CHARLIE KAUFMAN WRITES THE WAY HE LIVES... WITH GREAT DIFFICULTY. HIS TWIN BROTHER DONALD LIVES THE WAY HE WRITES... WITH FOOLISH ABANDON. SUSAN WRITES ABOUT LIFE... BUT CAN'T LIVE IT. JOHN'S LIFE IS A BOOK... WAITING TO BE ADAPTED. ONE STORY... FOUR LIVES... A MILLION WAYS IT CAN END.
In Googlewhack Adventure, when Dave Gorman tries to describe his attempts to write a novel, he rather succinctly puts it, “Ooooh, it’s hard work.” It’s difficult to argue with that. There may be some out there who can knock out a bestseller in the space of six months without beading their brow, but for most people, it’s a real struggle, particularly when you want it to be good, to make sense, to mean something to people. When you know the power that a book or a film or any piece of art can hold in people’s lives, the weight of responsibility is a heavy one. More so, then, when the artist already has one huge success under their belt and there’s the expectation from others for another one. If you take on the task of adapting someone else’s work into another medium, the pressure becomes even greater. The responsibility to yourself, the audience and the original author to make something great is enough to cripple some people with anxiety and depression. Such is the world of Adaptation..
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is struggling to adapt the novel The Orchid Thief into a film script. He wants to keep the spirit of the book alive, but its lack of a real story is causing him problems. At the same time, he’s facing a mid-life crisis, made worse by his twin brother Donald (Nicolas Cage), a much less talented but much happier person, who wants to write screenplays like his brother. Amongst this, we see the book’s author, Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), as she researches her book and her relationship with John Laroche (Chris Cooper), the title character and main focus of her writing.
Just so we’re clear, Charlie Kaufman is a real guy. After spending some years in the world on TV comedy writing, he finally dropped into the world of film in 1999 with his first feature script, Being John Malkovich. I’ll eventually get to reviewing it somewhere down the line, but suffice to say that it was a huge hit. It was fresh, creative, clever, kind of mean, and very funny. Above all else, it was clearly the product of an original mind. Kaufman was nominated for an Original Screenplay Oscar and he became one of those ones to watch in the future. At the same time, one of his other projects was to adapt a novel, The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. However, Kaufman had problems with it. He clearly loved what the book was about, but the big concern was that nothing really happens. The book is about flowers. He wanted to get this across, but he didn’t know how to do it without forcing some artificial premise onto it. He doesn’t want it to be a romance or a thriller or something that would feel dishonest. Why can’t there just be a film about flowers?
Well, because no one wants to see a film about flowers. They want to see a romance or a thriller or something that has an actual premise or story. Kaufman’s struggles with the project clearly took their toll on him. He suffered for himself, for Susan Orlean, for the movie-going public, for his craft, for his art, for flowers… the guy was in a bad way. However, this is still Charlie Kaufman. Rather than relenting to the pressure and giving his principles a rest, he wrote Adaptation., which effectively tells the story of his difficulty with adapting the book. He wrote himself into the script, not just once, but twice. There’s Charlie, all sweaty and racked with awkward tension, and there’s Donald, Charlie’s identical twin brother, who is neither burdened with Charlie’s talent or his self-consciousness.
Just so we’re clear, Donald Kaufman isn’t a real guy. Within the context of the picture, Donald is the living example of what Charlie would be like if he was less concerned with what other people thought. If Charlie would just ease up on himself, his professional and personal life would go so much smoother. Within the context of the real Charlie Kaufman’s head, Donald is a sounding board for ideas, or rather an anti-sounding board. Donald doesn’t care about what makes good art, and this is precisely the kind of self-contained influence Charlie needs to go in the other direction. As valuable as he is, Donald may as well be a real guy. In fact, not only is the script for Adaptation. credited to both Charlie and Donald Kaufman, but the film is dedicated to him, too.
So, we’ve got the real Charlie Kaufman (and his imaginary brother Donald) trying to adapt a book with no real story into a movie, and it ends up being about Charlie Kaufman’s struggle to turn that very book into a movie, whilst his now flesh and blood brother Donald is showing him the easier route to go by writing a screenplay about three people who turn out to be the same person… got it? That in itself is a lot to work with, but the real Charlie Kaufman still wants to adapt the original novel, so the film becomes interspersed with moments from the novel about the writer Susan Orlean and her interaction with her book’s protagonist, John Laroche. As Charlie struggles with the right way to tell the stories, each of them becomes more affected by conflicting advice until they each devolve into the more standard fare he wanted to avoid in the first place – the romance, the thriller. And as these storylines go on, nowhere near each other, they progressively start to run parallel, and then intertwine. As movie Charlie says himself, “I’ve written myself into my screenplay. It’s eating itself. I’m eating myself.” Both he and his script have become the Ouroboros, the symbol of the snake eating its own tail. By eating, he lives; by eating himself, he is doomed. Goddamn, can you imagine the knot he worked himself into to get to this point? Well, you don’t need to imagine it, cause it’s right there on the screen for you to observe.
There’s an interesting consideration that’s hinted at throughout the film, though not directly addressed. Books are clearly a great inspiration within this film. Laroche is somewhat inspired by Darwin and his On the Origin of Species; Charlie Kaufman is inspired by Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief; and Donald Kaufman is inspired by Robert McKee’s screenwriting bible Story. The consideration comes from the lessons of two of these books and how they can be applied to the treatment of the third. Put more simply: Which book is more valuable in the interest of adaptation – On the Origin of Species or Story? Think about it. One may be a scientific text, but it posits the notion of change and growth as the way forward. Set within the restrictions and confines of pre-set rules, how can something truly flourish? In order for something, anything to grow, it has to be allowed to be free of restraint. I’m pretty sure this is (kind of) what the second law of thermodynamics is about. However, from this method, the process of growth could be a long, slow, painful ordeal and the end result may be something that only a few will like or appreciate. On the flipside, the other book, one that deals specifically with the writing process, is filled with rules and directives that actually do yield results, and quickly with the right amount of effort. However, by applying the standard method of conventional narrative drive to a story, you rob it of its unique nature and the less chance it has of being something worth surviving. Which do you go for? The more artificial, but effective process of standardisation; or the long, drawn-out method of natural evolution? It’s machine versus nature… “like technology versus horse.”
Spike Jonze, who also directed Being John Malkovich, is a great partner for Charlie Kaufman. Given the absolutely hectic nature of the script, it would be so easy to lose track of plot lines or shift focus one way or the other in the interest of making a more coherent story for audiences to follow. Fortunately, he doesn’t. He keeps it all in check, capturing the odd moments of humour and frenzy and drama without losing the overall picture. He even manages to make the difficult subtle shift in tone as the picture comes closer to its end. It’s a light touch, but it’s absolutely resolute in its capability. Not only does he capture every aspect of the script that Kaufman gives him, but, with his final shot, he gives Kaufman what he seemed to want from the beginning. It’s about flowers.
In the roles of both Charlie and Donald Kaufman, Nicolas Cage is outstanding. There’s often been a degree of duality or mental fracture going in some of Cage’s roles, like he’s in a state of constant inner-conflict, but here he’s given the chance to just run with it and play opposite himself. He certainly doesn’t do the chalk-and-cheese approach to the characters either. Charlie and Donald may be very different people, but there’s also a sameness to them. A less skilled actor would have had Charlie be the flannel shirt-wearing sad sack, soaked in sweat and self-doubt, while Donald would be slick as hell, from his nice shoes to his leather jacket to his shit-eating grin. Cage’s approach is different. By showing how alike they are, it highlights the very fine line that separates them. The whole crux of their relationship is how easy it would be for one to become the other, but for their own inability to change. Neither do we care more for one than the other, which is a real feat. We respect Charlie for his principles and the value he places on art and writing and the beauty of flowers, but he’s still kind of a dick, particularly to Donald. Equally, Donald is everything that good art should be against, with his lack of real effort or thought or feeling going into his work, but Donald is so likeable because of his carefree nature and the fact that he clearly and very genuinely loves his brother. Having one great and nuanced performance in a movie is something; having two in the same movie is almost just showing off.
Chris Cooper, always one of the most dependable character actors going, gives a great turn as John Laroche, too. Laroche is a character marked by great contrast. As far as appearances go, he looks like a toothless hick. However, he’s incredibly intelligent. So intelligent that, twice in the movie, he refers to himself as “the smartest man I know.” Further to this, he’s a man of great passion, fierce passion. Passion for orchids (he’s the thief of Orlean’s book), for turtles, for tropical fish… but just as profound as his passion is for these things, he can just as easily decide that he wants nothing more to do with them and cut them from his life. He’s a man of contradiction and confrontation. It seems his passions are selected, not for their depth of meaning for him, but for their potential to get him in trouble, because when he gets in trouble, he can show off just how smart he is to a new group of people. He wants people to be wrong just so he can be right, and he doesn't much care for it when people prove themselves his equal. He’s utterly fascinating, and Cooper gets this wonderfully. He gets the temperament and the sly hint of smug that rests just under the surface of Laroche. As it is, Cooper got himself an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this role.
Meryl Streep is, well, Meryl Streep. The woman is almost incapable of doing a bad job. The Susan Orlean of the film (no idea what she’s like in real life) is, like Kaufman, a writer in crisis to some degree. A journalist by profession, down to do a story on Laroche’s latest escapade, she finds herself drawn to him by his passion. A passion that she feels she lacks in her own life. Sure, she has a comfortable life and a husband and friends, but she’s missing something… or at least she thinks she is. Her life is spent reporting on the adventures of others, she believes she is without that thing in her life that she values above all else. When she meets Laroche, she sees something attractive, something that draws her in. So strong is his devotion to orchids that she gets pulled along, wanting to share in his zeal, wanting to lose herself in his world, in him. Streep sells this so well that when it turns out she can’t be reached by the transcendent beauty of a rare orchid, we’re just as surprised as she is. In a role that could feel at times a bit stock or like the kind of thing that would feature some over-acting, the whole performance is anchored by a great subtlety instead.
And I can’t talk about performances without giving a mention to the brief, but great turn by Brian Cox as screenwriting guru Robert McKee. In Adaptation., McKee is a blitzkrieg of abuse and helpful advice. He’s established himself as an expert in the field of writing and he will cut you a new asshole if you should question his methods. Cox does this opinionated aggression so well. Kind of like Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, he shows up, explodes as a force to be reckoned with, and then leaves again. It’s thoroughly amusing.
Adaptation. is a film that is wonderfully rich and alive. It’s alive with ideas, with characters, with observations, with conflicts, there is nothing wasted in the pursuit of something. Kaufman’s script is equal parts novel adaptation, original creation, psychiatric journal and documentary work, and Jonze’s direction is suited beautifully to the task. Each performance is superb, with particular credit going to Nicolas Cage work as the brothers Kaufman. It may be best to see this film after watching Being John Malkovich (much of it relies on a kind of recall to that film), and some of the finer points may be lost to those less familiar with the world of filmmaking, but it is an absolute delight from beginning to end.