(2002) dir. Spike Jonze
Until Spike Jonze directs a feature from a script other than a Charlie Kaufman work, it will be hard to assess how much of his own stamp he manages to put on his films. Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze were the writer and directer pair that brought out Being John Malkovich (1999), which was very a clever and surreal film to have arisen from a Hollywood studio. Adaptation is very much a film about screenwriting, and quite specifically a film about the screenwriting of itself. The narrative includes a fictionalized character bearing the name of the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman who is in the process of adapting Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into this resultant film. Self-reflexivity is foregrounded to the Nth degree and definitely to a negatively narcissistic level.
The first half of the film features parallel narratives, one of the adapted version of the book and the other the screenwriter and his process of adapting the book. About half-way through the film, the book’s story ends and the movie merges the two stories into a presumably even more fictionalized projection. I recall that when this film was in its theatrical release that I had heard that a lot of people had been unhappy with the final act of the film. I, too, found it dissatisfying, but wondered about what was going on in it.
The book from which the film was “adapted” is essentially a non-fiction account of people’s obsessions with orchids, and particularly one John Laroche, the titular character of the book. The account of the screenwriter’s adaptation process is satirical and exaggerated, one perhaps based on some modicum of reality, and then embellished considerably. But one of the points that the Nicolas Cage Charlie Kaufman states as he is trying to adapt the book is that he doesn’t want to “make it all Hollywood” and end it with sex and a drug deal and having the Susan Orlean character actually fall in love with the John Laroche character (essentially falsify the story by adding sex and violence). The Nicolas Cage Charlie Kaufman has a twin brother named Donald (also played by Nicolas Cage) who writes a ridiculous screenplay that is well-received by his brother’s agent. Charlie loathes his brother’s approach to writing, explicitly deriding it and the workshop that Donald espouses as the genius approach to writing.
Where the first part of the film seems to resemble Charlie Kaufman’s off-beat approach to screenwriting, the latter part of the film seems to take Donald’s approach. The story becomes exactly what Charlie Kaufman said that he didn’t want, with sex, drugs, and violence. As the story veers off from its initial path, this idea is never explicitly suggested, rather it just happens.
The film is quite interesting and clever, though through much of it, the self-awareness reaches levels of near-preciousness. The ending, I think, is intended to read as near-campy indulgence, with Alligator attacks and explosions, aping the worst of Hollywood embellishments in adapted material. Like Kaufman’s other scripts, there is an element of pessimism that prevades the film, underlying the humor and clever structures and ideas.