Adapting Iain Reid’s debut novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a complicated task — one that seems to have been made even more complicated by the surreal genius of director Charlie Kaufman. An intricate weaving of two artists’ perspectives on meaningful existence (and a million other things, depending how the mirror-like film hits you), Netflix’s take on the story of Jake and his unnamed girlfriend is clearly spectacular. But its meaning? Well, that’s a bit murkier.
That audiences have been mired in debates over various interpretations of I’m Thinking of Ending Things is no surprise. “It’s not a puzzle so much as it is a box of random shit that you’re meant to assemble yourself,” writes Mashable’s Angie Han in our review of the film.
Both versions of this story are dense, detailed creations so layered they practically require multiple readings and viewings. If you’re a fan of the movie not yet acquainted with Reid’s acclaimed book, I highly recommend you make time to read it. It’s a great choice for a lazy afternoon: quick, engrossing, and thought-provoking. (Although the title can be a bit alarming when read in public.)
Now, if you’re just dying to know what the movie left out of and put into the original, read on. Here are six of the biggest differences between I’m Thinking of Ending Things the movie and the book.
1. The book includes sections of dialogue discussing Jake’s death (or however else you’re choosing to interpret that finale)
Those who have read I’m Thinking of Ending Things more than once can attest that the book’s so-called “twist ending” — that Jake, the janitor, and the girlfriend are essentially all the same person — hides in plain sight throughout. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sections of dialogue Reid includes between chapters, formatted and written in a style completely separate from the rest of the novel.
“He’d been working at the school for more than thirty years.”
“They say he’d stopped talking,” says one unnamed character.
“The body was found in the closet,” says another.
“He’d been working at the school for more than thirty years,” the final section begins, in the most obvious suggestion that Jake is the janitor working at the school, and has only imagined the girlfriend as she appears in the story.
These conversation between unidentified strangers processing — and foreshadowing — the tragedy alluded to in the story’s conclusion provide a grounded reality for readers to relate to. They act as a kind of sign-posting for Reid’s literary dreamscape, making it easier to navigate and taking some of the pressure off the reader to figure out what the hell is going on before getting too many pages deep. These sections even go so far as to imply the book version of I’m Thinking of Ending Things is Jake’s diary found with the body at the time of his death.
All that said: If you’re looking for Answers, this is where you’re most likely to find them. There was no supplement for these portions of the book in the film and to say I clung to them during my first read-through is a massive understatement. If you’re especially confused, these sections will help.
2. The visuals make the atmosphere much more dream-like
From the moment Jake’s car pulls up to his parents’ not-so-fun house, his girlfriend is overwhelmed by an onslaught of very unsettling, very Kaufman images and scenes. A bizarre rabbit hole of contradictions and impossibilities deposit her character’s seemingly straightforward point of view into a landscape of unreality. Jake’s parents get older, then younger, and then older again. That creepy basement demands exploration. Toni Collette is very much there-but-not-there with her character’s mile-wide smile, desperate need for affection, and sporadic costume changes. And of course, there’s the whole thing with the rotting pig.
It’s tempting to imagine something that makes more sense than what Kaufman shows on screen.
Just as many jarring details face the young woman in Reid’s telling, but it’s important to consider just how dramatically the medium of film changes those details’ impact.
There’s plenty that feels “off” about the world Reid describes (“I thought there would be more live animals,” the girlfriend observes of the home’s taxidermy in the book), but because the reader is tasked with visualizing these descriptions themselves, it’s tempting to imagine something that makes a bit more sense than what Kaufman showed on screen.
You’ll read, and sometimes re-read, huge sections of the book to make sure you didn’t miss something, occasionally chalking up confusing details to your own reading comprehension and not the story’s underlying terror.
The literary version of I’m Thinking of Ending Things keeps you off-center in a way that’s similar to Kaufman’s, but is likely to pull at different thematic strings for viewers-turned-readers. If there’s one truly good argument for reading the book after seeing the movie, it’s this.
3. That mysterious phone call plays a much bigger role in the book
It wasn’t Jake and his girlfriend’s relationship that first got me hooked on Reid’s page-turner.
No, I was far more interested in “the Caller” described in the book’s first chapters — a menacing wrong number repeatedly delivering the same cryptic message across multiple months to the girlfriend through a “strained timbre and subdued, gradual delivery.”
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.
The repeated calls and the girlfriend’s narration describing their devastating impact on her psyche — receiving vaguely threatening messages from your own number does seem quite stressful — help keep the first half of the book compelling and lay the groundwork for some dramatic tricks Reid pulls off at the end of the novel. (The question was “What are you waiting for?” as Reid asks dozens of times across a four-page spread in a Shining-esque homage delivered at the climax.)
In the movie, we see the girlfriend answer a call also seemingly from herself (the caller ID says “Lucy,” a name she is called moments before) but only hear part of what is said. It’s a fun detail that didn’t meet its maximum potential in Kaufman’s adaptation, but gives the book some especially memorable moments.
4. “The girlfriend” is never named (even incorrectly) in the book
In both Kaufman’s and Reid’s tellings, “the girlfriend” is never formally named. That said, how the filmmaker and author go about conveying that character decision is quite different.
Throughout the film version of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the girlfriend is repeatedly called by names that don’t seem to actually belong to her. As I mentioned above, she’s called “Lucy” as well as “Lucia” and “Louisa.” At another point, she’s referred to as “Amy” and “Ames.” Her lack of an “official” name — paired with other traits seemingly intended to hint at her being a figment of Jake’s imagination (reciting a poem written by someone else, having a baby photo that looks like some else, etc.) — make her lack of autonomy a gradual, nauseating reveal that suits the movie’s tone.
But in Reid’s version, the no-name trope plays out far more like it did in the credits for the 2007 rom-com Once. You kind of don’t realize the girlfriend didn’t get a name until after you’ve finished the story and really thought about it, or in my case, started reading the book’s addendum of discussion questions and began pondering why she didn’t get a name.
I won’t tell you how to interpret this difference, but it seems significant.
5. There are a million different details to appreciate in each version
At this point, it should probably go without saying that Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things are very different. As the film’s press materials read in all caps, italics, and bold: “THE FILM IS THE FILM…THE BOOK IS THE BOOK…“ Still, it’s hard not to be gobsmacked by just how different these stories are after experiencing both.
Due to its reflective quality, Jake’s imaginary world actively encourages audiences to impart their own meaning onto the details that stick out to them. For me, that meant remembering very specific memories of my family at a neighborhood Dairy Queen (yes, it’s a Dairy Queen Jake and his girlfriend visit in the book, not a “Tulsey Town”) and imagining Jake’s parents’ home as my own grandparents’ house, which I’ve always found vaguely scary for some reason.
Alternatively, the movie provides us that beautiful ballet scene which vaguely reminded me of both HBO’s Westworld (because of the costuming) and a community theater production of Romeo & Juliet I saw in 2007. Both versions provide elements for you to react to that can dramatically change how you interpret the narrative. There’s too many to count — hence this list being limited to six major differences — so really do yourself a favor and enjoy both.
6. The film’s final act is not entirely new, but it’s far from the original
Reid has specifically said he did not craft I’m Thinking of Ending Things as a psychological thriller. However, the final act in the book certainly reads more like it is of that genre than a part of Kaufman’s surrealist kaleidoscope. Specifically, the two paint wildly different pictures of how Jake’s life ends and what motivated his decision to die by suicide.
At the end of Reid’s novel, Jake/the janitor meets his demise through marked violence as the janitor hands Jake a wire clothes hanger and Jake stabs himself through the neck. In the movie, we get a somewhat more peaceful end, what with the animated pig and Oklahoma! sing-a-long.
Kaufman has explained his reasoning for so dramatically changing the ending, but in my mind it requires very little justification. Presenting Reid’s narrative through the lens of his own artistic vision, Kaufman crafted a world that exists in a parallel plane to Reid’s novel but is experientially all its own. The ending you “prefer” or perhaps the ending that resonates with you more strongly likely says more about your tastes and your experiences than about the work itself.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is now streaming on Netflix.