Adaptation: looking back at a modern classic

Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation saw Nicolas Cage on top form. We celebrate a brilliant modern film.

Charlie Kaufman’s career-defining moment came in 1999 with Being John Malkovich, the daringly surreal comedy which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay (director Spike Jonze and supporting actress Catherine Keener were also nominated). In many ways, Kaufman’s follow-up, 2002’s Adaptation, is equally audacious.

The circular, subtle brilliance of Adaptation can all be found in one brief yet oft-celebrated moment. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) has swallowed his pride and decided to attend a script writing seminar hosted by the irascible Robert McKee (Brian Cox). As Kaufman sits in the audience, sweating, panicking about the script he can’t finish, we hear his rambling narration:

“What the fuck am I doing here? It’s my weakness, my ultimate lack of conviction that brings me here. Easy answers. Shortcuts to success. And here I am, because my jaunt into the abyss brought me nothing. But isn’t that the risk one takes for attempting something new? I’ll leave here right now…”

Then, mid-flow, Kaufman’s train of thought is interrupted by McKee, yelling passionately about the mechanics of screenwriting from the stage.

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“…but God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends!” McKee scolds, his zealous face lit up by an overhead projector. “God help you! It’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot could write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.”

Thunderstruck, defeated, Kaufman slides down into his seat.

It’s an example of how Kaufman’s stunningly original story pokes fun at the established, Hollywood-approved rules of screenwriting and Kaufman’s own struggle with the creative process. It’s both a parody of accepted writing tenets and an admission that, yes, a good story can’t be told without a proper beginning, middle and end. 

Part comedy, part confessional drama, Adaptation catalogues the very real, mountain-sized creative brick wall Charlie Kaufman (the real one, not the one played by Nic Cage) experienced while trying to adapt Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief, for the silver screen. The results, quite miraculously, ended up as a film directed by Spike Jonze.

Just like the Kaufman in the movie, the real Charlie Kaufman found himself with a writing assignment following the acclaim of his Being John Malkovich screenplay. But a few days into trying to adapt Orlean’s book – about the eccentric horticulturalist John Laroche, who was arrested in 1994 – Kaufman realised he simply couldn’t do it. He was stumped. I mean, how do you make a book about flower theft cinematic, anyway?

So instead, Kaufman did something that could have spelled doom for his career: he wrote a screenplay about his own struggle to adapt The Orchid Thief. As the Charlie Kaufman in the movie says, “It’s self-indulgent, it’s narcissistic, it’s solipsistic, it’s pathetic.”

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Simply put, the movie shouldn’t work.

Kaufman, sensing that his idea would send his career into screenwriting purgatory, simply wrote Adaptation without telling his studio, Columbia, what he was up to.

“I didn’t tell [Columbia Pictures] what I had in mind because I wasn’t sure what I’d do when I took the job,” Kaufman said in 2002. “And when I decided I wanted to take the material in this direction, I felt like I needed to write it before showing it to them. Because if I pitched it, I thought I’d be, you know, dismissed.” 

To Kaufman’s surprise, Columbia not only liked his unusual approach, but fast-tracked it; by 2001, the third draft of Adaptation was complete and filming had begun.

Like Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi stories, Adaptation blurs the lines between fiction and reality to such a degree that it’s difficult to tell which is which. In writing Adaptation, Kaufman created a fictional character, a twin brother named Donald. The finished screenplay is even credited to Donald Kaufman, which ranks Adaptation among the few recent screenplays to have an Oscar nomination sent in the direction of someone who didn’t exist (other examples include Robert Towne, who wrote his script for Greystoke Tarzan under the name of his dog PH Vazak, and Dalton Trumbo, who wrote under several pseudonyms after being blacklisted in the 1950s).

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Cage plays both twins, and his dual performance in Adaptation ranks among his best work. The repressed, depressive, desperately insecure Charlie is immediately discernible simply by his posture from Donald, the outgoing, more naive of the two. It’s a more broad dual performance than Jeremy Irons’ stunning work in Dead Ringers – a movie Cage has cited as a touchstone in interviews – but it’s humane, tender, and largely free from the largesse that marks out Cage’s showier turns.

Charlie and Donald’s approaches to writing also reflect their opposing personalities. Charlie’s work is literate and ambitious – at one point his script takes in Earth’s entire prehistory from the Big Bang onwards – but also faltering and deeply personal. Donald, on the other hand, has just completed his first screenplay: a potboiling slasher thriller called “The 3,” which has a plot so bafflingly illogical that Charlie gives up even trying to explain its faults.

Charlie’s attempts to push beyond the accepted rules of screenwriting leave him pacing up and down his office pensively, alone. Donald obeys the tenets of Robert McKee – much to Charlie’s chagrin – and spends more time partying or cracking jokes with his new girlfriend, Caroline (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a makeup artist he met on the set of Being John Malkovich. To Charlie’s barely-concealed horror, Donald manages to sell his script without breaking a sweat. 

With its outpourings of self-loathing, Adaptation could be seen as a film in the tradition of Woody Allen. Like Allen, Kaufman’s a Jewish New Yorker, and he shares Allen’s talent for constructing scenes of painfully funny awkwardness. Kaufman privately obsesses over his appearance. He desperately wants to be liked. The real Kaufman’s willingness to lay himself bare like this is a move most screenwriters wouldn’t even countenance. But Adaptation isn’t merely a one-note, internal drama. It’s also desperately funny.

At Adaptation‘s mid-point, Charlie, desperate to get something – anything – on the page, casts his creative vanity aside and asks Donald to help him finish his script for The Orchid Thief. It’s here that Donald’s more commercial sensibilities take over, and throw the film through a loop. While it’s never stated as such, we can see the join in the movie: the moment where the tale changes gear from an internal drama to an outdoor, muddy thriller.

It’s worth rewinding here to look at the other strand in Adaptation: the story of how and why The Orchid Thief was written. From the very beginning, Adaptation intersperses Charlie’s creative despair with scenes from the book. Here, Meryl Streep plays Susan Orlean, the New Yorker magazine journalist whose investigation into the background of Laroche (Chris Cooper) ultimately leads to her writing The Orchid Thief. Orlean, a somewhat prim city woman, is initially repulsed by Laroche, a coarse middle-aged man who drives his battered white van too fast and whistles tall tales through the wide gap where his front teeth used to be. But Orlean is beguiled and then fascinated by Laroche’s passion for rare orchids.

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In Adaptation‘s second half, we’re given a spurious account of what took place after Orlean’s book was published; what began as a comedy drama takes a wild, unexpected swerve into thriller territory, complete with guns, car crashes and the unexpected sight of Oscar-winning Meryl Streep high on a rare narcotic. Donald, again steeped in the teachings of Robert McKee, has found a crowd-pleasing way to end the story. As McKee puts it, “You can have an uninvolving, tedious movie. But wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit…” 

The story meanders unpredictably, but we’re engrossed because Charlie and Donald’s personalities drive every scene. Charlie is so timid that he can’t even bring himself to speak to Orlean; at one point, he becomes an unwitting stalker, cowering in a marble-lined elevator as Streep’s character politely ignores him. Contrast this with the cocksure Donald, who swaggers into Orlean’s New Yorker office armed with a big batch of very odd questions. It’s this awkward interview which drives the film into its alligator-infested final third.

Kaufman’s personal stamp on the film is such that it’s easy to overlook Jonze’s direction, which really comes into its own in the movie’s most stark moments. The scene where we learn exactly how Laroche lost his front teeth is shot with an intimacy that makes what happens next gut-wrenchingly effective. The natural strength of Chris Cooper’s acting and Jonze’s camera placement put us right there in that horrifying, life-changing moment.

Jonze is great at mining the humanity in Kaufman’s script; the little nuggets of human frailty that make both Charlie and Donald so believable. Neither is perfect – Charlie’s spiky and intellectually vain, Donald’s brash and opportunistic – but they both register as complete, three-dimensional characters.

It’s this humanity that prevents Adaptation from being the “self-indulgent, narcissistic, solipsistic” experiment that the screen Kaufman feared. It prods at the formula of storytelling, sure, but from a position of curiosity and self-doubt, not smug superiority. 

This is perhaps why Kaufman gets away with perhaps the most audacious feat of all with Adaptation: getting the real Susan Orlean and Robert McKee to go along with his bizarre flight of fancy. Had either denied permission, the script would have been sunk.

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Orlean admitted as much to USA Today back in 2003; “There were a whole lot of legal issues,” the author told the paper. “They felt that if I didn’t say yes, the whole project would be shot.”

Not only did Orlean agree to the more outlandish moments in the script – including the scenes where she’s shown having an affair with Laroche or getting high on his orchid-derived drug – but she agreed to make a cameo appearance. Look out for her in the scene where Cage’s Charlie makes a flailing attempt to ask Judy Greer’s waitress out on a date.

Robert McKee was similarly involved. He suggested a few changes to the script, and also lobbied to have Brian Cox – a friend of his – to portray him in the movie.

I’d like to think that, as fellow writers, Orlean and McKee responded to the truth Kaufman lays bare in the film: the horror of the blank page. We’ve all heard of writer’s block, but few films – other than the Coens’ Barton Fink – have dealt with the subject as truthfully. What’s great about Adaptation is what’s great about Kaufman as a writer: his willingness to open up about the assorted fears, hang-ups, paranoias and onslaughts of self doubt that all human beings face. This makes it not only a classic film about being a writer, but also a classic film about being a person.

Kaufman summed it up best in a speech he delivered to the BFI, which is somehow tremulous, tentative and inspiring all at once:

“Rather than stand up here and pretend to be an expert in anything […] I’m just telling you off the bat that I don’t know anything. If there’s one thing that characterises my writing, it’s that I always start from that realisation […] Your writing will be a record of your time. It can’t help but be. But more importantly, if you’re honest about who you are, you’ll help that person be less lonely in their world. Because that person will recognize him or herself in you, and that will give them hope.”

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