Charlie Kaufman’s film I’m Thinking of Ending Things is wildly different from Iain Reid’s novel. They share the same skeleton but are completely different bodies altogether. Iain Reid’s novel is 100% a psychological thriller with very unnerving moments. Charlie Kaufman’s film however is more about the human condition and how the mind is as surreal as fantasy. What both do have in common however is that they’re both stories about Jake. Spoiler warning for whoever hasn’t seen the film or hasn’t read the book.
The Premise of the Book
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a man’s fantasy about a relationship he could have had with a girl he once saw in a bar. It is almost entirely through the perspective of his imaginary girlfriend. She has an entire backstory to her and a well-written personality initially giving the impression she is indeed real. Things begin to get uncomfortable when she meets Jake’s parents, but it still all feels very much feel real with nothing out of the ordinary.
It gets surreal once they make a stop at Dairy Queen on their way back and she starts recognizing things she shouldn’t. Events begin to feel strange when they visit a school and Jake leaves her alone. Beginning to believe that she is being hunted by a school janitor, she realizes how the environment around her is shifting in mysterious ways.
At this point in the book, it becomes clear we aren’t dealing with reality. Finally, she realizes that she and Jake are the same being as the Janitor tells her “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” after which he kills himself as well as his imaginary girlfriend.
Criticism for the book
The entire novel sort of relies on the big reveal at the end. This is hinted because of living an unfulfilling life not being loved or appreciated by anyone around him. This however has been one of the main criticisms of the novel.
Having the narrator change midway through the book almost feels like a cheat. In this way, readers are inclined to believe Jake could be imaginary. Whereas we’ve been inside the mind of the imaginary character all this time. A twist works when the audience has all the tools to uncover it but is still unable to because of how good the misdirection is.
There is nothing in the book apart from the last few pages that suggest everything is a fantasy. The end is such a massive tonal shift that it feels frustrating that such crucial information was held back from the reader.
The reason why a similar story, Fight Club, works is that although we never see Tyler and the narrator interact with the same person together, we never pick that detail up. Exactly what makes that reveal special.
Charlie Kaufman realized these shortcomings very well and pictured a different story altogether. Even though the events are nearly the same, the interpretation is entirely different. We get introduced to the janitor very early on instead of at the end.
By the time they visit Jake’s parents the surrealism gets cranked up to 11. The film almost owns up to the surrealism. It uses this time to instead establish how the couple could be the same person. We see Jake’s bedroom filled with books that his girlfriend has mentioned before.
The girlfriend contradicts her profession repeatedly with even some of her artwork on display in the family’s basement. She also sees laundry filled with dark-colored uniforms. We see the parents in various stages of their life almost as situations Jake wishes had been real.
Criticism for the movie
The movie makes a bold choice to steer away from the ‘twist’ and give us something a lot more meaningful. But surrealism works best with a level of uncertainty to it. Owning up to it was a great idea but it felt a little overdone. However, it still works with Kaufman’s intention in mind.
The final act is where the movie really emphasizes what it’s about by avoiding the whole suicide and survival horror plot. It straight up confronts the girlfriend with the janitor. What ensues thereafter is probably what Kaufman enjoyed making the most. We witness the mind of a person who has probably spent his entire life in solitude.
There is more to him than just the fantasy of a girl he wishes he had asked out. He dreams of a loving relationship with his parents and a Nobel prize in physics as an audience applauds him. Kaufman finds a way to elevate the source material and give us a fleshed-out character study. Not to forget the amazing performances he pulls out from the entire cast. This is a rare experience in adaptations, especially with the horror-thriller genre.
Charlie Kaufman’s film I’m Thinking of Ending Things goes beyond its source material and in a direction that only makes sense considering the almost predictable ending of the book. It has its problems as a film but as an adaptation is far more rewarding than Iain Reid’s 2016 novel.