episode. This is a good example of similiar ideas and treatments getting out there, but don’t mistake this for the source of “The Adjustment Bureau,” the movie is based on a story by Phillip K. Dick, the King of twilight zone-like concepts. Got that straight from the film’s website. Thanks for commenting, and for hanging here. L.

  13. Monica Rodriguez

    Finally caught up on posts! Ever since finding this blog I’ve found it indispensible & I make sure I never miss a post.

    I’d like to say thanks for having your guest, Judy Dunn, a few days ago. Another instance of your perfect timing. I’m working on developing a blog right now, and her advice & insight were invaluable! I’m going to have to visit her blog as well.

    Your own guest post at Randy Ingermanson’s blog clarified some ideas for me, despite how long I’ve been reading your blog. Goes to show you how there’s always more to learn – and so there’s always more to say!

    I’m going to take your advice & see the Adjustment Bureau. I trust your judgment! Perhaps I’ll see it with my copy of your book in my lap! 🙂

  14. Pingback: 5 Keys to Unforgettable Story Introductions

  15. “…button…”? Doh! Damn autocorrect!

    The film is already on my to-see list. Now I’ll definitely pay more attention.