Given its unconventional narrative format, it may seem odd that Adaptation (2002) should have been so celebrated, particularly by the Hollywood establishment that the film skewers. But it was celebrated, with Oscar nods for most of the main actors in the film (Nicholas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman, Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean, Chris Cooper as John Laroche) and for the script, which was slyly credited to both Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Cooper won an Oscar for best supporting actor, and the Kaufmans won a BAFTA (British Oscar) for adapted screen-play. In the final tally, the film was nominated for 91 film awards and won 43 of them. (Kaufman won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his next film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ).
The film landed on a number of “best of” lists at the end of 2002. In fact, the innovative script was the talk of Hollywood before filming even began. Turning an adaptation of The Orchid Thief into a reflection on his own writer’s block made Charlie Kaufman a screen-writing star, eclipsing his well-regarded work (also with Jonze) in Being John Malkovich (a brief bit of which appears in Adaptation).
The film has been described, variously, as self-referential (or reflexive), experimental, metafiction, postmodern, and a “High” art film. David Denby characterizes the film as “a deft metafiction that jumps back and forth among Charlie’s feverish self-doubts, his erotic fantasies, and the story he is attempting to write.” Jough Dempsey says that “the film is less an adaptation of the book than it is a story about adapting an unfilmable book into a screenplay.” Frank Tomasulo calls it “an exercise in postmodernist pastiche and self-refexive intertextuality” (162).
The film is experimental and postmodern in the way Kaufman inserts himself into the story. Arguably, Kaufman inserts himself twice, once as the “High Art” Charlie Kaufman, and a second time as the crassly commercial Donald Kaufman. Inventing a twin brother (and then coyly denying the invention in interviews, and co-crediting Donald for the screenplay) is also a postmodern move. So too is the back-and-forth multi-narrative, each story-line commenting upon the others. The film is provocative in the way it plays with the different meanings of “adaptation”—both film adaptation and behavioral adaptation as part of natural selection—and the connections between the two. Dempsey agrees that “Charlie is a postmodernist, wanting to write a screenplay that avoids the tropes of his time, to escape genre and formula, to escape the past by writing a film that is unique and can only be valued on its own terms.”
This is where the film moves into the realm of satire. The film is not only an excursion into the neurotic subconscious of Kaufman, but a send-up of Hollywood film. In The New York Times, Daniel Zalewski notes that the film is “a sly and slippery meditation on the ways movies can transform complex stories into cut-and-dried clichés.” Tomasulo argues that “Charlie Kaufman, attempts to preserve Orlean’s ‘book about flowers’ from the clichéd commercial formulas of the Hollywood assembly line.”
Charlie Kaufman (the character) makes the case for the art (versus the commercial) film:
I think it’s a great book . . . and I’d want to remain true to that. . . . Y’know, I just don’t want to ruin it by making it a Hollywood thing. . . . Like an orchid heist movie or something, or, y’know, changing the orchids into poppies and turning it into a movie about drug running. . . . Why can’t there be a movie simply about flowers? I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases. You know? Or characters learning profound life lessons.
The joke (or failure) of the film is that, by the end, Charlie Kaufman the scriptwriter crams all of the above into Adaptation.
Representative of the kind of film that Charlie Kaufman attacks are the characters Donald and the script guru Robert McKee (like most of the characters in the film, based on a real person and using his real name). Dempsey says that “McKee writes that all screenwriters write in a genre, and that they must write in their genre and master it. This is the antithesis of Charlie’s postmodern ideals. Charlie believes that each film is unique, that there is no way to write a good film in a formula.” He also notes that McKee “advises against the use of voice-over and ending the film with a deus ex machina, even though in a way the McKee character is one.”
In the end, Kaufman gleefully and unapologetically makes use of both devices. His neurotic voice-over is almost constant, and he gives Susan Orlean a voice over as well, in which she speaks what she has written in her book. The deus ex machina, a device used to solve plot difficulties, is the alligator that attacks John Laroche just as he is (reluctantly) about the shoot Charlie Kaufman.
Donald Kaufman is a devotee of McKee and reaps the rewards: his incredibly implausible serial-killer thriller screenplay, written in a few weeks, is rewarded with a six-figure contract. As suggested above, Donald represents the dark side of Charlie Kaufman the screen-writer. He represents formulaic commercial film.
According to Dempsey, Donald stands for “Low Art,” which is “usually the result of the business overwhelming the art. Low Art makes money by appealing to the lowest-common denominator.” By contrast, Charlie stands for “High Art,” which is “when the art overwhelms the business.” For him, Adaptation “is an argument between High and Low Art. The film succeeds as both, due in part to Charlie and Donald Kaufman’s brilliant screenplay.”
The argument between High and Low Art in film has been going on for a long time—since the beginning of the cinema, as a matter of fact. It also tends to be a big theme in film classes. Let’s extol the brilliant art film! Let’s trash the Hollywood entertainment film! But the argument is a productive one. It offers a creative tension that encourages the creation of many brilliant films, many of them made in Hollywood.
One of the criticisms of Adaptation is that it abandons this argument, and this productive tension, for a glib ending. Denby claims that “the movie takes a disastrous leap into melodrama at the end, which can be interpreted as either a sellout to Hollywood convention or a savage self-parody of selling out. Either way, it’s a mistake.” Dempsey, while positively inclined towards the film and its ending, acknowledges that the last third of the film is a Donald Kaufman film. Stephanie Zacharek, who is not positively inclined towards anything in the film, writes:
Donald is Charlie’s invention . . . a way for him to acknowledge that he does have baser instincts [as a scriptwriter] without having to take responsibility for them. By the movie’s end, Charlie has become Donald as well, a kind of superscreenwriter for the new millennium—principled, but with a knack for what will sell. He’s going to do just fine for himself.
Tomasulo also questions the choices of the screenwriter of Adaptation:
Th[e] tacked-on third act inscribes almost all of the negative plot and character elements that Charlie had railed against throughout the screenplay, thereby putting in question whether Adaptation itself is a conscious metatext that critiques the Hollywood system (and itself) or one that capitulates to Tinseltown’s standard shibboleths.
As Tomasulo notes, it’s not clear at the end whether Kaufman is satirizing or submitting to Hollywood convention in Adaptation. We see some of the satire in the scene where Charlie and Donald are having a heart-to-heart while the drug-and-gun-crazed Orlean and Laroche are hunting them in the swamp. This is ludicrously implausible. However, after this we get the sacrificial death of Donald and the screenwriter hero hooking up with his love interest, at last.
For all the postmodern, reflexive, ironic commentary in the film, this not-very-clever ending is left alone, without comment. It does seem that Kaufman gets his (psychoactive) orchid and eats it too. As Zacharek remarks: “Adaptation is a movie that eats itself whole and leaves the audience with nothing, and we’re supposed to go home happily, clutching our little souvenir naughts as if they actually added up to something.”
However Daniel Zaleski argues, contra Zacherek, that “the grandly baroque climax of Adaptation. . . . is a narrative version of a genetic mutation, suggesting what might happen if the disparate storytelling talents of Charlie Kaufman, Donald Kaufman and Susan Orlean were somehow mixed into one peculiar hybrid—art-house cinema spliced with Hollywood spectacle spliced with literary journalism.” That certainly is an accomplishment, though something well beyond the ken of the normal movie-goer.
University of Maryland
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David Denby. “Review of Adaptation.” The New Yorker. December 16, 2002.
Jough Dempsey. “Adaptation: Beyond Postmodern.” Cinema Review (blog).
Frank P. Tomasulo. “Adaptation as Adaptation: From Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief to Charlie (and ‘Donald’) Kaufman’s Screenplay to Spike Jonze’s Film.” Authorship in Film Adaptation. Ed. Jack Boozer. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2008.
Stephanie Zacharek. “‘Adaptation’ and the perils of adaptation.” Salon. December 16, 2002
Daniel Zalewski. “FILM; The ‘I’ Cure for Writer’s Block.” The New York Times. December 1, 2002.