Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Reader Recommendation: Adaptation (2002)

As recommended by Chris at Recently Viewed Movies

I thought it would be nice to take a break from action or sci-fi movies and review something a little different this week and Adaptation is definitely that. I was so pleased that Chris gave this a 10 out of 10 on his blog because it's probably one of my favourite movies. As someone who dabbles in film-making in my spare time it's an incredibly enjoyable film because it not only breaks down the difficulties and frustrations of putting a film together but it also does it in a playful and self-reflexive manner. I guess some could call it self indulgent but I don't think that was ever writer Charlie Kaufman's intention.

The film sees Nic Cage play a fictionalised version of Charlie (who wrote also the meta-fictional Being John Malkovich) who has been assigned the insanely difficult job adapting Susan Orlean's non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief which concerns the exploits John Laroche, a poacher of orchids. While trying to write the script he attempts to interview Orlean (played by Meryl Streep) and Laroche (Chris Cooper) but still struggles to find a way of pulling out a narrative out of the book. All the while he's constantly harassed by his brother Donald (a fictional twin) who has just started writing scripts too but is a far more crass and hammy writer. In the end Charlie is forced to enlist the help of his brother but will it end up ruining his script?

I don't think you can start a film off in a bigger way than Adaptation does. It literally starts with the beginning of the universe before fast forwarding through billions of years of history and evolution until it arrives at Charlie Kaufman (played by Nic Cage) sitting at his typewriter trying to come up with a way to start his new screenplay. It perfectly encapsulates what it feels like being a screenwriter. You're constantly second guessing yourself, never thinking that you've written any thing of any worth, always trying to avoid horrible cliches.

It should be noted that the real Kaufman was genuinely given the assignment to adapt The Orchid Thief and he genuinely did struggle for years to try and turn it into a script. In the end, I think this film came out better because he took such creative license. The film took on its own life and became about the process of adaptation on several levels. Kaufman adapting the novel, the orchid adapting to its environment, Laroche adapting his poaching method by using Seminole Indians, and finally Kaufman adapting his writing methods in order to fit with Hollywood's conventions. Charlie Kaufman didn't stick himself in the film because he's vain, he put himself in because it was the only way he could conceivably complete the story.

Nic Cage is note perfect as both Kaufmans. He particularly excels at playing the happy-go-lucky Donald who wanders through the entire film with an irrepressible grin on his face. Streep and Cooper also both give very nuanced performances too (the latter being rewarded with a Best Supporting Oscar) but my favourite actor in the film is Brian Cox who has a small cameo as creative writing instructor Robert McKee (again, a real life figure). McKee's advice goes completely against everything Kaufman stands for. There's a very amusing bit where Kaufman attends McKee's lecture and his inner voiceover starts narrating what's happening before being abruptly cut off when McKee says voiceover should never be used as it's lazy screenwriting!

In fact, it's one of the most enjoyable elements of the film that as you're watching it, it slowly devolves into a more straight-forward (and ridiculously fictionalised) movie. Kaufman's idiot brother starts helping  with the script and it starts to follow more and more of McKee's advice. Have an active protagonist, have an end goal, have a three act structure, have an escalating sense of urgency.

I did read Orlean's book a while back and it is a very good read. I think the way the film concludes isn't a slight against Orlean's book it's more against Hollywood execs for their lack of awareness. One of the most overlooked performance of the film is Ron Livingston who plays Kaufman's agent Marty as a bored man-child who doesn't know what he's doing. It's implied that he's basically read the current bestseller list and picked the one at the top to be adapted without realising that it's non-fiction. There's also some pointed jabs at big budget Hollywood films in the fact that Donald's script The 3 (about a serial killer who has multiple personality disorder and one of these is the cop who is investigating the murders!) is terminally stupid but manages sells for seven figures.*

I guess I can see why Adaptation isn't universally loved as much as Kaufman's Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine. It is quite a cliquey concept - an in-joke for screenwriters gone way too far - but at the same time there's a nobility to it. Fact based films always end up changing history to fit a narrative structure (just look at Braveheart) and by refusing to properly adapt Orlean's book he's allowed her and Laroche to remain real people rather than fictional constructs.


To read Chris's original review click here

* If you're ever curious as to what The 3 would have been like check out James Mangold's Identity (2003)


  1. This one is one of my favorite films of all time, in fact, I personally rate it higher than Being John Malkovich. I love it for the same reason as you, its about writing films. Loved how Kaufman captured how insanely difficult it can be to get the right angle for your script, the right words.

    But I also loved it because it's a film about learning to adapt, as the title says. My favorite line in the film is: "Adaptation is a profound means you learn how to thrive in the world" I also enjoyed how he compares the human mating process with orchids and bees.

    A great film, in my opinion, Cage should have won another Oscar for this one, its his best performance. Donald makes me laugh so much! LIke when he says that his mother thought his script was a mix between "Silence of the Lambs and Psycho" those scenes between both of the brothers talking: gold!

  2. Yeah, I just love metafictional movies. New Nightmare is probably my favourite because it played around with what everyone thought was a dead, lifeless franchise. Also, you didn't see Wes Craven opting for someone else to play himself in that. Extra kudos.

    Kaufman's films are always enjoyable (I think I still need to catch Human Nature - his one apparent 'misfire'). His screenplays work on several different levels and have this very personal, distinct, idiosyncratic flavour. No one else is writing scripts like him. He tackles huge subjects on these very intimate settings.

    Yeah, the Academy should have had some balls and given Cage two Oscars for this!

  3. I'm glad that you love this film as much as I do! I haven't seen Eternal Sunshine yet (or Kaufman's directorial debut Synecdoche, New York) but also prefer Adaptation to Being John Malkovich even though I like both. I also love meta-fictional movies. I have yet to see New Nightmare but it sounds like something I will really enjoy.
    I also agree that Cage should have won an Oscar for this role and it is his best performance that I have seen. I'm just glad that Chris Cooper won, though Streep was also deserving and I think it should've won best adapted screenplay as well.
    Oh and I have seen Identity and it is pretty similar to "The 3" though I guess that is just a coincidence.

  4. Yeah, Eternal Sunshine is almost just as good as this. Great Jim Carrey performance in that.

    New Nightmare you should definitely check out. Very bold direction for an Elm Street sequel.

    I too need to catch up and watch Synecdoche NY. Seems like it might make a good companion film with Adaptation being that it revolves around a director making an enormous stage play.

  5. Word of warning Jack: Synechdoche New York is a bit of a chore to watch, its heavy thematically, and it covers a lot, but is not as engaging as other Kaufman films. Still, same as all his previous ones, its very personal. He speaks about aging, and that time of life when we start looking back at all we've done...or not.

    Human Nature, to be honest, I didnt consider it a misfire, I remember enjoying it. It's one of his more symbolic scripts, dealing with our animal natures, how we try to domesticate ourselves, but would probably be happiest roaming free through the world, without all the rules and regulations. Kind of like that song by the The Kinks "Ape Man".

  6. I am looking forward to seeing Eternal Sunshine and am curious about Synechdoche, New York.

    I actually have all the Nightmare on Elm Street movies (well except the 2010 remake) but I'm saving them to watch in October!

  7. Cheers for the warning Franco. Will check out Human Nature first.

    Chris: cool, looking forward to your Nightmare reviews. I'm planning to cover all the Hellraiser movies during October.