Fate and Free Will in The Adjustment Bureau

Writer-director George Nolfi discusses the spiritual takeaway of his new film

George Nolfi is one of Hollywood’s rising writers of intelligent action films, having had a hand in The Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s Twelve. Working with Matt Damon on both of those films, he decided to include Damon in his dream project and directing debut: an adaptation of legendary sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Adjustment Bureau.”


Dick’s books and stories have served as the fodder for some of Hollywood’s most striking films of the past three decades, including the timeless classic Blade Runner. In them, he addresses issues of free will and consciousness, and how much control we really have over our lives and destinies. That theme has never been laid out as strongly as it has in Bureau, a must-see film not only for film buffs but especially for Christian filmgoers who wonder why Hollywood doesn’t deal with spiritual matters in a meaningful way, and who bemoan the lack of entertainment value in independent Christian films.

Nolfi himself has been involved in a massive national outreach to Christian churches and colleges designed to alert them to this extremely worthy film. He sat down for a phone interview with RELEVANT to discuss his newest film.


How were you drawn to this subject matter? Were you just a fan of Philip K. Dick, or was there a spiritual element?

I've long been fascinated with the question of how much we control our own destiny or how much we’re controlled by larger forces. When I think of that question it’s not explicitly theological, though I think that's one of the answers. I studied philosophy in grad school and it intertwines with theology. Is it social forces, like what family you're born into, or God's plan for you that shapes your life most? We’re set on a path by something much bigger than ourselves, and yet we also know we have choices and that they matter.


Did your own spirituality or religion play a part in the project?

I've not talked about my personal views because of this reason: I want the movie to be viewed by people whether religious or not or whatever religion they are. I want them to engage with the central question bringing their faith and views and grappling to the table. So when they leave, the question of how much of your life is handled by outside forces and how much by you is key, and that has been around since the ancient Greeks. I just want to have people have a great time at the movies in a romantic thriller with a sci-fi tinge to it all, leaving with their own questions brought to the table.


As a kid I've been interested in this issue. I studied it in college and graduate school, and studied various ways people grapple with that. My own family background dealt with it as well. I was also fascinated with the problem of evil in theology and if there's a higher power that's all-powerful, benevolent and all-knowing, then why do bad things happen to good people?

I think that for religious people period, but certainly Christian audiences, it is a part of their daily life to engage in discussions of why are we here. I don’t think that necessarily people who are completely secular deal with those issues, but I think it's almost impossible to be a religious person without struggling with this issue. It's ultimately a movie about a character going through character changes. It's a thriller, and hopefully you're on that ride. But it does have these issues, and I thought it would have extra interest to those who struggle with it on a daily basis.


What do you feel the message of the film is regarding free will vs. predetermined life? What are your own opinions on that?

I’ve never found a satisfactory answer that it's one over the other, it has to be both. It doesn’t make sense to me to say the path for me is set and I can't change it, [but] I can't say I'm superman and make my life exactly what I want it to be. There are forces that affect us, be it a Higher Power or social class of our family—a wealthy family in Connecticut versus a poor family in Egypt. There are a lot of ways to view the things that affect the path we're put on. 

How have Christian audiences responded?

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They’ve responded very strongly. I've personally been at five screenings—nobody leaves the theater and the discussion goes on for an hour or more.


Did you get a lot of challenges from studios or producers about touching this kind of subject matter?

Nobody interfered with the vision of the movie at all, which surprised me. Matt Damon backed me and believes in backing the director's vision. The studio was also aware of the movie they signed up for, crossing genres.



rachelp commented…

I saw the movie this past weekend and would watch it again. While I'm still thinking through the issues, your response that the bureau's answer to the question is uncharacteristic of God's Word made me stop to think about it. And I wonder if you could see his quest to reach the top, to bring his request to the chairman could be seen as prayer? Us bringing our requests to God. And if so, does he change his mind from the original plan? Can our prayers change God's mind or does it just change us? Isn't that always the question of prayer?

I don't have answers... just thinking along with you.


Nicole commented…

Great, thought provoking movie! I didn't know much about the movie going into it, and then was pleasantly surprised by the theme of free will vs. predestination. Thanks for doing this interview, Relevant! After the movie was over my thoughts went straight to thinking about the director and his motives behind the film. I can hardly wait to see it again!

P.S. Thanks to Danielle Philippi too! I wanted the name of the short story :)


Tony May commented…

Watched it last night with a buddy. Great flick. To get picky on an amazing movie, I could have done without the language and the sex scene. Reason: Though I know people use bad language and have premarital sex in the real world, it didn't add anything to the story. Both could have been eliminated and left us with an even stronger movie that I would feel comfortable showing my young boys.

Now to rave about it. George, great job. It rocked. My buddy and I loved it and I immediately called my best friend last night to tell him he needs to watch it. I'm not sure that the goal here was to be "theologically accurate" with the issue of God, fate and free will. However, this film tackled the historically debated issue with great success. Tremendous talent on the writing, directing and acting. No predictable ending, save the hope that Dorris (Matt Damon) gets the girl and the job. It was great to have the story ultimately not address Dorris' job/career plans at the end. Makes for great discussions. Also really loved that there really weren't political jabs made by any characters on either side. It helped keep the movie about the story.

Thank you, George Nolfi, for a great flick to enjoy. I look forward to getting the DVD.

Jason Goodman


Jason Goodman commented…

I have a feeling that the guy who wrote this review didn't see it all the way through. He probably just watched the first half and then walked out. I say that because had he seen the whole movie he would have seen that God isn't painted in the way he describes. I thought the movie was awesome and that every moment of the movie found its meaning in the ending. I loved this movie.


notbychancebutbychoice commented…

what a unique story of twist and turns.. it has lessons to learn.. very inspiring!!! God is the Chairman of our Life.. He makes the Plan and its up to us if we go on..And if He notice us getting weak, He makes the best way were we feel happy and He will lead Us to the Right Path.."Love willMake a Way".. This is one of the Best Movie ever seen on film!!! It Made me Cry :'( Super Duper 2 thumbs up!!! You'll never get to understand the story til you watch the whole film.. such a romantic movie!.. i really enjoyed it!!! with Boy Bawang and Popcorn.. I recommend this Movie for you guys out there.. let this be a part of your Movie Marathon List ^_^ ;D Ciao!!!

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