"Adaptation's a profound process. It means you figure out how to thrive in the world."—John Laroche (Chris Cooper)
Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) lives inside his head. But inside, it is pretty dark and oily, like his balding forehead. He hates himself, he complains incessantly, and he is stuck for ideas to follow up his screenplay for Being John Malkovich. Charlie is hired to write a script adapting Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, a meandering tale of passion and botany.
The script, however, is going nowhere, and Charlie's frustrated mood is not helped by his twin brother Donald (Nicolas Cage), a cheerful dimwit who wants to become a screenwriter too. Donald's approach is to listen attentively to all the proper rules of screenwriting, to adapt himself to the Hollywood mainstream, and write to formula.
Meanwhile, Charlie is trying to shape the story of New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean (Meryl Steep) and her encounter with the clever hick John Laroche (Chris Cooper) into something sensible. Though short on plot, Orlean's book does turn out to have an intriguing approach to its characters: it is a story about desire. Laroche rhapsodizes about flowers, searching the swamps for elusive orchids with which he can make his fortune, and Orlean rhapsodizes about Laroche. There is a passion buried in their story, and Charlie, feeling isolated and lonely, wants to bring it to the surface. He wants to write about his own attempts to find the passion at the heart of Orlean and Laroche's relationship, and his own relationship to them and the other people in his life. Perhaps, even track down Orlean and ask her how she feels.
So he begins to write himself into his own screenplay…
So, you ask, what the hell is postmodernism anyway? There is probably no safe way to answer that question. Historically, to even think of some movement—if there is a single movement—as "post" something, we would have to understand what "modernism" is, and given that there are many "modernisms," we are stuck right at the beginning. And postmodernism is no one thing, no unified school of thought or theoretical model. Maybe the question should be, what are postmodernisms anyway?
Jeez, this is just starting to look like intellectual grandstanding. You can tell that, can't you, that I'm trying to avoid talking about this movie by burying it in theoretical parlor tricks? I really have avoided writing this review for weeks, because it seemed so impossible to talk about a film that talks about itself. And what do you call Adaptation? Is it a comedy, or a philosophical exploration, or a recipe for writing Hollywood screenplays (or writing anti-Hollywood screenplays)? Yes.
In architectural postmodernism, buildings become conscious of their hybrid styles, openly fusing and mimicking elements of other architectural styles and the environment. That is, the building announces that it is not autonomous, but part of the world and the history that it inhabits. Art no longer functions as an independent category. In literary postmodernism, narratives become self-conscious, openly playing with their form, experimenting but acknowledging their debt to other artists and genres. Originality becomes part of the problem, as postmodernism admits that nothing is really original and the only successful survival tactic is hybridization. Now, depending on whom you ask, this makes art either more radical (willing to break out of its shell to embrace political and social change) or more solipsistic (obsessed with cataloging intertextual references as part of some intellectual game). But most everybody agrees that postmodern art reflects the cultural fragmentation of late capitalism.
Great, now I've done it. I've driven everybody away. I mean, movies are supposed to be entertaining. My students complain about that all the time. Why can't we just watch the movie in class and enjoy it? Why do we have to talk about it? Movies are an escape from theory, just there for fun. I mean, that's what Donald wants, right? His movie script is just a thriller, a wild, action-packed ride. The 3 is not dumb, oh no. It even has a chase scene that could symbolize the conflict between "technology and horse." And Donald is willing to admit that, according to his screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox), everyone works within a genre. Charles just cannot seem to find which genre suits him best.
Movies are, after all, supposed to make money. They are a product of the marketplace, shaped by the demands of an audience—or at least a studio focus group. In the old days of moviemaking, American culture demanded modernity from its movies: movies needed to reflect the ideal states of American life, the "best years of our lives" where "there's no place like home." But as the market expands to assimilate those people who have always been left out of the market, capitalism has adapted to incorporate its own critics. Cynicism arises, and art can now sell art that makes fun of art. Movie studios make movies that make fun of movie studios. And Adaptation certainly mocks the moviemaking process, particularly from the creative end.
This is merely the next step in the evolution of capitalism, and depending on whom you ask, it could mean that capitalism is either strengthening its hold on the market or evolving itself out of existence by setting the groundwork for its replacement. This is the very problem with adaptation. Is a hybrid entity part of the old category, or is it a new category altogether? Even the word "adaptation" slips between categories and invites us to approach this review in hybrid fashion. The Oxford English Dictionary lists five meanings for the word "adaptation."
1. "The action or process of adapting, fitting, or suiting one thing to another." If everything fits into a genre, then it might be fair to say that Adaptation fits into the genre of things that do not fit into any other particular genre. Some critics describe this film as "unique." Of course, the notion of hybrid art is not unique at all: it is the very heart of postmodernism (if postmodernism has a heart, or center, at all). Harold Pinter made sense of John Fowles' meticulously opaque The French Lieutenant's Woman by crafting a screenplay about adapting the novel to film. Philip K. Dick inserted himself into his later novels regularly. If anything, Charles Kaufman is perhaps the ideal screenwriter to tackle Philip K. Dick's hallucinatory excursions into the nature of self-identity, although that is a whole adaptation mess best left for another time.
2. Two definitions here:
a. "The process of modifying a thing so as to suit new conditions." Certainly, the plot of Charlie Kaufman's screenplay is driven by his attempts to rework Susan Orlean's book for the screen. In creating his hybrid, Kaufman must incorporate cinematic elements into a literary—actually journalistic—format. Orlean's book is a mix of narrative and expository digressions. Narrative adapts easily to the Hollywood film (or at least it is supposed to; it would depend on the actual narrative), but exposition better suits the documentary film. And nobody goes to see documentary movies (or so movie studios believe). So the demands of the Hollywood screenwriting format create a harsh environment for Charlie's project, and Charlie's own uncertainty about his abilities or his place in Hollywood compound the problem.
b. In optics, "the adjustment of the eye to variations in the intensity or colour of light." Columbia hides a tiny Superbit logo on the DVD packaging, as if they are a little embarrassed to market this to the usual male action-movie demographic of their Superbit line. The benefits are mostly evident in the soundtrack, which successfully immerses us in the Everglades swamps of Laroche's orchid hunting. The drawback of course is that Sony fails to provide adequate supplemental material to clarify a difficult film. Adaptation desperately needs a commentary track from Spike Jonze and the real Charles Kaufman. The film's obscurity is a nice joke the first time around, but for Adaptation to have any replay value, you need to have some clues to grab hold of. I teach postmodernism all the time and deal with philosophical questions about change and adaptability and such—and look at how much difficulty I have in making sense of this film. If any recent studio film needs a second disc or some other supplements, it is this one.
3. "The condition or state of being adapted; adaptedness, suitableness." In order to make his adaptation work, the real Charles Kaufman constructs a story about the process of adaptation itself. Like Ouroborous, the world-snake mentioned in the film, Adaptation thus threatens to swallow its own tail. But the process of adaptation pushes Charlie's focus beyond Orlean's book. While the film's first half mixes Charlie and Donald's lives with the requisite scenes of The Orchid Thief, the second half of Adaptation creates its own sequel: what happens beyond the book. From the moment Charlie swallows his own tail (or tale, more likely) and writes himself into the story, The Orchid Thief ends—and Adaptation tells its own story, in which the Kaufman brothers cross paths with Orlean and Laroche for an entirely new adventure.
4. "A special instance of adapting; and hence, concr. an adapted form or copy, a reproduction of anything modified to suit new uses." The creation of twin-brother Donald in the screenplay as an adaptive version of Charles Kaufman, able to blend into the world and succeed much better than Charlie can, is a terrific move. Screenwriter Kaufman is allowed to explore Charlie's adaptive strategies and remind us that the Charlie Kaufman in the film is almost, but not quite, like the Charles Kaufman who wrote the screenplay. Hence, brother Donald gets screenplay credit as well: he is a part of the whole. The success of Donald hinges on the performance of Nicolas Cage. His usual twitchy screen habits occasionally push too hard as he tries to convey the restlessness of Charles, but as the story evolves, we believe in Charles because we see his more functional brother, Donald, and the chemistry between them. Cage is an actor who can easily look foolish without a director who can shape a suitably manic film around him (another instance of adaptation?), and Spike Jonze manages to keep him in check most of the time. When Cage is not around, Meryl Streep does a fine job as Orlean, and Chris Cooper steals the movie as Laroche, deftly balancing a comically grotesque public persona with a hidden sense of loss and frustration.
5. "Organic modification by which an organism or species becomes adapted to its environment." We cannot forget that Susan Orlean's book, The Orchid Thief, is about adaptive mechanisms. How do orchids transform over time? We see the changes of evolution occur, packaged in the film as time-lapse history. But we never see the mutative capabilities of the individuals themselves. We do see how the characters in the film adapt (or grow and change, as Robert McKee tells us characters must do), and we know that their adaptations are driven by desire. Orlean wants to escape the stuffy confines of her upscale, cynical New Yorker life. Laroche looks for ways to capture the delicacy of life and hold it fast, as a way of compensating for the catastrophes that stole everything he had in his previous life.
If Charles Kaufman's adaptation fails to be ultimately satisfying, ultimately suitable for its environment, it is perhaps because Kaufman is not quite sure what to do in the film's second half. While the characters are all interesting enough, Kaufman and director Spike Jonze find themselves obligated to make the characters move around and do something. Unfortunately, what they actually end up doing is less interesting than who they are. Yes, some of the film's swampy climax is an attempt to parody the "rules" of screenplay writing set out by the acerbic Robert McKee, and so the clichés are meant to be a joke. But in letting Donald's lowbrow approach take over the film, Kaufman's looser and more character-driven structure in the film's first half unravels, and we lose our sympathy for the characters. Adaptation thus ends up as a more intellectual exercise than a satisfying narrative. Kaufman's screenplay for Being John Malkovich (constantly referenced throughout this film via Charlie's visits to the set) suffers from the same problem. Perhaps the next step in Kaufman's evolution as a screenwriter is to let his characters free to choose their own ending to the story, rather than force them back onto the page and into uncomfortably artificial closure.
Adaptation is intriguing, intellectually stimulating, and almost emotionally satisfying. It is a film to ponder and discuss, but not something you snuggle in with. The characters are more human than anything Charlie Kaufman has done to date, but that is as much due to strong performances as to what appears on the page. This is not to discount Adaptation as a failure: Kaufman set himself a nearly impossible task—not only shaping The Orchid Thief into a coherent film, but also exploring the psychological and philosophical question of adaptation itself—and he succeeds more often than he fails. I cannot think of any other screenwriter who could have tackled such a project and come up with anything better. And if evolutionary success is based not on some absolute criteria, but merely the ability to survive in the current environment until the next wave comes along, then Adaptation makes the cut. And Charlie Kaufman can learn his valuable lessons from this and write even better screenplays.
Sony is exiled to the swamp, hopefully to get eaten by gators, for failing to provide necessary supplements for this complicated film. Charles Kaufman is instructed to loosen up and stop trying to force his characters—even himself—from going where they do not want to go. Nicolas Cage is prescribed some Ritalin. Court is adjourned.
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