After an inspiring talk on top screenwriting tips from Henry Swindell at Liverpool JMU yesterday, which ended with a clip from Charlie Kaufman's BFI lecture which I loved when I first saw the lecture but took on extra meaning for myself yesterday. I'm not going to tell you which clip was shown as you should really watch the whole thing for yourself.
Well, after that, i began thinking of an article I worked on a while back which ended up in SPLICE magazine, like my previous article on Hidden it's aimed at A level students and teachers but if you like the film you may find it interesting.
The most favoured line used by audiences in describing a film adaptation is usually dismissive, something like “It wasn’t as good as the book”. The reason for this? “Usually it’s a simple matter of lost intricacy, or bowing to the fears of those who place millions of dollars in a film makers hands.” There are a few exceptions to that rule, successful adaptations which comes down to personal taste, but then there is the film entitled Adaptation (2002), scripted by Charlie Kaufman, directed by Spike Jonze and based on the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean.
It is almost beyond definition, asking many questions from its audience even before you consider the question of film adaptations; their fidelity to the source, and what makes a successful adaptation. Adaptation stares at the process of adaptation long and hard, but is it an actual adaptation?
One thing is for sure Adaptation is a film which focuses on the screenplay, many times over in a self reflexive and intricate way, and for that reason it’s imperative that any exploration of Adaptation should start with Charlie Kaufman.
Before Adaptation, Kaufman was a TV writer, who had broke into movies. Adaptation was his fourth feature screenplay, the second of which to be directed by Spike Jonze, the first they worked on together was the one which broke Kaufman as a surreal screenwriting talent, Being John Malkovich (1999). Human Nature (2001) and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) followed, until Kaufman and Jonze were to work together again on Adaptation. Before the film was released there was a huge buzz about the pair working together again, especially when people realised that Nic Cage was to be playing a character called Charlie Kaufman, and another called Donald Kaufman.
But it wasn’t to be an original script like Being John Malkovich and his other screenplays, this was to be an adaptation of a book concerning flowers; Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. The book was released in 1998 and explores the arrest in 1994 of John Laroche for poaching rare orchids. Already the book was an adaptation of real events. Kaufman states when asked where he started with the project that the idea started with the book but “I like to be free. I don’t want to know too much when I start. I want to be free to go with it where it takes me.”
So is Adaptation an actual adaptation of the book? Charlie Kaufman didn’t feature in the book so how could he be a character in the adaptation? What is the film Adaptation about; the art of adaptation, Fantasy and perception, Surrealism, Flowers, Humanity, The inter-connectivity of all things, identity crisis, Mortality, Narrative structure, or, all of the above and probably more?
Adaptation is a tricky but often travelled road for Hollywood film studios. The website Meta Critic did some research into the numbers of films adapted from pre existing material after they commented that “It appears that no existing concept, however tenuous, can escape the reach of Hollywood studios, who will seemingly devote every resource they have to avoid developing an original idea.” Their findings show that in 2010 only 40% of films came from original ideas, and this figure is decreasing year upon year.
There are many ways to adapt material; stay faithful to the source in every aspect, choose a section of the story to focus upon and hone in on that making it the central narrative thrust, completely change it from top to bottom, or keep true to the essence of the material whilst weaving in your own artistic vision.
This aspect known as artistic vision is usually attributed to directors, who are given auteur status by marketing departments, yet in the sixties the auteur theory was more critic led coming from Francois Truffaut and highlighted in America by Andrew Sarris’ article in the Village Voice, yet in this case it is Charlie Kaufman and his writing which could be attributed auteur status, and whilst Spike Jonze brings this to life in a very creative fashion the focus of this article will be upon the screenplay, as is indeed apt for the film in question.
Kaufman’s ‘auteur status’ stems from the idiosyncrasies of his screenplays as well as the recurring themes throughout all his work, which make his scripts seem so original. Putting himself into the work is the first sign that Charlie Kaufman was doing something completely different with this adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, but it wasn’t something that occurred to him straight away. It wasn’t his reason to adapt it. That was because “It seemed not to be a movie, which intrigued me. I liked the book and it wasn’t the kind of thing that I was being sent – I was getting sent the weird stuff because I’m the weirdo. But this was a straightforward book, very well written. I was learning things; it was about flowers – there was very little drama in it. It seemed, “Well it’s an interesting book, why can’t it be an interesting movie?””
It’s this question which drives the narrative of the film. Instead of a straight adaptation of the book we get the story of Kaufman adapting the book, intertwined with his adaptation as he becomes part of the novel. The first line is from Charlie Kaufman himself, played by Nic Cage and it is “Do I have an original thought in my head?” Already taking us into the angst of the screenwriter, and preparing us for the journey of this individual and entirely original adaptation. These two words are a strange juxtaposition in Hollywood – an original adaptation – but that is what Kaufman has created.
Susan Orlean sums up how Kaufman’s adaptation of The Orchid Thief works stating that “strangely, marvellously, hilariously, his screenplay has ended up not being a literal adaptation of my book, but a spirutual one, something that has captured (and expanded on) the essential character of what the book, I hope, was about.” Also finding it very apt that a book on orchids was the one Kaufman chose to adapt in this way, calling it a “strange but perfectly fitting fate for the book. The book’s subject, nominally anyway, is orchids, which happen to be complex organisms that have taken on literally thousands of different forms; they are the most cleverly adaptable living things on earth.”
What Kaufman created with Adaptation unfortunately comes with a horrible term to pigeon hole it. Whilst Adaptation is a wholly original film, critics would try to label it as meta fiction. The definition of meta fiction is “a type of fiction that self consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion. It is the literary term describing fictional writing that self consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self reflection.”
Meta fiction came into literature upon the wave of the post modernists and is now becoming more and more a part of film language. The most prominent mainstream example of meta fiction can be seen in the Scream (1996-2011) horror film franchise; known for deconstructing the horror genre and the characters being self aware of all the conventions and how to avoid said conventions to not get killed by an avenger carrying out their own horror film.
For a good example of the meta fiction in Adaptation, one of the opening scenes can be used. The scene after the introductory monologue with Kaufman laying out his insecurities against a black screen with the credits opens on the set of Being John Malkovich. The style of the camera is fuzzy and handheld, much like a behind the scenes documentary. A realistic depiction of an exaggerated world, the sound tinny like recorded for someone’s home video. They are on the set of the ‘Malkovich, Malkovich’ scene, where in the film John Malkovich has entered his own brain portal and everyone has his face, or at least a mock up of that set. The lines of reality are blurred. This is highlighted by the sub headings that introduce members of the crew. Firstly, introducing the location, ‘On the set of “Being John Malkovich” Summer 1998’, then ‘John Malkovich, Actor’, sending up himself by demanding things on set. We then get a super imposed title for ‘Thomas Smith, First Assistant Director’, ‘Lance Acord, Cinematographer’ before the camera pans to Nic Cage and we get the title ‘Charlie Kaufman, Screenwriter’ and this is the first occasion that the reality is subverted, and we’re let in on the meta joke. The audience know that this is Nicolas Cage but now instead of the reality of the ‘real’ John Malkovich we’re being asked to invest in a movie character, drawing attention to the fact that this is a movie, and drawing attention to the fact that we as a member of the audience have to suspend our disbelief.
What is being adapted?
With Adaptation, the self awareness mainly comes during the writing process, so Kaufman is aware he is adapting material and he deconstructs the adaptation process in front of our eyes, showing the audience how he made the choices in the adaptation to adapt The Orchid Thief. To do this Kaufman has to bring to the audiences’ attention the world of the screenwriter, the world of three act structures, inciting incidents and character motivations. This makes it a good film to show students who are undertaking a screenwriting part of the course.
Most importantly, Adaptation introduces Robert McKee’s Story, through Donald and later Charlie visiting his Story seminar as well as through playful discussions on narrative structure. This becomes integral to the plot. Some could argue more so than The Orchid Thief, and I would like to put forward that Adaptation is more of an adaptation of Robert McKee’s Story than it is of The Orchid Thief.
The full title of McKee’s 500 page opus is ‘Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting’, and alongside this ‘screenwriters bible’ McKee runs hugely popular screenwriting seminars known as the Story Seminar. He is alongside Syd Field and Todorov as ‘experts’ on structure and story, and a controversial figure as derided as he is acclaimed in screenwriting circles. So, how is the film an adaptation of a book and seminar on the mechanics of screenwriting?
There are some key scenes to look at to understand how an adaptation of the Orchid thie turned into adapting a 500 page book on the mechanics of screenwriting.
The use of McKee’s Story as source material for the Adaptation makes the film a great choice to use in the classroom to look at structure and some of McKee’s screenwriting principles. It also allows for discussion on originality in modern cinema versus the commerce of mainstream action blockbuster fare. And of course allows for a discussion on the process of Adaptation.
The last point made above is a theme repeated throughout the movie but never more eloquently than in an early scene which flashes back ‘Four Billion and Forty Years Earlier.’ After Kaufman asks “How am I here? How did I get here?” we’re treated to a montage of life evolving from scenes of lava and a big bang, through sea creatures, plants growing, dinosaurs being wiped out, time lapse photography of the polar ice caps ascending and descending, and land shifting before we see the rapid rise of mankind through buildings, cities, the whole landscape changing, followed by the birth of a baby. This scene highlights how life has adapted and changed through time to get to the point we are now. At once a comment on adaptation, and how life is constantly changing and evolving, everything is in flux, and also emphasising the point that things need to change to move forward, going against McKee’s principles that must be followed to create a film. These scenes are backed up with many references to Charles Darwin throughout the film. Kaufman even inserts a flashback of Darwin working, and Laroche listens to Darwin’s work on audio cassette in his truck.
In the very next scene Kaufman continues to outline the themes of the film as well as linking the film to McKee’s principles. The scene takes place over a lunch where Kaufman is pitching his adaptation of The Orchid Thief to a studio representative. The first line of dialogue that leaps out is when Kaufman says he wants to “Let the movie exist, rather than be artificially plot driven.” This functions on two levels; one, as a way of dismissing McKee’s methods which Charlie Kaufman does constantly throughout the movie to Donald, and secondly, as a put down to modern mainstream Hollywood and how instead of evolving and adapting they are becoming stagnant, and recycling ideas rather than adapting them and evolving them. This second point is hammered home by Kaufman’s next statement which says he doesn’t “want to cram in sex, guns or car chases.” This functions as another dig at mainstream Hollywood adaptations which exaggerate the material in a lazy attempt for a dramatic resolution, whilst also highlighting the insecurities of Kaufman in adapting an important book. A line which fuels Kaufman’s adaptation of The Orchid Thief, and that sets up the meta joke that underlines the resolution of the film.
Resolutions are alluded to throughout Adaptation. After Kaufman goes on a ‘date’ to the theatre Amelia, his ‘date’, replies that they didn’t enjoy the ending. Later, Donald Kaufman states he liked the film Dressed to Kill until the third act denouement, although he pronounces this wrong, much to his brothers frustration.
The resolution is the main act of the film where Kaufman uses McKee’s Story as his source material, but this is built up first, through the allusions mentioned above and some other choice scenes as well as through the entire structure of the film.
The key scene to build this up, and for the entire structure of the film concerns Kaufman, whilst struggling with his adaptation of the novel, going along to one of McKee’s seminars. Robert McKee is portrayed in Adaptation by Brian Cox. At the seminar he interrupts McKee’s flow with his self hating voice over concerning the failings of his script. McKee then stares at Kaufman continuing with his seminar and saying, “If you use voiceover in your work, my friends, God help you! It’s flaccid, sloppy writing! Any idiot can write voice over narration to explain the thoughts of the character.” This is followed by Kaufman being shot down by McKee in reply to a question he’d asked about his problems adapting The Orchid Thief, which then leads to Kaufman taking McKee aside to have a drink and a quiet word about the adaptation of this novel. McKee advises Kaufman to go back into it and put in the drama. “I’ll tell you a secret,” McKee says, “The last act makes the film. Wow them in the end and you got a hit.”
This scene is the catalyst for one of the film’s most elaborate meta jokes, worthy of another Kaufman, the late comedian Andy Kaufman who would construct elaborate jokes regarding his identity and play with the audience, as seen in the Milos Forman’s film Man on the Moon (1999). After McKee plants the seed in Kaufman’s mind that twin brothers wrote the screenplay to Casablanca, Charlie Kaufman returns home and passes the screenplay to his brother Donald to look at and figure out. The screenplay for Adaptation is attributed to Charlie and Donald Kaufman, but the cine-literate audience will know that Donald only exists within the world of the film. Maybe the two names represent the dual adaptation taking place, Charlie representing the adaptation of The Orchid Thief and Donald representing the adaptation of Story.
The film seems to suggest that Donald is responsible for the resolution of the film. The moment he becomes involved in the script writing process could be seen as Plot point 2, or the moment that propels the action into the resolution of the film.
The resolution involves every Hollywood cliché that Charlie Kaufman wanted to avoid in adapting The Orchid Thief. There is sex between Laroche and Susan Orlean, a car chase and guns, lots of gunfire shoot outs. The film ends with a nonsensical action sequence with all emotions heightened to an unbelievable, but inevitable pitch for your standard Hollywood film. What makes this resolution startling here is the self conscious change of tone from what’s gone previously, it’s like Kaufman has handed the writing over to the part of him that takes guidance from McKee rather than the writer that wanted the film to exist to be free from conventional shackles, or in the world of the film, he’s let Donald write the ending.
It has become apparent that the film has become an ironic adaptation of McKee’s Story. Using the narrative structure as the punch line to the actual film is the very essence of what the film is about on one level. The film itself that is an adaptation becomes about Adaptation, and actually adapts a screenwriting guide. You can’t really get more self referential than that. It heightens its meta fictional content to the point where the audience are fully aware that they are watching a construct, as they are being told every second by the script which intentionally challenges the viewer. But, for the majority of the running time the audience are misled to believe they are watching a constructed adaptation of The Orchid Thief, where really they are watching a deconstruction of Robert McKee’s screenwriting guide, Story.
McKee looks at it this way, “The Orchid Thief could not be adapted, it had to be re invented. Kaufman criss crosses a Disillusionment plot with an Education plot. A disillusionment plot opens with a protagonist at the positive, someone with an optimistic view of the world, then arcs him/her to a defeated, pessimistic end. An education plot is the opposite. It begins with the protagonist at the negative, clinging to a dark, pessimistic mind set. Experience then teaches this character to see life anew, arcing him/her to an upbeat, if not optimistic, sense of world and self. The former is Susan’s story, the latter’s Charlies.”
And through McKee’s interpretation of the film we reach the real resolution, that the process of adaptation is taking from someone else to appease yourself. In adapting Orlean’s book, Kaufman ruins everything that he held in regard about said book, but made peace with himself in doing so. Much like most art, adaptation becomes a cathartic exercise.
The question still remains whether this is an actual adaptation or not. Is it just an examination of the adaptation process. My viewpoint would be that in its structure it adapts McKee’s methods, satirising them at the resolution and therefore, since it’s a film about a writer writing a screenplay, and we are watching that process, I consider it an adaptation of Robert McKee’s story. Yet, Susan Orlean sees it as a spiritual adaptation of The Orchid Thief, McKee sees it as Kaufman fusing two established stories together in a surrealistic manner. What this highlights is that the film is open to interpretation, and allows the viewer to place his own meaning onto it. In breaking down the barriers of the suspension of disbelief that we’re watching a movie Kaufman consistently challenges the viewer as to what the movie is about, and what type of viewer you are will impact upon the outcome of what you get out of the movie. A passive viewer will see an entirely different movie to an active viewer, a Kaufman fan will see a different movie to a viewer who expected an adaptation of The Orchid Thief.
Adaptation, as well as providing many areas of discussion is perhaps best used to look at spectatorship theories, especially when analysing pre conceived expectations, as most adaptations come with expectations of the pre existing material. Adaptation overcomes this by evolving and adapting into something new; a model which most Hollywood adaptations would benefit from.
Kaufman, Charlie & Donald, Adaptation: The Shooting Script, Newmarket Press, 2002
McKee, Robert, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting’, Metheun Press, 1999http://features.metacritic.com/features/2011/movie-sequels-remakes-and-adaptations/