Charlie Kaufman outdoes himself with perplexing take on Queen’s alumnus’ novel

Reid’s book adaption hit Netflix this week

Jessie Buckley stars as Lucy.
Credit: 
Screenshot from Netflix
This article contains minor spoilers for the film and novel I’m Thinking of Endings Things. 
 
The films of Charlie Kaufman are meta and hard to parse, but in his latest, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, adapted for Netflix from Queen’s alumnus Iain Reid’s novel of the same name, he found a way to out-Kaufman himself. 
 
While the writer-director is probably best known for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for which he won Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars, the first Kaufman film that sprung to my mind when I heard he’d be turning Reid’s novel into a movie was Adaptation.
 
Adaptation is about as meta as it gets. Originally, Kaufman was assigned to adapt Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. At first glance, Orlean’s novel is simply about the 1994 investigation of John Laroche for poaching rare orchids in south Florida. But it’s less about those literal events and more about how they affected Orlean as she witnesses Laroche’s deep passion and realizes she’s lacking passion in her own life. 
 
The Orchid Thief is a non-linear meditation on beauty and the search for meaning, a style of writing not well-suited to the traditional Hollywood narrative. So, instead of directly adapting it, Kaufman wrote a script about himself—played by Nicolas Cage— struggling to write the script for The Orchid Thief. 
 
I’m Thinking of Ending Things doesn’t delve quite as far into metanarrative. Kaufman, for example, doesn’t make an appearance. But unsurprisingly, the film differs from Reid’s novel in some striking ways. 
 
Without giving too much away, the novel is a psychological thriller, narrated by the unnamed girlfriend of Jake. At the beginning, Jake is taking his girlfriend to his parents’ farmhouse for the evening. We learn through the girlfriend’s internal monologue that she’s being harassed by a series of phone messages in which a grisly male voice complains he is feeling unhinged. The messages come from her own number.
 
For the most part, the movie follows this narrative. Some of the dialogue is ripped straight from the pages of Reid’s book. But Kaufman takes full advantage of film as a medium of sight and sound, expressing similar ideas while doing things Reid’s novel could not. 
 
For example, one theme expressed in the novel is isolation and the impossibility of fully knowing your romantic partner, which Reid conveys through the couple’s fragmented conversations. At times, Jake’s daunting vocabulary confuses his girlfriend, like when he tells her he’s a “cruciverbalist,” a person who’s good at solving crossword puzzles. 
 
 
Kaufman translates these conversations to the screen using snappy editing. Jake and his girlfriend—who’s given the name Lucy in the film—don’t quite talk over each other, but frequently when one of them stops talking, the other pipes in immediately with no natural pauses from one line to the next. The viewer, like Lucy, feels like they’re drowning in conversation, gasping for air. 
 
I’m Thinking of Ending Things teems with bizarre occurrences, both nightmarish and dreamlike. 
 
When the couple gets to Jake’s parents’ house, things get even weirder. There are many deliberate gaps in continuity where a character’s makeup or clothing changes from shot to shot. I first noticed it when Lucy meets Jake’s father at the foot of the stairs and he has grey hair, but when they sit down at the dinner table his hair is brown. These reality lapses become more startlingly obvious as the evening goes on. 
 
At times, the film feels more perplexing than intriguing. It’s kind of like a hydra because it’s so replete with references to film and literature that for each allusion you understand, four more will fly over your head.
 
While Kaufman maintains the tone of existential dread achieved by Reid’s novel, these allusions are added by the screenwriter and they’re integral to sussing out what the film is trying to say. In particular, Jake’s love of the musical Oklahoma comes to bear in a major way in the final act. 
 
The conclusion is also where the movie strays furthest from the book. Kaufman chooses to abstain from the big twist at the end of the story, which is a trope of the psychological thriller genre. Although one could infer Reid’s ending does happen in the movie, Kaufman gives us a more ambiguous finale open to multiple interpretations. 
 
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is Kaufman’s most experimental work to date. It’s beautifully shot as well as acted, and it lifts some of the most intriguing ideas from Reid’s novel while presenting new ones. 
 
But at the same time, I’m not sure if the movie stands on its own. If I hadn’t read the book, the movie might’ve been uninterpretable. In that sense, the two are companion pieces. 
 
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