Granted, Adaptation is a unconventional and confusing film. So why did I foist it upon you? Because it is a good example of a complex narrative, during a week in which we were examining the question of narrative. Adaptation is also a unique and creative example – and representation – of film writing during a week in which we were also examining the art of film writing. That is, the script-writing of Adaptation is ingenious in the way it portrays the difficulties of script-writing.
Adaptation and Narrative
The narrative of Adaptation is complex in that it weaves together three different plot-lines, and does so in an erratic way. First, there is the plot-line of Charlie Kaufman’s neurotic struggle to adapt a difficult-to-adapt book, which includes his relationship with his twin brother, an aspiring script-writer. Then there is the plot-line of Susan Orlean, about her own struggles in writing and in acquiring the passion she sees in people like John Laroche, along with their budding romantic relationship. Finally, there is the plot-line about flowers and John Laroche, the plot-line of Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief. Making it even more confusing is the whiplash changes in setting, and the constant movement back and forward in time.
Frank Tomasulo notes that “Charlie is writing about himself writing about Susan Orlean writing about John Laroche” (169). Tomasulo adds that, in the film, there is “no story line to speak of, no dramatic crisis, and the events are told in a meandering format that departs from traditional narrative causality” (162).
Tomasulo finds the source for this “meandering format” or narrative in Susan Orlean’s book. Tomasulo observes that “The Orchid Thief is filled with repetitions, diversions, and digressions (166). He quotes Orlean’s forward to the published shooting script to Adaptation where she “acknowledges that her book is ‘a nonlinear, eccentric story . . . too subtle and convoluted for movie-making.’” (qtd. in Tomasulo 162).
The irony is that Charlie Kaufman’s art-film approach to the material doesn’t work, but Donald Kaufman’s crass-commercial approach (arguably) does. Flummoxed by Orlean’s “sprawling New Yorker shit,” Charlie resorts to the method of “the great Donald.” Donald not only gives Charlie advice (spouting the dicta of Robert McKee) on how to finish his film, his character initiates the surveillance of Susan Orlean, which leads to the twins going to Florida to confront her and John Laroche, and eventually to Donald’s death.
But it is Donald and Charlie as script-writers that concerns me here. Charlie stands for the writing of the independent auteur, or art-film writer. Donald stands for the commercial film industry (“don’t say ‘industry,'” prompts Charlie Kaufman), Hollywood’s industrial dream factory. Tomasulo argues that “Charlie and Donald are essentially warring aspects of one character – internal doppelgängers, so to speak – who are twin sides (the artistic and the commercial) of American independent cinema circa 2002″ (167). More specifically, they represent respectively the polar extremes of serious modernist and lighthearted (and lightheaded) narrational strategies and styles” (167).
The authors of your textbook, Maria Pramaggiore and Tom Wallis, provide a couple lists that compare the narrative strategies of artistic and commercial American film (on pages 77-78). Adaptation is a quintessential example of what Pramaggiore and Wallis call “alternative” film narrative, which is explicitly anti-Hollywood.
1. Adaptation shows lack of clarity. It has “multiple, conflicting lines of action, inconsistent characters, extreme degree of character subjectivity” (78). For example, at the beginning of the film, we first hear Charlie Kaufman’s neurotic and solipsistic voice-over and then see him on the set of Being John Malkovich, leading to his meeting with a producer, to a “nature program” montage depicting in fast-forward the evolution of life on the planet Earth, to Susan Orlean in voice-over reading from her book, to John Laroche’s interaction with a park ranger. All this in the first five minutes of the film. What the heck is going on here? It takes the viewer quite a while to find out.
2. Adaptation shows lack of unity. There are multiple story-lines, settings, and time-frames. Also, there are quite a few violations of cause-and-effect logic in the film. For instance, it is often hard to tell what Charlie Kaufman is imagining while writing his script, and what actually happens to the characters. Is he imagining or causing his characters to act in certain ways?
3. Adaptation is open-ended. Granted, the film provides closure (Charlie finishes his script, learns important life lessons, and gets the girl at the end), but there is plenty of reason to believe that Kaufman is making fun of this kind of closure. Most of the film is about Charlie Kaufman’s struggles to find resolution while also believing that there’s no such thing as the answer, there are no set rules, no guidelines. He asserts early on that “people don’t change, they don’t have epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated, and nothing is resolved,” just like in the “real world.”
4. Adaptation is full of unconventional characters who are unsympathetic, unreliable as narrators, whose goals are unclear and who think a lot about taking action but rarely do. Charlie Kaufman the character, a quivering bundle of neuroses, is a fine example of all these things. As Henry Bean puts it: “Adaptation . . . creates a protagonist who, like those of countless modern novels, imagines everything and does almost nothing” (21).
5. Finally, Adaptation is replete with “intrusions, direct address to the audience and other devices call attention to narrative as a process.” This is what makes it a postmodern, self-reflexive film. It’s all about the process of constructing a narrative, and the frustrations involved with that process. And it constantly reminds the viewer that he or she is watching a film, sometimes quite explicitly, such as when we see Charlie Kaufman on the set of movie, unrecognized and ignored by everyone who accidentally sees him.
At the same time, as mentioned above, Adaptation is also an example of a conventional, Hollywood film. The narrative is increasingly clearer and more unified as Adaptation becomes more like a Donald Kaufman film. The ending of the film provides closure, and its characters become more goal-oriented and sympathetic (including Robert McKee and Donald Kaufman, who is perhaps most sympathetic when, upon reading Charlie’s script and noticing how Charlie mocks him, is nonetheless OK with it). The film is also less intrusive at the end, as the focus becomes the conflict between the Kaufman twins and Susan Orlean and John Laroche, rather than Charlie’s neurotic self-loathing.
It remains an open question as to whether the film becomes more conventional in its narrative, or is rather meant as a parody of a conventional narrative. Is Charlie Kaufman using a conventional structure in a tongue-in-cheek fashion to comment upon and make mockery of such a structure, and the expectations it generates? If so, the film remains very intrusive and self-reflexive. It also leaves one important issue unresolved: is Kaufman serious or not?
For Bean, the conflict between commercial and artistic imperatives in Adaptation is settled by the creativity of the script-writer: “Adaptation holds its seemingly fragmentary structure together and turns it into a popularly accessible form in part through the sheer delight of its freedom and invention, and in part because [it is] so carefully organised that the audience never feels abandoned” (21).
Adaptation and Writing
The agonies and the ecstasies of screen-writing, as dramatized in Adaptation, are more common than we might think. Arguably, the fate of the commercial script-writer (e.g. Donald Kaufman) is more aggravating than that of the auteur script-writer (e.g. Charlie Kaufman). The commercial script-writer needs to re-write constantly and then have his or her work re-written again by others. The auteur need only struggle with his or her muse, concerned only with the imperatives of high art.
Bean describes the script-writer’s dilemma:
By the very nature of the movie business, the writer submits – if not at the beginning when he takes a job, invariably on someone else’s terms then somewhere along the way as the producers, the . . . the actors, the editor, the focus groups and finally the projectionist and the cinema’s sound system have their way with his words and intentions. . . . The few who don’t answer to a boss are beholden to corporate boards, shareholders, banks and the audience. That tiny handful who have carte blanche to ‘do anything they want’ have it because they have shown that they will never abuse it. (19)
In Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman assails this kind of commercial script-writing. Bean writes:
Adaptation is . . . the revenge of the writer. For once this butt-of-all-jokes, the abused figure of the ‘creative team’, has somehow hijacked the production, locked the director and cast in his typewriter case and taken over the controls. The film’s writer, the real-life Charlie Kaufman, does this not just by putting his miserable alter ego at the centre of a story built around writer’s block, but by writing a film that is all about writing. (20)
Adaptation is a terrible adaptation of Susan Orlean’s writing, but it’s one of the most writerly films ever made. We see the life of the script-writer up close, in all its neurotic glory. Like the making of sausages and laws, it takes a strong stomach to witness. Through the convolutions of the narrative in Adaptation, we can see how a film is written, and the way this writing actually plays out on screen. And Adaptation concerns itself not just with writing for film, but writing for print, in the way it dramatizes Orlean’s own writing struggles. In its writing, Adaptation is a both a celebration of, and a cautionary tale about, writing for film. For that reason, it is an instructive film for us at the beginning of the course, showing how films are always, among many other things, written artifacts.
University of Maryland
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Henry Bean. “Self-Made Heroes.” Sight & Sound 13.3 (March 2003).
Maria Pramaggiore and Tom Wallis. Film: A Critical Introduction. 3rd Ed. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2011.
Frank 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: University of Texas Press, 2008.