Adaptation (2002, Spike Jonze)



In the wake of Adaptation, the second collaboration between director Spike Jonze and visionary screenwriter Charlie Kaufman after 1999’s Being John Malkovich, it quickly became an overused fallback for studios and filmmakers desirous of “hip” pedigree to flaunt meta-narratives: rather than actually think our way through something, let’s make fun of the fact that we’ve having a hard time doing it. (Creative writing classes undoubtedly suffered a similar fate in the first half of the 2000s.) The film is in fact a fanciful story about the process of itself being written, with Kaufman reimagined as a washed-up, socially awkward slob played by Nicolas Cage, given the opportunity to adapt New Yorker writer Susan Orlean’s bestseller The Orchid Thief, about her encounters with orchid collector and all-around oddball John LaRoche. Ostensibly, as the credits would have it, a film based on Orlean’s book, Adaptation is instead about the process of translating a non-linear, uncinematic text into a motion picture palatable to broad audiences.

If Adaptation‘s main contribution to the world was to teach other writers it was okay to use self-flattering experimentation to cheat out of doing the work of real writing, that’s something of a pity, but that’s exactly what Kaufman is not doing here, and the only way one could interpret his script as an excuse for such behavior would be to willingly and flagrantly ignore its actual themes. In fact, as both a film and a screenplay, Adaptation is one of the boldest and most richly complex narratives ever devised in American cinema; you could go over it for days and find more ways that it enhances, comments on, reacts to itself without ever becoming strictly a film about its own cleverness. It’s a crafty, well-considered and obviously strenuously worked-over, intricately designed work. On top of this, it tells several simple, moving stories, and constitutes an awakening of identity for both its own writer and for the author of the book it takes as inspiration.

The aforementioned themes offer much fruit for analysis and interpretation. At one point, a character refers to the ancient Egyptian image of the ouroboros — the snake eating its tail — and this too is the essence of the film: as strange as it sounds, as the story of the writing process progresses it becomes the story itself. Yet the headiest notion here is probably the title. Without any great sense of awkward contrivance, the film is about every permutation of “adaptation”: the literal adaptation of a book, the adaptation of plants to environment, the adaptation — willful and non — of people to the changing conditions of their lives, and the adaptation of one’s principles and convictions as an artist in the interest of nothing less than survival.

It’s important to note that Kaufman’s script, before it’s anything else, really is an adaptation of Orlean’s book. The portions of the film that do literally dramatize it are no less compelling, and certainly no less resonant, than its other, more celebrated elements; in fact Orlean’s text offers the emotional core of the film, and after a time it becomes clear that her work serves as a commentary on Kaufman’s chronicle of events as much as the opposite. The performances of Meryl Streep as Orlean and Chris Cooper as Laroche are honest, believable and intimately respectful of their real-life counterparts even when the script requires them to serve essentially as puppets within Kaufman’s more sprawling framework. The Orchid Thief is not a narrative so much as a personal essay about a man’s quest for elusive objects and the author’s quest to understand him — he gathers and cultivates rare flowers with an intense dedication alien to Orlean, who depicts her own comfortable existence as being almost a foregone conclusion. It’s the contrast of a restless adventurer with a comfortable scholar. Orlean extrapolates into comments on her own desires and her want for a physical interest that demands as much of her love as orchid hunting does for Laroche.

Over time it becomes obvious that they could scarcely be more different as people, and that Laroche’s current obsession is the latest of many. He recounts times in his life when mirrors, turtles and tropical fish were his entire world, when he learned everything there was to know about them and collected as many of them as possible, then abruptly moved on. (He mentions deciding one day never to enter the ocean again. “That’s how much ‘fuck fish.'”) Susan relates to her subject’s untethered nature because of the obviously rigid structure that lords over her own existence, for good or ill; it’s mysterious and alluring to her. The base of snobbish New York writers she considers her friends laughing over his eccentricities, his missing teeth and his decrepit van is placed in sharp relief to her obvious compassion for him. But the fleeting nature of Laroche’s love and interests may tell a darker story; he lost his mother and uncle in a horrible car accident due to his own momentary negligence, after which his wife divorced him. In the film’s most telling, moving scene, Susan while visibly contemplating such a new lease on life remarks “I think if I almost died I would leave my marriage too, wouldn’t you?” It’s an undeniably sound sentiment, but at the same time Laroche’s unmoored lifestyle suggests a solitude that requires strength unknown to most of us. It also feels somewhat like a way out, if not an easy one, of confronting grief and other larger issues, a concept familiar to anyone who’s lost themselves in a hobby or career during a time of difficulty. As Orlean puts it, such an unerring fixation can “whittle the world down to a more manageable size.”

Laroche is also pompous, self-absorbed and occasionally cruel, a get-rich-quick charlatan banking on the credulousness of others (“I’m doing pornography,” he announces after he starts selling amateur X-rated photos on the web) and Kaufman and Cooper set out clearly to humanize him without depicting him as some sort of renegade outlaw hero. For one thing, he’s a cynical manipulator of those around him, and for all his intelligence and energy, he’s mere steps away from being dangerous and unhinged, as shown by the professorial and condescending attitude that bubbles to the surface in his treatment of those who dare question him, Orlean eventually included. The vision of him presented by both the book and the film is of classical DIY machismo run amok — a classic self-made man subsumed in petty resentments and isolation. He’s at his nastiest, lost in a swamp with Orlean and growing increasingly testy, when it’s finally demonstrated that he doesn’t know what he’s doing nearly as much as he lets on. He’s one of the film’s two salient portraits of toxic masculinity: like Burt Reynolds in Deliverance, an egomaniac whose single-mindedness is of a breed that will kill us all. The shallowness of his worldview has dawned on Susan when she, perversely, adopts a portion of it in a scene invented by Kaufman: “I’m done with orchids,” she says. She’ll leave this world behind and write about it from a comfortable vantage and move on. That’s how much “fuck orchids.”

None of this is to say that Laroche isn’t an intriguing, engaging character, and he’s the hook that causes a film producer to meet with Orlean, fill her with platitudes and offer to option the rights to the story before the book’s even published. (It begins life as a New Yorker article.) It’s here that Charlie Kaufman’s cynicism begins to seep into the Orchid Thief half of his screenplay, because one of the very first scenes of the film is one in which he sits with the same producer and is offered the job of adapting Orlean’s book, and she emits the exact same fake compliments and blows the exact same smoke, even making the exact same comments about the book itself while throwing in praise for the then-unproduced Being John Malkovich. This is the first of many suggestions of disillusionment with the world of movies that Kaufman has entered, a disillusionment that matches and ends up being largely synchronized with Susan Orlean’s disillusionment toward flowers and her Pulitzer-fodder Florida oddball.

Charlie Kaufman, the real-life screenwriter who write Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, is not Charlie Kaufman the onscreen character portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the latter film. They look nothing alike and, so far as anyone on the outside can tell, are nothing alike. The fictional character — “Charlie” henceforth — is a loser and a schlub, universally disrespected and so plagued with self-doubt and an incessant hesitation to act on any impulse that he never seems to accomplish anything. There’s undoubtedly some truth in the interpretation, but the actual screenwriter — “Kaufman” henceforth — views him seemingly as an expression of the worst version of himself, the personality everyone is afraid they unintentionally project. In adding himself to his script based on The Orchid Thief, he has not merely taken a writer’s block-induced trapdoor out of adapting a difficult book — though this is essentially what he would always claim in interviews — but rather he’s met the book on its own terms, expanding it even further into a meditation on the mixed needs and desires it begins to articulate, and carefully interweaving the response the text is meant to induce back into itself.

In other words, this is not the flippant rejection of Orlean’s work that the film’s concept seems to suggest. The best evidence is that the portions of the film that straightforwardly adapt The Orchid Thief are neither stymied by the rest of the narrative nor undercut or stylized in some way that trivializes them; they are as formally accomplished and strongly performed as the rest of the movie and script, even if their tone is somewhat darker. Secondarily, the two parallel narratives — the adaptation, and the creation of said adaptation — are not simply cross-cut, they are carefully interlaced to keep mood and rhythm consistent. Charlie, for instance, repeatedly redetermines his approach to the script at the same time that the audience is watching Orlean rethink her view on Laroche; Charlie’s feelings about his own shortcomings are challenged and validated at opportune moments by the simultaneous behavior of the brash Laroche. The formal audaciousness of the screenplay isn’t a gimmick or a copout, it’s the essence of the story being told, in a way more reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire — an intricate narrative built on an annotation of fake poetry — than of any other studio-financed Hollywood movie one can easily name.

The distinction of Adaptation as a studio movie, and additionally the story of where Kaufman’s career has wandered since its release, is also a key part of its lingering essence insofar as its existence serves as a political gesture of sorts: though it owns up perhaps to the popular vision of writers as the most anxiety-ridden and self-loathing of artists, it also harnesses the real-life frustration of a writer of Kaufman’s caliber working in a medium like Hollywood film to become an impassioned railing against formula. His script questions the financially-motivated logic of adapting a subtle book like The Orchid Thief but also enhances its viewpoint and fights for its spirit in the text itself. Expressing his noble desire not to infuse the script with any invented drama or movie magic, Charlie demands to know “Why can’t there be a movie about flowers?”… while his (completely fictitious) twin brother Donald (also Cage), an aspiring screenwriter of much more conventional fodder, parrots received wisdom about how every screenwriter must have a “genre” they work in and absently asks “My genre’s thriller, what’s yours?”

The Orlean and Laroche story is given to us in fits and starts, corresponding with Charlie’s tortured writing and revision of it as he goes along. Despite some chronological leaping, it’s never confusing or unclear (probably taking the emotionally motivated time jumping of Annie Hall as inspiration), and along the way we’re made privy to various seemingly aborted versions of the Orchid Thief screenplay. There is the overambitious version that starts with the beginning of time, the haphazard unfocused version that shows us Darwin writing and goes all over the place, the male fantasy version of Orlean as a lonely, frustrated wife trying to break out of routine (the morning-after response to which effectively undercuts prior scenes with self-critique, a rare and difficult notion in a popular film), and the self-indulgent version of the script documenting Charlie’s own panic by inserting himself into the story. The finished work, the one we’re being shown — both in reality and in the mirror-logic of the movie itself — is a fusion of all of these that refines ideas in each of them; The Orchid Thief has become Adaptation, and we’re watching that process in real time.

It’s unknown if Kaufman felt pressured to make Adaptation a more eccentric project than would be suggested by its genesis as a film of a popular book by the success of his and Jonze’s Being John Malkovich; like that film, however, the weirdness is tempered constantly by humor, and the audience that has no wish to engage with its deeper ideas is given plenty to enjoy, most of it here in the portion of the film’s first two thirds dedicated to Charlie’s beleaguered writing of the script.

The invented character of Donald Kaufman, played as differently by Cage — the two performances, by the way, constituting by far his best work — as Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove was different from his President Muffley, is everything Charlie isn’t: happy, oblivious, contented, gregarious, magnetic… and a bit gullible. They are of course two sides of Kaufman himself, two sides of the writer as a cultural figure (art versus commerce), two sides of art appreciation. Donald has a cultish affinity toward screenwriting teacher Robert McKee, played here by Brian Cox, whose myriad “principles” of screenwriting convention — designed to aid in the conception of every formulaic clone-picture to gain traction in Hollywood — prompt his composition of a trite serial killer script called The 3, which culminates in a Fight Club-like “multiple personality disorder” revelation. One of Charlie’s few impassioned moments comes when he hilariously points out that The 3 repeats every tired faux-insight of the sub-basic cable cop film, in essence that criminal and policeman are somehow the same, while chiding vocally or silently Donald’s use of buzzword terms like “industry” and “structure.” But Donald’s script ends up actually selling; the coded message is that commercialism is a relatively easy proposition for a writer like Kaufman, but nonetheless an unattractive one. This isn’t placed as a self-promotion at all; it’s more a matter of love and advocacy for an audience that should expect better but doesn’t, and at the same time, Donald is not looked down upon directly for taking advantage of an easy moneymaking opportunity, as painful as it may be to witness.

Adaptation‘s biggest flaw is probably what now feels like a stroke of sexism, specifically of the variety that places women on a pedestal for empty idolatry. Charlie celebrates the women he does and doesn’t know in a worshipful but dehumanizing way, and his friend and possible love interest Amelia is written with the same uncomfortable, unknowable detachment as many of Kaufman’s female characters prior to Synecdoche, New York, though Cara Seymour’s fine performance negates this somewhat. (The problem applies significantly less to his depiction of Susan Orlean; some may find it problematic that her author picture is at one point used as masturbation fodder by Charlie, but this is a vital no-holds-barred moment of intimacy and it’s nothing if not a fearlessly embarrassing expression of the writer’s private neuroses. Comfort can be gleaned from the knowledge that Orlean herself granted permission for the scene’s existence.) There’s a downright disturbing moment in which Charlie is at an orchid convention and begins cataloging the women he sees in the same way that Laroche catalogs his flowers, which seems more like something from Donald’s script. Even so, the Amelia scenes are at least subject to the same self-reflexive criticism as the rest of the film (as is a brief interlude with Judy Greer as a waitress whose good customer service is mistaken by Charlie as flirtation — a painfully true-to-life moment even if a fantasy scene that expresses Charlie’s internal monologue and masturbatory daydreaming as filmed reality isn’t wholly necessary, save as further evidence of the character’s loneliness and potentially warped, needy views toward women, though fantasy itself needn’t be a projection of our politics obviously). She’s a character who’s given plenty of agency, she’s just not particularly full-bodied and her purpose in the script is mostly as an illustration of Charlie’s inability to put himself at risk and his perception of himself as “you know me, a mess.”

Charlie can’t make moves in other contexts, either, too timid to introduce himself to Orlean on an elevator at her office, scared to make his presence known to the cast members of Malkovich as he hesitantly waves to them on set (he’s later stunned to learn that Catherine Keener is at his house playing Boggle with Donald while he’s in New York), and eventually so haunted by uncertainty that he attends one of McKee’s lectures, making the self-defeating error of asking him questions about how to repair the Orchid Thief script and receiving the same nonsense he gets from his brother: a lot of business about how voiceover is off limits, “desire” is a necessary component of every protagonist (a favorite nonsense rule), and the usual stuff about endings referring back to beginnings, characters’ changes coming from within themselves, and how Charlie needs to “go back and put in the drama.” McKee also implies that real-world drama only comprises broad, earth-shattering strokes, wondering why Charlie would go about “wasting my two hours” with a movie about nothing much happening, when we’ve already seen from the Orchid Thief scenes that plenty happens when nothing is happening. Charlie diverts sharply from his real-life counterpart here, as when the latter displays his real cynicism toward The Business by having his pawn pay a visit to his misogynistic, fast-talking agent who fails absolutely to understand his client’s remarks that flowers are “amazing.” Charlie doesn’t seem to resent such money-minded bullheadedness. Kaufman does.

The most purely ironic expression of that cynicism comes in the third act of Adaptation, when several interesting things happen simultaneously, though the turning point is not clearly marked, no hand-holding deemed necessary. If the film is about the war between Kaufman’s idea of narrative (“it was about disappointment”) and McKee’s (“wow ’em in the end!”), here the movie deliberately and blandly sets about enacting a third act provided for it by car crash, action sequence and “structured” drama-obsessed Donald, who’s in fact credited as cowriter in the opening titles. It’s the repudiation of the unique elements of the movie that’s played out over the prior eighty minutes or so, and it’s ugly indeed; it’s also brilliant, shattering, heartbreaking, basically the death of Hollywood cinema as a unique or expressive artform viewed in real time. The only way its formal ingenuity could be bettered would be if a hack like Michael Bay or Paul W.S. Anderson had been hired to direct it. Jonze instead alters his approach enough to show us The Orchid Thief as the incomprehensible jumble of bad ideas that the rulebook would dictate: because it can’t just be about a flower and it can’t just be a story where nothing happened. It has to be more — big, ugly, eventful, violent. It’s Kaufman’s overt rejection of the entire notion of formula, and one that is not undeserved, delivered potently just by resigning to it.

Ironically, Streep’s already terrific performance — incidentally, also her best ever — only becomes even stronger when she’s forced to contend with Donald’s absurd machinations. So often saddled with formally dull parts, she’s never seemed freer than while high on a drug extracted from the orchids, Donald’s invention to make the ending of the film more exciting. She tries to vocally replicate a dial tone on the phone with Laroche; she’s now calling him John and they’re now covert lovers. Charlie and Donald, looking for further background to enhance the script, have begun tailing her to try and learn what really happened in the swamp on the day the “ghost orchid” was never spotted. The ouroboros effect is now fully implemented: the narrative of how the script was written has now caught up with the story itself, and so has the narrative thread of The Orchid Thief now become overtaken by and coalesced with the thread of Donald and Charlie’s process. More importantly, Adaptation has become a different movie. Even Carter Burwell’s score now becomes flowery and romantic in the scenes with John and Susan, with full-on X-Files thriller music in the detective scenes that have the twins flying down to see what their subjects are up to. The dialogue becomes ever more contrived, with characters suddenly expressing their deepest thoughts to one another rather than internalizing them. The lighting becomes more elaborate, commercial. The only way the film fails to match Hollywood action movie convention is in its relative economy — it still comes in under two hours — and absence of innumerable false endings.

When Charlie is inevitably discovered in the process of his snooping by John and Susan, thereby uncovering her infidelity and their covert drug use, Streep connects wholly with movie logic by announcing “we have to kill him.” There is then the phony synchronicity of McKee-style screenwriting, beholden as it may be to great scripts like those of Casablanca and Vertigo. We return to the swamp, where after a chase Donald and Charlie pour their hearts out with dumb sentiments dramatically expressed — regarding an unrequited crush: “It was mine, that love; I owned it” — and magically make it through the night without being seen, only to then be chased yet again when the sun rises, resulting in another car crash (which Jonze manipulates to pointlessly mirror the accident earlier in the film) and the ultimate trope of them all. Donald is thrown out of the windshield and we then get the begging of a dying person to wake up, of course enhanced by the singing of the song (the Turtles’ “Happy Together”) ominously invoked in Donald’s serial killer script. It gets wilder, sillier, busier — Laroche is nonsensically killed by alligator in familiar territory and an incomprehensible jumble of bad fast cutting.

The artificially generated nightmare is over, with Orlean shouting out “you loser!” at Charlie, the script never having fully escaped from projecting the more neurotic twin’s anxieties. There’s then the inevitable aftermath scene, Charlie meeting up with Amelia sometime later — suddenly he’s able to be direct and confident with her, even kisses her, and even more improbably she answers back when he says he loves her. The change has come from within the characters, as McKee insisted. It makes absolutely no sense, and it’s sealed with the kiss of another flower montage set to the studio version of “Happy Together.” Depending on how engaged the viewer is in Kaufman’s various narratives, they’re left either elated but deceived, impressed by technique, or dejected by the film’s absolute pessimism; it can easily change on each repeat viewing.

As much as Adaptation is a victory for Kaufman, it has to be credited just as strongly to Spike Jonze, and so far it’s his last wholly successful film to date. Kaufman does much of the more audacious work here and its ideas are so inherently esoteric and so much more complicated at their best than Being John Malkovich (despite the surprising soulfulness of both films) that the director is required largely to do less obviously outrageous work here and leave room for the many narrative threads to breathe. But he succeeds more than admirably, and in several moments his fluid enthusiasms as a visual stylist come through in formally tricky moments like the behind-the-scenes segments set during Malkovich‘s creation, the origin-of-the-universe montage (a far less annoying version of The Tree of Life), and the sheer riskiness of the finale, which requires Jonze to become a completely different kind of filmmaker for half an hour, a nearly unparalleled experiment for such a young commercial director.

Still, this is really a statement being made by Charlie Kaufman, partially on behalf of Susan Orlean. What does it say? In light of Kaufman’s subsequent career, its messages have come to seem ever bleaker. Since Adaptation Kaufman’s received an Academy Award for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, probably his most commercially successful film, though it’s said that its screenplay was heavily altered by director Michel Gondry. (Kaufman had a more antagonistic relationship with George Clooney, who evidently butchered Kaufman’s adaptation of the Chuck Barris autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the only other time he has adapted another person’s work.) Four years later came Kaufman’s directorial debut, the shattering masterpiece Synecdoche, New York, an even more persuasive and mature examination of the fusion of life and art than this film; and just last year he codirected the stop-motion animated film Anomalisa, a pessimistic indictment of human nature about one man’s dim, misanthropic grip on the world. Not one of these creations has felt compromised or artistically limited, except by budget, which makes Kaufman a rare uncorrupted figure as a writer and eventually a director. But he’s also stated that the absence of financial reward for his films has left him seemingly adrift from what Donald chirpily called “the industry” and he wondered in interviews if he’d ever work again. In Adaptation, the murder of David can be read as the symbolic killing of commercial impulses, the refusal to become a writer-for-hire and the burning passion to create fulfilling work on the writer’s own terms. But the give-and-take in Charlie and Donald’s relationship implies quietly, and the condition of American filmmaking in the decade and a half since Adaptation was made implies loudly, that such steadfast principles and committed integrity may be untenable for even an artist of Kaufman’s stature. “Change is not a choice,” as Orlean states, and sadly Adaptation may serve as a reminder that those who do try to take the reins of their work in film — and in any creative pursuit with a commercial element — are destined only to be condemned and punished for it.

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