Adaptation.

Nicolas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

21 February

 

 

The New Yorker launches, 1925

On this day in 1925, The New Yorker magazine was launched by Harold Ross and Jane Grant. Intended as a cosmopolitan magazine for the urban sophisticate – and those who aspired so to be – it started out as a broadly humorous publication, though quickly shifted its focus towards quality fiction and long-form journalism, though its cartoons have remained a key feature. Unafraid to be thought of as intelligent, educated and interested in a magazine world that largely pretends to the opposite, it could take its pick of a certain type of writer – Hannah Arendt wrote her long-form piece on the trial of Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker, James Thurber contributed cartoons, Salinger, Nabokov and Hemingway sent in short stories.

 

 

 

Adaptation (2002, dir: Spike Jonze)

Adapted from a piece for The New Yorker by Susan Orlean called The Orchid Thief, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s film takes a distinctly New Yorker approach – intelligent and entertaining – to tell the story of… what exactly? At one level it is Orlean’s story, of a thief (Chris Cooper) so driven by his thirst for the rare exotic plant that he’ll pay anything, go anywhere, even kill to get hold of what he wants. On another level it’s the story of writer Charlie Kaufman struggling to adapt the New Yorker piece he has read into the film we are watching. And sitting side-by-side with that story we have Charlie’s brother, Donald, also a writer, but a pen-for-hire keen to bolt together a Hollywood blockbuster by following the screenwriting edicts of Robert McKee (played as a stiletto to the McKee system by Brian Cox). Both Kaufmans are played by Nicolas Cage and in real life Kaufman doesn’t have a brother called Donald, so we can kind of guess that Charlie is pulling a “two sides of the same coin” number here – sure he writes for pleasure, but he also wants to get paid. There is more plot than this, notably featuring Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean – with whom fictional Charlie has developed an obsession – plus John Cusack and Catherine Keener as themselves, sort of. The whole thing takes that reality/fiction/actor/character shtick worked so well by Jonze and Kaufman in Being John Malkovich (in which JM played a version of himself) about two levels further. It’s a virtuoso plate-spinning exercise, with Cage admirably suited by virtue of his independently swivelling eyes to play a man who is losing sleep, weight and neurons trying to work out where to go next. Personally, I don’t think Kaufman (the screenwriter) quite manages to extract himself (the character) from the tangle he eventually winds up in, though plenty think the ridiculous, funny guns-ablazing finale to the film is entirely appropriate. Robert McKee would probably love it.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Surely the Charlie Kaufman film par excellence
  • One in the eye for auteur theorists
  • Donald Kaufman gets a screen credit, even though he doesn’t exist
  • Look out for an uncredited John Malkovich

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Adaptation – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Adaptation.”

  1. I’ve read many of the comments regarding Adaptation, and it seems as though most people have disliked this movie because of its ending. They make claims such as, "Kaufman’s script was great until the end," or, "Why did Kaufman talk about not wanting to "hollywoodize" his script, and then do it in the end anyway?"

    I don’t think most people understand why he did it.

    Throughout the movie, Kaufman’s character keeps stressing how much he doesn’t want to make a "Hollywood" film. Hollywood-type films have sex, drugs, car chases, and most importantly, characters who succeed in the end. So at a glance, it seems that Kaufman goes against his inner most desires regarding the film because he does "hollywoodize" it.

    But that is what I find to be the most clever part of his screenplay. To explain my point, try to imagine this-what if Kaufman did not "hollywoodize" his script? If he didn’t do it, Kaufman would not have added car chases, sex, and drugs. So in a way, if this were the case, Kaufman would have succeeded. But you see, that is the point. Kaufman DID NOT want his character to succeed in the end. Like he explained throughout the movie, "I don’t want to have a film…where characters succeed in the end." Thus, since Kaufman ultimately fails at his attempt to adapt Susan Orlean’s book into a screenplay in how he originally intended, he delivers a screenplay that is not your normal hollywood film, i.e., a film where the protagonist prevails.

    Basically, in order to make his film "un-hollywood," he "hollywoodizes" it. Can nobody see the genius of this?

    Anyway, I just thought that I could offer everyone my take on the movie so that you all may perceive Kaufman’s ending in a different light.

  2. The first time I saw "Adaptation" I expected something else and walked away severely disappointed. As some of you out there who Private Messaged me in regards to my initial review posted on IMDb might already be aware, I originally gave it a rating of 3.5/5 stars, back when I was frequently contributing to the site. I passed on without much thought, considering it a disappointment and leaving my critique for those who cared to read it.

    It remains the single comment to have generated the most feedback for me. More than "The Passion of the Christ," and more than yes, even my upsetting review of 2003's "Peter Pan" (which seemed to anger the small die-hard fanbase for the film that lurks on these message boards – by the way, I've had to clarify this sentence by adding "for the film" because someone PM'd me yesterday accusing me of implying I have a fanbase on IMDb…no, I am referring to the film's fanbase, so please hold off on the accusations). I digress. In summary I gave "Adaptation" a negative rating and to my surprise, perhaps because I avoided totally slamming the film, the fans responded to me with kind words rather than harsh ones; conceivably they too had initially taken a dislike to the film? I made a daring move. I bought "Adaptation" on DVD for ten bucks, thinking, "I've got nothing to lose." Plus, the front cover looked cool anyway.

    I watched it again (after taking into mind several themes and self-referential layers I had failed to visualize before) and was blown away by the originality and genius of the movie.

    My hugest complaint regarding "Adaptation," originally, was its absurd ending — I felt it was out of place, silly, and totally anti-climactic. Little did I realize this was the point — to be a parody of the typical Hollywood blockbuster.

    There are so many underlying jokes, gags and self-references that the film grows better — like "Back to the Future" — on each new viewing. You're always finding new stuff.

    I found new respect for Nicolas Cage as an actor after my second viewing of this. I have always liked Cage despite the criticism he receives for being a one-sided actor; here, he proves he's capable of creating two very different human beings out of the same mold. Brilliant, Oscar-worthy stuff.

    All in all I got it wrong the first time. "Adaptation" isn't a film that starts out clever and descends into a messy and stupid finish. Well, actually, it is. But that's the point. I didn't get it before. Now I do.

    If you disliked this film, my advice? Watch it again. It knows a bit more about itself than you probably do. And read up on the message boards here a bit to get a clearer grasp of what's going on if you're totally clueless.

    P.S. I'd like to thank all the people on this site who messaged me in response to my review.

  3. Incredible.

    Charlie Kaufman might just be the most genius screenwriter (I daren’t say ever) at the moment. I mean, trying to adapt a book for a screenplay, not succeeding, yet in the process writing a screenplay about how you can’t seem to adapt this book for a screenplay. Oh yeah, and also being helped by your not existing twin brother, and crediting him as co-writer, and being nominatad for an Oscar together with him.

    Is anyone following this?

    Kaufman seems to be the master of destroying the line between reality and fiction.

    I kind of have a hard time saying anything about this movie, because I don’t know what to say. You should just go and say it. There’s nothing like it.

    If you liked Being John Malkovic you wil definitely love this. If you hated BJM you might still like it. It doesn’t have the absurdity and surreality of BJM. The story is just incredibly intelligently written.

    Even though the movie is about how Kaufman is unable to adapt this book, he actually succeeds in doing just that in the process.

    Jesus, I’m still totally stunned.

    Jonze does do a very good job once again. But the direction is just outshined by the story…

  4. John Laroche (an excellent, award-winning Chris Cooper) is a plant lover, specialized in orchids. Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) writes a story about it, and later a book. Charlie Kaufman (the always cool Nicholas Cage) has to adapt the book to a screenplay.

    Basicly, that’s the story right there. But this movie comes with so many twists, it’s hard to catch up.

    First of, Susan Orlean and her book really exist. As does Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine o/t Spotless Mind). In fact, Kaufman has written this movie. So Kaufman wrote a movie about Kaufman writing a movie. You get it? Then there’s the fact that all storylines are happening at the same time (think The Hours). Add to that the twin brother Donald Kaufman, who’s also writing some parts. Or is he…? Does he even exist at all?

    The most confusing (and amusing) part is that movie-Kaufman (that’s Cage) is talking about making this movie. He’s telling himself ‘we open with a van on the highway’ and we’ve actually seen that part. It goes even beyond that, when we hear him talk to his recorder: ‘Charlie Kaufman is talking to his recorder’. I loved that part.

    But it’s a movie you have to go along with. Kaufman and Jonze try desperately to be clever and they’ve managed to do so. It’s one of the most original movies of the last ten years, but I’m sure it’s not for all tastes. If you like Being John Malkovich you should probably give it a go though.

    My score: 8/10.

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