From the archives: Adaptation

Adaptation is unquestionably the best movie released in 2003.Unquestionably. So stop questioning me. It’s also the most pretentious movie in recent memory. And the most solipsistic. And cheekily self-aware.

In addition, it has a brazenly multi-layered title — not only is it a film about adapting a book to a movie, it’s also a cautionary tale about the need to change or die in both literal and figurative senses.

Oh! But the cleverness doesn’t stop there. The film comes from the creative team of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman, who created Being John Malkovich — a helpful fact to know, since the main character of the movie is Charlie Kaufman, and following a brief and incredibly self-loathing voiceover the story begins on the set of the previous movie. There, Kaufman hopes to rub shoulders with the stars of the movie, or at least make eye contact, but tragically he is a big loser. This is in fact the general premise of the movie: Charlie Kaufman, creator of Adapation, is a big loser who suffocates himself creatively as he struggles to create a film version of Susan Orlean’s completely non-plot-driven novel The Orchid Thief. Meanwhile, Charlie’s slacker/drifter twin brother Donald coasts effortlessly through life – falling in love while Charlie manages to blow numerous chances with a beautiful woman who clearly has a thing for him, churning out a cliché-ridden, logic-defying action movie while Charlie struggles for half a year to complete his own script, enjoying life in every possible way while his brother wallows in self-inflicted misery. And along the way, the movie itself is created in fits and starts.

Adaptation is to movies what Understanding Comics is to comic books. Well, sort of. PretendUnderstanding Comics was written by an evil universe Scott McCloud with a penchant for yanking his audience’s chain, rather than the real universe’s pleasant, pedantic, comic-loving schmoe. It’s a movie about how tough it is to write a movie – a self-indulgence on the order of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, minus the revolting Nazi imagery. Throughout the movie, Charlie makes lists of things he doesn’t want his movie to include: deus ex machina devices, heartfelt life-affirming talks, etc. etc. And of course in the end Adaptation employs all of those storytelling elements, for reasons left entirely to the viewer to deduce. Pure cynicism? Self-deprecating humor? A snide wink? A mature understanding that good moviemaking necessarily makes use of the tools of the trade? Complete gimmickry?

Of course, the real gimmick in Adaptation is that the movie isn’t even slightly grounded in reality. Sure, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman may be every bit as neurotic as character Charlie Kaufman – he did pen Being John Malkovich, after all – but it’s a pretty safe bet that the grand finale in which the sordid reality of Susan Orlean’s life plays out with grim results didn’t really happen. And more to the point, there’s no such person as Donald Kaufman, despite his being credited as a co-author (and having a second writing credit at IMDB for penning “upcoming movie” ‘The 3). It’s all part of the intricate semi-fictional conceptual porridge concocted by Jonze and Kaufman (the real one, Charlie) to make their smirky inside joke of a film all the more bewildering.

Despite all that, the actual story is genuinely touching, and both Kaufman brothers (played adeptly by Nicholas Cage in the best split-screen F/X work since Seamus McFly) are interesting characters who share a convincing sibling dynamic. The ending is truly bittersweet, as practically everything that could possibly go wrong for Charlie does so, but he ends up a better person for it. Self-indulgent wankery of the first order, or great storytelling? Well….

Adaptation is the sort of movie that people either love for its brazenly snobbish prankery, or hate for precisely the same reason. But, honestly, when you look at the other crap that gets fobbed off onto audiences as entertainment, being “too clever” hardly seems like something to complain about. Unless, you know, you actually like the comfortable mental sludge of a Tomb Raider 2. Me, I’ll pass on that kind of crap and just pretend I’m in on Jonze’s and Kaufman’s little prank. Or maybe I simply empathize a little too much with Charlie.

Originally published Oct. 2003

6 thoughts on “From the archives: Adaptation

  1. I still do complain about Kaufmann’s scripts being often “too clever”. They are interesting enough to be rather enjoyable, but the movies ultimately suffer from it. It is very difficult to deliver an earnest, heartfelt story, while being that obviously self-aware. By constantly and rather unsubtly deconstructing conventions and adding meta layers, Kaufman’s stories often feel just too constructed and somewhat arbitrary and therefore a little cold. It may be deliberate, but style over substance is rarely the best way to go.

  2. Fair enough.

    But since you mentioned it: To me Understanding Comics is actually a great example of how form serves content. No line McCloud draws is just for the sake of it. He is comfortable and confident, while Kaufman sometimes seems almost apologetic for what he does.
    And it would be pretty great to have an equivalent to McClouds work for video games: a game that teaches how games work.

  3. I felt that both Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jones did their best work together. Is there any chance they’ll make a third movie together?

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