Reviews

Adaptation

Cynthia Fuchs

Careens between fiction and confession, repetition and revelation.


Adaptation

Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Brian Cox
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Columbia
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-12-06
I believe in, I deceive in bottom weaving.
I can breathe in, make a wish in flower fishing.
-- Tricky, "Excess"

Done with fish.
-- John Laroche (Chris Cooper), Adaptation

"Do I have an original thought in my head?" The question plagues poor Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage). Flush with the success of Being John Malkovich and tormented by his sincere belief that he's unable to write another worthy word, Charlie is hired to write a screenplay based on New Yorker writer Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief. As he wrestles with a series of related the concept -- adapting someone else's book, making that adaptation original, making that adaptation comprehensible and meaningful at the same time, not to mention vaguely marketable -- he frets. A lot. Indeed, he frets himself right into the movie you're watching.

It's a sweet trick. And it only gets more complicated. The screenplay for Adaptation is credited to Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman -- a made-up externalization of the "positive-thinking" self Charlie both covets and reviles. Evoking The Orchid Thief without exactly adapting it, the movie includes scenes inspired by Orlean's meetings with John Laroche (Chris Cooper). Set in and around the Florida Everglades where he's tracking and stealing rare orchids -- in particular, the "ghost orchid" -- these interviews are initially rough on Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). Breathless and flushed, she's pitched about in the cab of John's pickup truck, scribbling notes about his "delusions of grandeur." But she soon finds herself drawn to him, his toothless grin and his incredible, seemingly serial, commitments -- to turtles when he was a child, to fossils, to fish, and now, to orchids. Consumed and all consuming, John is impatient and compassionate, missing his front teeth, a shaggy-haired, self-educated expert on the vast world of orchids. What better object of adoration could a woman have?

At least, this is the way Charlie reads Susan's story. His adaptation, also consuming, imposes itself on whatever narrative the original book may have had, itself an adaptation, a recollection, of Susan's conversations with John. While Charlie wrestles with his assignment, his obsessions and insecurities blend into these reimagined flashbacks. Charlie's version has Susan withdrawing from her literary friends and even her husband back in Manhattan, moved increasingly by her friendship with John to reconsider her own priorities, to imagine herself reflected in him. In him, she sees (or more precisely, Charlie sees her seeing) the passion she believes she lacks. At the same time, Charlie sees in her (in his mind's eye) the passion and confidence he believes he lacks.

Resplendently self-referential, Adaptation careens between fiction and confession, repetition and revelation. The second collaboration for director Spike Jonze and Kaufman, the film zips and zaps between scenes and realities. At one point Charlie, grasping for a "first scene," reels his mind back to the beginning of time, and the screen fills with time-lapsey digital-whoosh magic -- watery swirls, crawling fishies, lumbering dinosaurs, rising monkeys, and all varieties of flowers and plants. Speedy and thrilling, it all leads to Charlie, the conjurer, sweating and panting, unable to think how to get from A to B.

As Charlie lurches about in his funky panic, Donald is nursing his achy back. His self-devised therapy: to lie flat on the hard wood floors in the home he shares with Charlie, which means he tends to appear quite literally underfoot. Though Charlie can barely control his anxiety, Donald pushes on blithely, asking for advice on his latest script, something about a serial killer with a gimmicky M.O. Munching his hero sandwich, crumbs dropping on his chest, Donald boasts that mom called his script "Silence of the Lambs meets Psycho." Arrgh: exactly the commercial pitch type of thinking that Charlie can't abide.

Still, Charlie has responsibilities. His agent is annoyed. And though his studio contact (Tilda Swinton) is friendly, even complimentary, he's sure she thinks his ideas are contemptible, that he sucks. And to top it off, Charlie must endure yet another sleepless night while Donald makes noisy love with his girlfriend (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a makeup artist he met on the set of Being John Malkovich. (The flashbacks to this set are neat little in-jokes, including a moment where Malkovich, in the restaurant full of actors in John Malkovich masks, adopts an especially imperious pose, demanding that the shot run smoothly because those masks are hot. He should know.) Everywhere he turns, Charlie feels pressure. Pressure to perform and produce, to make art. To adapt.

Charlie's moves, essentially in and out of himself, become increasingly clever and twisty. He starts to admire Donald's resilience, his ability to fit in. Donald uses given structures to achieve an end -- not only does he complete his screenplay, he sells it and impresses Charlie's agent. "We all write in a genre," Donald smiles blandly, his girl beaming beside him. "Mine's thriller. What's yours?" He's as comfortable in his bromides as he is in his bulky body, content (even proud) to suck up and rehash someone else's ideas, including the formula for screenplay writing proffered by notorious script instructor Robert McKee (Brian Cox).

Charlie hates it. He's horrified by the idea that scripts must conform to formula and genre, rather than life. In life, he insists, people are sad, they don't change, nothing happens. He's condescending and judgmental, the arty smart guy that he imagines himself to be, and that he imagines Susan might appreciate. But then he realizes, she's falling for John, brilliant yes, but exceeding strange. And so, Charlie refocuses. The screenplay is not about flowers per se. It's about flowering, about fishing, about searching. And so, Charlie comes to realize that, even as he resists Donald's allegiance to "principles" and high concepts, he envies his ability to adapt.

Charlie's movie changes into Donald's. At this point, the script careens into another genre, less heady, more thrilling a formulaic climax that Donald would write, complete with car chase and sentimental disclosure. It's easy to read this turn as a descent, an abandonment of its giddy, self-congratulatory Malkovichian warps and spins, or to see it as a condescending dismissal of the sort of formula that Charlie's been deriding all along, as in cahoots with Charlie as it appears to be all along. But there's (at least) another possibility. While it scrutinizes the combination of self-hate and arrogance that typifies the Neurotic Artist, Adaptation is also thinking about something else.

On one level, the film persists in taking Charlie's view -- his alarm at the predictable shape his script takes. But then, Charlie comes to appreciate his brother's difference (that he once took to be mere uninspired sameness), even admire his generosity of spirit and hulking grace. And then the movie steps back. Donald does look sincerely different, precisely because he's so corny. Believing fervently in his ordinary dreams, he's extraordinarily generous, as nonjudgmental as Charlie is caustic and critical. But Adaptation isn't about to reward sentimentality or formula. It seeks originality. It seeks not to suck, but more than that, it seeks to survive sucking. Adaptation, the film argues, is less a matter of change than it is survival.



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.