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.