Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things dropped on Netflix in early September, a very Kaufman exercise in mood and memory. While definitely an adaptation, it is markedly different from author Iain Reid’s novel, and both are complex in their own and somehow unique ways despite telling what is ostensibly the same story.
Spoilers below for both the book and film versions of I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
In the book I’m Thinking of Ending Things, we are guided by our narrator, a nameless young woman, as she drives with her boyfriend Jake to his parents’ farm. Our narrator and Jake have been dating a few months, and while she seems largely content, she’s “thinking of ending things.” She sees good in him, but something is… off. Through their conversations, we see that Jake is a verbose explainer type, he uses words she doesn’t know, rattles off facts about Venus and dark matter. She is interested but unknowledgeable in the things he discusses. She thinks things like, “His intelligence initially attracted me, but in a committed relationship, is it a good thing for me? Would someone less intelligent be harder to live with or easier?” When they arrive at the house, Jake doesn’t to go inside. Instead he takes our narrator on a tour of the farm, talking about things he wishes he could see and ignoring the things he does, rebuffing her questions regarding dead animals. When they go into the house, he shuts down her questions about the basement, locked from the inside behind a scratched-up door. He tells the stories he wants to tell, giving nothing beyond that, and meeting every inconvenient question or comment with silence or irritation.
His parents are nice but, like so much else, off. His mother is shaky, complaining of tinnitus and sleeplessness. She’s missing a toenail, her hair is too dark. The photos on the walls are too old. Things are not right.
Separate from all this are the calls. Our narrator gets phone calls from her own phone number. The messages all say the same thing:
“There’s only one question to resolve. I’m scared. I feel a little crazy. I’m not lucid. The assumptions are right. I can feel my fear growing. Now is the time for the answer. Just one question. One question to answer.”
Meanwhile, the novel is interspersed with italicized conversations between unnamed people about a tragedy that evolves over the course of the book. In essence, someone has died by suicide after growing mental and physical health issues. He had been a PhD student in his youth, working in a lab (like Jake) but eventually isolated himself and began working as a high school janitor, staying in the position for more than 30 years. He had tinnitus and cochlear implants (like Jake’s mother) and food allergy issues (like our narrator). His parents died years ago and he never developed socially. He was alone, completely.
After leaving Jake’s parents house, the two stop by Dairy Queen. Inexplicably, the place smells of varnish. The servers are two giggling teen girls and one quiet girl, who tells the narrator she’s scared for her, and that “you don’t have to go.”
The couple drives to a school Jake didn’t go to, a long ride to throw away their cups. There they see a janitor in the window watching them, and Jake goes inside. He doesn’t come back. She goes in after him and begins deteriorating, physically, losing nails like Jake’s mother.
To adequately explain what comes next, as well as the movie in general, I’m going to need to spoil both and work backwards:
The narrator, the janitor, Jake, everyone who has been part of the story — they’re all Jake. Jake is the janitor. He is the one thinking of ending things. The journey of the book has been a series of memories and moments, cobbled together into one disjointed tale. The narrator was never his girlfriend, simply a girl he met one night and was too shy to ask out. So he wrote her, created his ideal girlfriend — which is why she didn’t know the same words, worried Jake was too intelligent, found him attractive, but also questioned their relationship and things about him and his life and home. Even in his fantasy, he wasn’t good enough. So he ends things, the italicized portions of the book the only “real” things. The end is not a breakup, but the end of a life.
Kaufman’s iteration is different but the same, standing on its own but also not quite existing without the book. In that way, it’s like Jake and the narrator themselves. The narrator here (Jessie Buckley) is called Lucy, but pay attention to that — at times she’s Lucia, Louisa, etc. Like her book counterpart, she’s not a real person but a fabrication in the mind of a man who has likely never truly known a woman outside of books and movies. Sometimes she’s not as bright as Jake (Jesse Plemons), other times she literally becomes film critic Pauline Kael, reciting Kael’s review of A Woman Under the Influence. At various times, Lucy is a physicist, a poet, an artist, but none of it matters because none of it is real. Her art is not original, it is actually the work of Ralph Albert Blakelock, who died in 1919. Her recited poem is from Eva H.D.’s Rotten Perfect Mouth. In the film, it is much clearer much earlier what is happening in some ways. Jake and Lucy talk over each other, more of a monologue split by two people and cutting against one another rather than dialogue. Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) age and de-age from shot to shot, seen as all of Jake’s memories of them. His dog exists in this endless loop of shaking off water, the primary memory Jake has. Lucy’s clothes change moment to moment. These memories and ideas are fleeting, even strobing, alternating within the same scene. But the clearest element is that of loneliness, sadness, and that “one question to answer”: should I stay, or go? Jake explains it early on:
“It’s despicable how we label people and categorize and dismiss them. I look at the kids I see at school every day, I see the ones who are ostracized — they’re different, they’re out of step — and I see the lives they’ll have because of it. Sometimes I see them years later in town, at the supermarket. I see, I can tell that they still carry that stuff around with them, like a black aura. Like a millstone. Like an oozing wound.”
The older janitor Jake is interspersed among the bizarre scenes, a quiet reality that manages to be as off-putting as everything else given its relative normalcy. The janitor cleans amidst students rehearsing Oklahoma! (Oklahoma! plays a big part in the movie and not at all in the book). He watches a terrible trope-ridden romantic comedy, allegedly directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Colby Minifie and Jason Ralph (at one point, Minifie appears as Lucy, another indication of how this woman is a symbol, not a person — her name, her career, even her face doesn’t matter, merely woman-as-concept).
The cracks in Jake’s world are larger than in the book, with his realities oozing through the open wounds of time and memory. The movie feels like a dream, very Kaufman. Things are disjointed and wrong, just like a depressed mind attempting to piece together their youth as it slips away like sand through fingers. Things run together or stop entirely. Truth and fiction and perception mix and meld, and the constant is the sadness.
In the end, the janitor chooses his ending. The ending he perceives is not as the older janitor we see, but as Jesse Plemons in old-age makeup, performing a song from Oklahoma! and delivering a speech straight out of A Beautiful Mind as the high schoolers he felt so tortured by look on in awe. The song he performs is “Lonely Room,” a plea from lonely and disturbed Jud Fry to leave behind his current state and marry the beautiful Laurey, shortly after Laurey’s actual love interest, the handsome cowboy Curly, tells Jud that if Jud were to kill himself, people would remember him well and even celebrate him.
Jake imagines his death the way Curly tells it, an honorable celebration of what a good man he is. Reality is quite a bit colder.
But while the ending of the film is less concrete than the book’s, there is an inherent bleakness, a certainty. There isn’t so much “one question” as there is the answer: ending things. The book then is somehow more hopeful, with moments upon rereading as Jake talking himself out of it, considering the alternative of staying.
Both iterations play with memory, perception, and the ideas of what was and what could have been. Each does so in a wholly interesting way. But they do not exist in vacuums. Like all Jake’s memories, real or imagined, they simultaneously rely on and reject one another.