Many have said that Adaptation. is simply an artsy-fartsy exercise in pretentious (read: self-reflexive) filmmaking. Indirectly, then, many have said the same about most of Charlie Kaufman’s efforts (Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York). Haven’t found anyone who’s said that this is Kaufman’s 8½, but no doubt someone has. Of course, the 8½ label only seems to apply to a filmmaker who has burned out while still in the middle of his prime, having produced a number of worthwhile films. Kaufman is chiefly a screenwriter, only having directed the most recent one of his films. Adaptation. came early enough in his career that this certainly isn’t his 8½. This is, as Kaufman admits through Nicholas Cage within the film, a sort of account of his paranoia of failure after a single success. (I’ve always found that Fellini’s dilemma somewhat pails in comparison to Kaufman’s. Multiple successes permit one to fail. A single success could just be a fluke, a fact that would seem much more haunting.)
If Charlie Kaufman is any kind of screenwriter, he is a convenient one; “convenient” in that his films are surprisingly straightforward from a thematic perspective. They may be “heady,” but only in the most literal sense. At least a few of his films take place, literally and/or figuratively, in the minds of their protagonists. The screenwriting lecturer in Adaptation. insists that voiceover is the laziest form of screenwriting that exists, one of many self-critical moments in the film. In Being John Malkovich, the characters find a portal into the actual head of the titular actor and don’t hesitate to explore not only Malkovich’s head but the implications of their entrance in all of its Freudian (read: sexual) glory. In Adaptation., Kaufman needs to give his filmic self an alter-ego, so what does he do? An identical twin, also a screenwriter, but socially capable and a writer of blockbuster movies. This is so un-subtle that it’s somehow subtle…or asubtle. The story we’re watching is a fictionalized version of the film itself. It is an adaptation, so why not be honest and give it that title, instead of the more sensational and mysterious The Orchid Thief, the book on which it is based. Thank goodness for Spike Jonze, a gifted yet humble enough film director to take on a couple Kaufman screenplays and let them be themselves. (It looks like Jonze is doing the same with his next film, also an adaptation of sorts: Where the Wild Things Are.)
At one point while wrestling with his non-existent script, Kaufman (the one in the film) starts over with the question of “themes.” Evidently Kaufman is incessantly poking fun at himself and the world of screenwriting even while being honest about his neurotic process of creation. So one wonders in what sense Kaufman concerned himself with potential themes prior to writing Adaptation. As “adaptation” connotes change, evolution, and alteration, the film is chock full of these sorts of images. Charles Darwin himself makes an appearance, though in a sickly state. Above all, the idea of adaptation here captures the notion of survival, quintessentially Darwinian and even more so Kaufmanian.
Adaptation.‘s textuality is of a new and rather postmodern kind. It both “is” the story of the film itself and is not. The screenwriting protagonist’s constant paranoia that he not “sell out” ironically gives way within the film “text” to the need for a Hollywood ending. The screenplay within the film moves beyond its original material and into an illicit realm which, interestingly, makes a move toward silencing the author. Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), author of The Orchid Thief, becomes in the film separated from her own written account (both biographical and autobiographical) through the new, “adaptational” author’s attempt to get behind the text or move ahead of it. The problem with Orlean’s text to the filmic Kaufman is, ironically, that it isn’t more compelling. He wants it to stand on its own as a beautiful, non-narrative montage of the beauty of flowers, but due to the influence of his brother, he “sells out” and expands the screenplay to include scandalous, though true, narrative elements. So the filmic Kaufman adapts his own style through the influence of his brother Donald, whose Jerry Bruckheimer-like screenplay causes Charlie to bend the knee to the demands of the spectator. Conveniently, Charlie can delve deeper into the actual personal life of Orlean’s affair with the orchid thief. The real Kaufman, on the other hand, either gives into the pressure for a more compelling story by fictionalizing his supposedly non-fictional source material, or uses the almost-transparent instrument of autobiography to offer an excuse/rationale as to why the story must deviate from its source material. This isn’t an adaptation so much as an adoption.
In a meeting with a film producer, Orlean is flattered at the suggestion to turn her novel into a screenplay. She expresses concern, though, that she has never written a screenplay before. The producer (Tilda Swinton) quickly shrugs off her worry and says that they have screenwriters who can make it into a script. This effortless, simplistic suggestion that an adaptation can be done so easily and still remain the work of the original author is implicitly mocked here. Charlie Kaufman’s image-driven desire for Orlean without having met her leads to fantasizing, which in turn creates a fictional image of her that perverts her story and destroys her authorship. And while the Kaufman brothers pathetically spy on Orlean in order to gather more material for the adaptation, she moves from being a married, downtown city-dweller and writer for the New Yorker to cohorting with a toothless porn webmaster in a shanty house with a drug lab. As Kaufman adapts Orlean’s material, she becomes less and less Susan Orlean and more “Susan Orlean,” the character that Kaufman needs her to be. The destruction of her previous identity disintegrates as Kaufman takes the reigns of authorship from her. In another irony, the nervous, insecure character of Charlie Kaufman becomes the film’s conqueror. His shallow brother dies, the orchid thief dies, and Orlean’s life utterly falls apart. The real Charlie Kaufman, then, has used the power of the authorial pen to wield a control to which he had no access previously. When Orlean was the author, the control was hers, but the power shifts.
It seems possible, then, that Adaptation. really is autobiographical in the strictest sense, as long as “autobiographical” doesn’t necessasrily mean that events depicted equal actual/real events. Adaptation. is autobiographical in that the film depicts the story of Charlie Kaufman destroying Susan Orlean as an author. It’s another paradox of the world, the same world in which the academy, in all their pointless mental theorizing and blabbering, prophecies the direction of humanity fifty years before we get there. In the same way, obliterating someone, annihilating them, or, worse, appropriating them to one’s own personal vision, is best done without conventional weapons; pen and paper is more than enough.