3. Adaptation. (2002)
To begin... To begin... How to start? Nicolas Cage’s Charlie Kaufman sits at his workstation and recites in voiceover the fictionalized, and to some extent self-deprecatingly autobiographical, words of his real life counterpart: “Do I have an original thought in my head? My bald head. Maybe if I were happier, my hair wouldn’t be falling out. Life is short. I need to make the most of it. Today is the first day of the rest of my life. I’m a walking cliché…” These are Adaptation.’s opening lines, but somehow I’m getting ahead of myself.
Back in the real world, Charlie Kaufman has been tasked with adapting into a movie Susan Orlean’s thematically sprawling (though narratively narrow) nonfiction work The Orchid Thief. Kaufman, as he exasperatedly explains to Tilda Swinton’s studio executive, just wants to make a movie about flowers. “It’s never been done before. There are no guidelines.” He seems drawn to the project for its creative challenges and potential for innovation. In the absence of structural tent poles, he mines his own life for (meta)narrative inspiration and writes himself and his process into the story, thus demolishing the fourth wall between fiction and non.
As such, Kaufman’s script becomes a living breathing thing, joining the likes of Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her subject, John Laroche (Chris Cooper); the orchids he poaches from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve; or the biodiverse group of insects genetically destined to pollinate them. I had a necessarily hard time structuring this piece as the film seems to jump all over the place, literally and figuratively with glee. Quick cuts and flashbacks layered upon flashbacks take us from biting Hollywood satire to existential crises of New York elites to discussions of Darwinian theories at Floridian flower shows. The screenplay reacts to outside influences and environmental changes, experiments with various framing devices, reimagines real events, inserts fabricated ones, and becomes something altogether altered.
The only line finer than that which sets apart fact from fiction is the one separating running away from starting over. In concert with the film’s multiple framings and reframings - beginnings fresh and false - there are numerous references to characters getting started or starting over. An unrequited love started making fun; Charlie should start jogging; Charlie hyper awareness of starting to sweat; referencing the script he’s starting; another dispassionate writer starting to believe. Charlie’s very first voiceover soliloquy runs the gamut of his insecurities - about the project, his physical and mental health, general appearance - and the ways in which he can think to better himself. “But I’ll still be ugly though. Nothing’s gonna change that.” This idea of whether or not people have the ability to change themselves or their circumstances is the crux of the movie. What are the ways in which a natural evolutionary process overrides or yields to free will and personal autonomy? Abandoning delusions of grandeur as nothing more than scribbled notes from the field, Kaufman takes a nearly impossible assignment, hypothesizes that there is artistic and moral value in doing something that’s never been done before, and then proceeds to simultaneously prove and disprove his own theory.
For the purposes of the film, “adaptation” functions as a homonym defining both the process of adapting or being adapted and the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment. The film replicates this duality in its ambitious undertaking of the source material and equally ambitious invention of the narrative framework. In addition to making himself central to the plot, Charlie has written himself a twin brother and credited co-screenwriter, Donald. The more oblivious and thus well-adjusted of the two, Donald is a complete fabrication. He exists within the bounds of the movie - a creatively comedic foil for the oft self-serious Charlie - though outside the realm of reality. While “real” Charlie has fragmented his irresolute psyche in two characters of identical DNA and opposite aesthetic, the film’s characters also begin to diverge from their nonfiction counterparts.
This narrative divergence becomes a question of moral murkiness when fictionalized characters evolve beyond characterizations provided on the page. Who do we allow to write our stories? By selling the rights to authorial ownership, does a subject consent to having another fill in deliberately opaque structural gaps? Where is the line between reality and projection? When adapting her longform piece from The New Yorker into a book, Orlean understood there wasn’t enough of the Laroche character to fill its pages. Instead, she brought in aspects of herself and her experiences searching for the elusive ghost orchid. In his adaptation, Charlie comes to understand there isn’t enough of The Orchid Thief to fill a movie, and writing himself into the story is quite clearly taking a page from hers. Although, he’s presented with an altogether different issue of determining where the real Susan Orlean ends and his projection of her begins. I often wonder how she feels about this on screen representation. I imagine it’s quite flattering to be played by one of our greatest living actors, and less so to be shown snorting orchid opiates and fucking a toothless narcissist. Or perhaps the hardest part is having your soul laid completely bare. For it is Orlean’s beautiful prose that offers far greater insight into longing and loneliness than all of Kaufman’s sad sack speeches and missed connections combined.
The theory of duality is counterbalanced by the view that the self is all that can be known to exist. Even though, history and science tell us this cannot possible be true. Just look at the scope of living things that existed before human creation and will likely continue long after. Cue creation montage from organisms (those single-cell ones) to bigger things (like jellyfish), and then that fish that got legs and crawled out on the land, followed by dinosaurs, extinction, insects, mammals, primates, apes and then man. Per Orlean, “There are too many ideas and things and people. Too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something, is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.” Inspired by her sentiment and alluring jacket photo, Charlie whittles the world of his script down to a more manageable size. He writes what he knows.
Although, his presence within the story serves a greater function than pure narcissistic solipsism. Charlie is precious about his own work of adapting a screenplay, but has no problem taking aim at the absurdity of the Hollywood industrial complex and his place within it. The only thing Hollywood loves more than self-congratulations are self-floggings. There are the uncomfortable lunches at fancy restaurants where no one eats and everyone goes to be seen. There are the insufferable meetings with sexual-harassing, chauvinistic agents. There are the hopeful lies about how well a project is progressing. There is the cult-like screenwriting seminar hosted by Robert McKee out of which comes Donald’s crime thriller spec script entitled “The 3,” a picture that relies entirely on tired tropes like serial killers, multiple personalities, suspension of reality, and cat-and-mouse chases.
Director Spike Jonze, who previously worked with Kaufman on Being John Malkovich, also shares his self-referential sensibility. He recuts behind the scenes footage from their prior film with Cage occupying the space of Charlie’s awkward wallflower. Jonze most effectively conveys Charlie’s writing process. Each time Charlie breaks through with a new beginning, Jonze gives us the opening scene. He presents a portal into Charlie’s brain, and on prominent display is the inspired freneticism of a writer of unequaled imagination and almost paralyzing self-doubt. Also on display is a satirical exploration of an industry obsessed with remakes and reboots that doesn’t place a premium on originality and continues to suffer from veritable women and diversity problems. The film does little to rectify these issues, most notably in its idealization and objectification of every female character and inattention paid to the exploitation of Seminole Indians at the hands of Laroche’s poaching.
McKee (Brian Cox) graciously lets an increasingly spiraling Charlie in on a little storytelling secret that boils down to, “Wow them in the end.” His final note presents as more warning than suggestion, “And don’t you dare bring in a deus ex machina.” He is, of course, referring to the plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly resolved by an unexpected and unlikely occurrence, typically to the point of being perceived as a contrived plot point. Its function can be to resolve an otherwise irresolvable plot situation, to surprise the audience, to bring the tale to a happy ending, or act as a comedic device. Adaptation. determinedly accomplishes all four! A deus ex machina presented as sloppy storytelling (inartistic, too convenient, overly simplistic) in act two goes off in act three, and brings forth previously foretold ideological and artistic possibilities. In the end, Kaufman’s indictment of certain cinematic tropes foreshadows exactly what comes to be.
I used to believe Adaptation. was devoid of meaning. I don’t mean that as a criticism so much as the full realization of its existential nihilism. Taking the longview, that may still be true. But, due in large part to Donald’s closing speech, I’ve changed my mind about the shorterm. His unembarrassed ownership of his unembarrassed passions - applied as salve to insecurity or loneliness or disconnection - speaks profoundly to the ways in which the people and things we love, be they reciprocated or unrequited, can (and never fully) define us. That love is ours, to be shared or savored or kept secret. As reflected in the real world, people do change. Maybe not in any significant way, but over time, we adapt, we regenerate, and are just a little bit different every single day.
Back at the pitch meeting, Charlie advocates for a script entirely faithful to the source material: “I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases, you know...or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end, you know. I mean...The book isn’t like that, and life isn’t like that. You know, it just isn’t. And...I feel very strongly about this.” By making fun of the very plot contrivances he later deploys, Charlie’s insertion of himself into the movie also brings his critical eye, and we are each our harshest critics. Though from where I sit, with McKee’s principles posted above my workstation, Kaufman boldly broke all the rules and managed to create the first new genre since Fellini invented the mockumentary. As with the ghost orchid and its perfectly paired pollinator, it seems only Charlie and Donald Kaufman could bring Orlean’s “sprawling New Yorker shit” to the big screen.