Charlie Kaufman’s Confusing “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” Departs From the Book


Charlie Kaufman’s adapation diverges from Ian Reid’s text. (Courtesy of Facebook)

On Sept. 4, Netflix released “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” a film adaptation of the 2016 novel of the same title by Iain Reid. Although much of the original plotline remains the same, the film diverges intensely in tone, structure and overall atmosphere, resulting in a confusing and disorienting two hours and 14 minutes.


“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is centered around an unnamed woman (Jessie Buckley) as she travels with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemmons), whom she is considering breaking up with, to meet his parents (played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis). The simple plot soon gives way to an unsettling mystery as it becomes apparent that something is incredibly off with Jake’s family, and eventually, Jake himself. 


I first read “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” in 2018 at the recommendation of a friend. I went into it expecting a run-of-the-mill mystery/thriller story, but I quickly realized that this was its own story and went beyond any expectations. It is a novel that took me by surprise, with an ending so confusing and unforgettable that I didn’t even know how I felt about the book when I finished it. The adaptation takes that confusion to another level.


Director Charlie Kaufman truly made the film into its own distinct entity rather than a typical adaptation. I adored the 2004 film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which Kaufman wrote, so I eagerly anticipated this adaptation. I think his writing is strong in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” as well, but Kaufman attempted to accomplish too much for one film. 


Both the novel and film capture the unsettling environment of the story, but Kaufman takes it to another level, inexplicably including a surreal ballet number and an animated pig. The seemingly endless layers mean that the film does not quite make sense the first time around, requiring additional viewings in order to fully grasp what just happened. 


Reid’s book is much more in the vein of a classic thriller. However, Reid’s unique approach to the story, which Kaufman largely maintains, sets it apart from a regular thriller. The many additions from Kaufman’s imagination make the film too confusing to comprehend the first time around. 


I always appreciate layers in a story that help you understand the plot in a deeper way and prove just how much thought the creators put into the work. Unfortunately, I think the layers in this film bury the plot a bit too deeply. The constant edge of uncertainty is what made the book so electric, but the film turned that uncertainty into a muddled confusion for the viewer. 


My thoughts on “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” remain unclear. I can’t truly discredit Kaufman in any way. While the film did strike me as a bit on the pretentious side, it was meticulously well made and every detail was clearly scrutinized. However, I wish the story remained the priority. With so many symbolic elements, it was hard to really hone in on the characters. 


The acting performances in the film are undoubtedly phenomenal. Collette’s portrayal of Jake’s mother is haunting. Her character, in particular, launches the film into horror territory, which I think is a huge strength of the film. The story constantly teeters on the edge of some perilous fall which the audience feels wary of themselves. 


The only way to properly comprehend both Reid and Kaufman’s works are as entirely separate entities. I lament the loss of some of the excitement the book’s more classic mystery twists and turns evokes. The film and the book target two very different audiences; the film is very much aimed at the cultured, experienced film buff who can truly appreciate the outlandish vision, as well as frequent allusions to other works that Kaufman imbues in the film. 


Nonetheless, I think I will always be on the side of the book. To lose that classic feeling of reading a mystery novel through the process of adaptation is always frustrating. But Kaufman did not hold that vision, and that cannot necessarily discount the film. The film is a bit too out there, too confusing and, at points, too repetitive. Amid my confusion, I found myself checking the clock to see just how much longer I was going to be lost in Kaufman’s imagination. 


Perhaps “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a lesson in understanding adaptation. Just like so many before it, the director and the author had entirely different visions for the same story. Everyone will have their preference, but it is simply unfair to label one “right” and the other  “wrong.”