Movies

I’m Thinking of Ending Things Has a Confusing Twist. The Book Can Explain.

How Charlie Kaufman’s new movie adapts an unadaptable novel.

The book cover of I'm Thinking of Ending Things, and a scene from the film, with the Page to Screen tearaway
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Netflix.

This article contains major spoilers for both the novel and film versions of I’m Thinking of Ending Things.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things, writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation of the 2016 novel by Ian Reid, is remarkably faithful to its source material’s structure and basic plot, which is to say that it is structured around a big, extremely spoilable twist ending. Some movies have mysteries that are better left unsolved, but I’m Thinking of Ending Things isn’t one of them: There’s a pretty straightforward narrative explanation for why things get so weird, and it’s spelled out more explicitly in the book than in the movie. Here’s a tentative explanation of what’s going on.

The Janitor (Guy Boyd)—and the Twist

Both versions of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, in the broadest possible sense, are about an imaginary couple on an imaginary road trip dreamed up by an elderly high school janitor who is contemplating suicide. Imaginary isn’t quite the right word, though, because Jake, the man on the road trip, is a younger version of the janitor himself, while the woman is loosely based on a real woman the janitor briefly encountered in a bar decades earlier. The narrative is a sort of thought experiment about what it might have been like, from the woman’s perspective, if the janitor had dated her and brought her home to see his parents. In the book, the janitor explicitly spells out what’s happening and why, writing: “We had to try putting her with us. To see what could happen. It was her story to tell.” Although the book and movie have the same high concept, the journey from page to screen required a few structural changes.

The janitor in the book is an outsider artist and custodian in the tradition of Henry Darger, writing the story of the road trip in a series of notebooks that are found after his death, and the main text of the novel is meant to be the contents of those notebooks. Between chapters, Reid inserts brief snippets of a conversation between unidentified speakers about a shocking crime, and it eventually becomes clear they are talking about the janitor’s suicide and the discovery of the notebooks containing the story of the road trip. Kaufman doesn’t have this sort of metatextual trick at his disposal—not a lot of Henry Darger types make feature films for Netflix—so he eliminates the notebooks entirely. Instead, he intercuts between the road trip and brief, unexplained interludes from the janitor’s daily routine until the two stories collide. Sounds and images from the janitor’s day bleed into the road trip story in ways that suggest that the road trip is the janitor’s daydream, but he isn’t writing it down.

In both versions of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, we only get snippets of the janitor’s life story, filtered through his own unreliable narration, so it’s hard to get a clear picture of either man, but they’re not quite the same person. In the novel, the janitor was a gifted student who was doing academic research while working at a biochemistry lab until mental illness derailed his career, and after retreating to his parent’s farmhouse after some sort of breakdown, he works as a high school janitor for 30 years, slowly withdrawing into isolation and his mental illness before killing himself. Kaufman’s janitor doesn’t seem to be quite as smart: The story about winning the school award for “diligence” instead of the one for “acuity” was added to the film, as was the scene in which his mother marvels that he did so well “with no special talent or abilities.” The effect is to make the story less about failure and more about the way some lives are steered toward quiet desperation from the beginning, a theme Jake (Jesse Plemons) expresses in a monologue written for the movie:

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.

Most of the weirdness in the movie comes from the fact that the janitor is revising his story as he goes, and he isn’t really that good an author. This is probably part of what attracted Kaufman to the book—see Adaptation for more on his writerly insecurity—and most of the things he’s added to the movie explore those themes.

The Girlfriend (Jessie Buckley)

Both novel and film are ostensibly narrated by Jake’s (imagined, hypothetical) girlfriend, and her voice dominates both stories from the beginning: Kaufman opens his film by having Jessie Buckley read the first chapter nearly verbatim in voice-over. In the movie, however, the girlfriend is slightly more hypothetical, perhaps to reflect the fact that the janitor is daydreaming her story, revising it freely as he goes rather than writing it down in a fixed form. The girlfriend never mentions her name in the novel, but in the movie it keeps changing—Lucy, Louisa, Lucia, Amy—as the janitor games out what it might have been like to have someone else in his life. Similarly, her career is not mentioned in the novel, while in the movie, the janitor adjusts her past to suit his story, changing her into a virologist, a poet, a painter, a quantum physicist, a gerontologist, and a film critic at various points in the film to suit his needs. Her clothes change color from scene to scene, particularly her striped sweater, which seems to be loosely modeled after the Dress. In short, there are many more clues in the film than the book that the girlfriend is not quite a real person.

The Phone Calls

The book also offers more evidence than does the film that the janitor is gaming out this hypothetical road trip to help him decide whether to kill himself. In the movie, the girlfriend gets a series of mysterious phone calls from someone who is leaving her voice messages. In the book, the girlfriend notes that the calls are coming from her own number and keep leaving the same message, word for word. This is also true in the movie, but it’s slightly obscured by the fact that the girlfriend’s name keeps changing. The full text of the initial voicemails is in the novel:

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.

Three minutes into the movie, we see the janitor, then Jake, looking out the window of his childhood bedroom and muttering part of that message. We later hear a different part of the message on the girlfriend’s phone. As for what the question is, it’s obvious by the end of the novel, but note that the voicemail has echoes of the opening sentences of Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he writes:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest … comes afterward. These are games; one must first answer.

In movie and film alike, the road trip is the janitor’s attempt at formulating an answer to that fundamental question.

Jake

Jake is the janitor and the janitor is Jake, so see above to find out most of what’s changed about him. One other thing worth noting is that in the film, Jake has a harder time preventing the janitor’s life from bleeding into his story. It isn’t until the 11th chapter (out of 13) that the novel’s Jake starts telling his girlfriend about the life of a high school janitor in terms that suggest he’s intimately familiar with it. Ten minutes into the film, Jake hears a song from Oklahoma! on the radio—the janitor is sweeping the theater while students rehearse—and somewhat incongruously remarks that he knows the musical well because “they put it on every few years, for obvious reasons,” before mentioning occasionally running into cast members from past productions at the supermarket.

In book and novel alike, Jake has a somewhat contentious relationship with the janitor. Specifically, he objects to the janitor watching him make out with his girlfriend, as any character might if his author kept writing gratuitous sex scenes.

Jake’s Parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette)

Jake’s parents are the same people in the novel and the film, except the film’s janitor has less control over his narrative. In the book, Jake and his girlfriend have an unsettling meal at his parents’ house, but except for one moment when the girlfriend notes that the mother “looks older,” there’s no sense that his parents are unstuck in time. In the film, Thewlis and Collette ping-pong back and forth from young adulthood to extreme old age, and we see tableaus of Jake interacting with his parents at different points in their decline. The simplest explanation is that they are pieced together from old memories (see, e.g., the janitor’s childhood dog, trapped in one moment of trying to shake himself dry). In the novel, we know that the janitor’s parents died a long time ago, but there’s no mention of dementia or Jake caring for them toward the end of their lives, details that add to the sense that the janitor’s life has been invisible. When the girlfriend compliments Jake for taking care of his mother, he remarks: “Sometimes it feels like no one sees the good things you do. Like you’re alone.” The janitor has invented this story and its characters in part so that someone can see the good things he has done.

The Musical Sequences

The novel is set in an unspecified rural location, but the film, shot in New York, is explicitly supposed to be set in Oklahoma. This change was presumably made to provide a natural reason for the janitor to be extremely familiar with the musical Oklahoma!, a text that infuses the whole film. The novel doesn’t mention musical theater at all, but Kaufman takes the observation that anyone working at a high school for 30 years would inevitably see a lot of spring musicals and runs with it. As the janitor’s daydream starts falling apart, it pulls more and more from Oklahoma!, including a lengthy dream ballet sequence. In the musical, the ballet is a laudanum-induced dream in which Laurey Williams works out her feelings about two rival suitors: She imagines marrying Curly McLain only to watch Jud Fry stab him to death. In the janitor’s reimagining of this sequence, Jake marries his girlfriend before he is stabbed to death by the janitor—an image, perhaps, of old age murdering youthful hopes. Similarly, as the film ends, the janitor imagines himself—an older, more successful version of himself—performing “Lonely Room,” a song Jud Fry sings in the musical about imagining a better, happier life, where “all of the things that I wish fer turn out like I want them to be.” (If you don’t recall this song from the 1955 movie adaptation, that’s because it omitted it.) Not too surprisingly, Jud Fry doesn’t make it out of Oklahoma! alive.

Tulsey Town

In the book, Jake and his girlfriend make a late-night stop at a Dairy Queen. “Tulsey Town,” the name of the ice-cream store in the movie, was an unofficial name for Tulsa in the 19th century. The vintage Tulsey Town advertisement the janitor hallucinates toward the end of the film and its jingle draw heavily from this Dairy Queen ad made for drive-in theaters:

The “oozing wound” metaphor Jake makes about unpopular kids becomes very explicit when at Tulsey Town. The janitor staffs the ice-cream stand with students he’s seen during his day: two popular kids and one unpopular one. In her Tulsey Town incarnation, the unpopular kid has a horrible rash on her arms, and Jake has one that matches. (In the novel, it’s the janitor who has the matching rash.)

All of Those References

Charlie Kaufman’s personal interests and insecurities don’t derail his adaptation of I’m Thinking of Ending Things as thoroughly as they did his adaptation of The Orchid Thief, but he’s still worked a lot of them in there, primarily because allusions to other works are one of the main ways he hints that Jake’s girlfriend is fictional. “Most people are other people: Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation,” the girlfriend observes in the movie, before pointing out that that too is nothing but a quotation of Oscar Wilde.

Since the janitor doesn’t know anything about the real woman his fantasy girlfriend is based on, Kaufman has him furnish her mind with a shifting hodgepodge of books, movies, and art that he has recently consumed, a tic that is not present in the novel. Over the course of the movie, she will claim authorship of a poem by Eva H.D., the landscapes of Ralph Albert Blakelock, and Pauline Kael’s review of A Woman Under the Influence. The originals, along with the textbook that allows her to briefly impersonate a virologist, can be found on the shelves of Jake’s childhood bedroom and the walls of his basement, along with the sources for some of Jake’s topics of conversation: a collection of Wordsworth, a paperback copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and Anna Kavan’s dystopian novel Ice. There’s also a DVD of A Beautiful Mind, which is where the janitor’s mind goes when he tries to imagine what it might be like to have led a fulfilling life or to have received any recognition for it:

In order to make what’s going on here as explicit as possible, the film also shows us the janitor watching a (fictional) Robert Zemeckis film on one of his meal breaks, and shortly afterward, Jake repurposes a scene from that movie to revise the story of how he met his girlfriend. The novel doesn’t rely on this kind of lift, and when its narrative collapses, neither Oklahoma! nor A Beautiful Mind is in the mix.

The Author

The final difference between the book and movie is a pretty simple one: Ian Reid has never put forward the argument that the shittiest twist ending a film could possibly have is “it was all happening inside one man’s mind,” and Charlie Kaufman has:

In Adaptation, Donald Kaufman’s screenplay is the emblem of everything Charlie Kaufman hates about Hollywood, which means adapting I’m Thinking of Ending Things requires at least a little explanation. Kaufman has Jake’s girlfriend address the issue:

Everything wants to live, Jake. … Even fake, crappy movie ideas want to live. Like, they grow in your brain, replacing real ideas. That’s what makes them dangerous.

It took 18 years, but Kaufman has finally found a way to bring The 3 to life.

For more on I’m Thinking About Ending Things, listen to Matthew Dessem and Dana Stevens discuss the movie in spoiler-filled detail.