Some more thoughts about The Adjustment Bureau: the film carries a rather obvious message about people who follow religious orders to the letter without thinking about their meaning, so I’m going to ignore that one and take this in a different direction.
See, in real life we probably do have free choice. I know some people don’t believe this, and of course such people are free to choose such a belief. In the pages of a novel we don’t: the characters are playing out their lives under the predetermined plans of supernatural forces: the author, the editor and often the publishers and marketing teams exert this control. An extreme example is the Mills and Boon romance formula which is adhered to strictly by the small team of hand-picked authors; the Adjustment Bureau’s G-men who lose sleep over David and Elise sharing a “real kiss” at the wrong time are thinking along similar lines.
Admittedly, there are a authors whose publishers give them more creative freedom – their characters may have real, meaningful existences within the imagination of the author and such a novel can change direction mid-flow as the characters take events into their own hands.
Now transplant this idea into cinema. A film isn’t made by an author, editor and a handful of publishers. Hundreds or sometimes thousands of people are named in blockbuster credits. The script may involve several people, and most are written to a formula far more exacting than the Mills and Boon recipe. Scenes, plots and whole films are written or selected to meet the needs of the studios and distributors, while endings are changed and dialogue is re-written to reflect the opinions of the investors or the test audiences. Films often rely on intertextuality, recreating whole scenes from previous films – and don’t get me started on re-makes which are often judged on faithfulness to their originals.
Fictional characters who take control of their lives are themselves a great fantasy theme: in Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, when book-jumper Thursday Next finds herself in Jane Eyre and “accidentally” changes the ending all hell breaks loose; both The Truman Show and Stranger Than Fiction place fictional characters in conflict with their creators.
Directors may be the most freakishly controlling of all control freaks – the idea of letting events in films shape themselves is anathema, and I think the attraction of CGI to many is not that you can now portray anything but you can now control anything. That tsunami wave looks great but how about a little less vapour to the lower left? I don’t like the shape of that cloud, can we change it? Thank goodness for the exceptions: superb directors like Kevin Smith, Mike Leigh and Gareth Edwards who are willing to take risks with the structure and let actors build up characters and improvise, often with spectacular results.