The absurdity of a film about a writer writing the same film serves as a source of humor and a subtle comment on the nature between a film and its script. Adaptation (2002) is a comedy-drama film written by Charlie Kaufman, starring Nicholas Cage as Kaufman himself. Directed by Spike Jonze, the film concerns, as the title suggests, the adaptation of a novel, The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (played by Meryl Streep), into a Hollywood screenplay. Adaptation tackles the concept of a film about making a film as it documents Kaufman’s frustrating struggle to complete his script in a series of events and flashbacks. The line between the author and his work is ambiguously drawn as elements of Kaufman’s life are mirrored in his script, as well as the film itself; at one point Kaufman bewilderedly states that he has “written [himself] in his own screenplay.” By drawing parallels between Kaufman and own his script, director Jonze provides a hilariously ironic narrative structure that further critiques the conventions of Hollywood screenwriting.
Adaptation’s episodic narrative structure creates these parallels between Kaufman’s screenplay and his life, and thus comments on a relationship between a writer and his script. The film transcends temporal space and interweaves through various time periods, jumping mostly between the present day and the three years in the past in which the events of The Orchid Thief are set. For example, when Kaufman is lying in bed, his voice-over narration reads begins to read a quote from The Orchid Thief, which is finished by Orlean herself; this is used to transition into Orlean’s story three years prior, and a similar transition is used to return to Kaufman’s story. This structuring of the narrative in an order that cuts between Kaufman’s present-day confront with his adaptation piece and Orlean’s story forces audiences to follow Kaufman’s personal journey through his writing process as he interacts with the text. The scenes detailing Susan Orlean’s book that occur “3 Years Ago” in Florida are revealed as Kaufman continues his piece, and thus causes viewers to follow Kaufman’s perspective throughout the film. The order of events serves two functions: first, following the story from a single character’s point of view creates sympathy for the character and drives viewers to become engaged and involved with the movie; secondly it compels audiences to feel the same insanity and frustration that Kaufman faces in writing his screenplay. And by portraying the neurotic, insecure, and desperate Kaufman, Jonze is able to provide a darker side to Hollywood screenwriting.
Perhaps the most obvious critique lies in the fact that most of Kaufman’s difficulties in his task stems from his refusal to give The Orchid Thief the classical “Hollywood treatment.” Because the aforementioned narrative scheme draws parallels between Kaufman and the story, audiences sympathize with his determination to preserve Orlean’s original story and avoid turning his script into a “Hollywood thing.” There is a humorous tone when he mocks “artificially plot-driven” alternatives to the story like “an Orchid heist” or “changing the orchids into poppies and turning it into a movie about drug-running.” Juxtaposing the accounts in The Orchid Thief with Kaufman’s struggle to adapt its story (while avoiding Hollywood clichés) criticizes the movie industry’s standard of formulaic dramatic plots and its reputation for changing and revising novels and scripts. Furthermore, the three-year gap that exists between the two narratives mirrors the separation between Orlean and Kaufman’s adaptation, representing the loss of control writers face when their novels and screenplays undergo major revisions before becoming a feature film. After Orlean remarks that she’s never written a screenplay before, and the producer responds that they “have screenwriters to write the script,” the narrative shifts back to Kaufman’s desperate and almost pathetic plight to do this. Not only does this criticize Hollywood’s butchering process of script revisions, but this also voices concern towards the competency of its writers as illustrated by Kaufman.
The manner in which the narrative structure juxtaposes the two stories also provides another criticism of Hollywood scripts. The linear timeline of the movie constantly jumps all over the place (time), often having flashbacks (earlier scenes that interrupt the chronological development of the story) within flashbacks. For instance, at one point the timeline shifts from present day (Kaufman and his script) to three years prior (Orlean’s writing of The Orchid Thief), to one hundred years prior (the events of The Orchid Thief), back up to two years earlier from present day (Orlean’s New Yorker piece that is to become The Orchid Thief), to six months later (the story of the Orchid Thief himself John Laroche), and finally back to Kaufman in present day. This confusing narrative timeline serves to frustrate viewers as they trace the relevant and irrelevant scenes, which parallels Kaufman’s aggravation in selecting key scenes for his adaptation process and thus sheds light on the maddening process that goes into Hollywood screenplays. Furthermore, the ridiculousness of the non-linear timeline also stands to ridicule the over-dramatized convoluted plots that Hollywood releases – the type of plot Kaufman refuses to “make up.” This extreme episodic construct creates a humorous mocking of the Hollywood stories involving multiple storylines and flashbacks. A similar case is Kaufman’s preposterous concept of writing himself into his script on more than one level:
“We open on Charlie Kaufman. Fat, old, bald, repulsive, sitting in a Hollywood restaurant, across from Valerie Thomas, a lovely, statuesque film executive. Kaufman, trying to get a writing assignment, wanting to impress her, sweats profusely. Fat, bald Kaufman paces furiously in his bedroom. He speaks into his hand held tape recorder, and he says: ‘Charlie Kaufman. Fat, bald, repulsive, old, sits at a Hollywood restaurant with Valerie Thomas.’"
This portion of the film involving Kaufman’s script, which in turn involves Kaufman himself writing the exact same script, serves to create humorous Russian doll sequence that exploits the unrealistic and exaggerated nature of other Hollywood narratives.
Ironically, the progression of Charlie’s script is also positioned alongside that of his twin brother Donald’s, which is extremely formulaic and adheres to simple rules from a screenwriting seminar. The latter provides a stark contrast to Charlie’s script – while Charlie wishes to write “something simple” and remain true to Susan’s original work, Donald naïvely takes a recipe-approach that exploits cliché Hollywood stories. As Charlie ridicules his brother’s rules and guidelines, he is also mocking the standards of conventions in the industry. For instance, when Donald pitches his concept about a serial killer cop who is also the victim, Charlie directly criticizes Hollywood scripts and condescendingly scoffs,
“The only idea more overused than serial killers is multiple personality.
On top of that, you explore the notion that cop and criminal are really two aspects of the same person. See every cop movie ever made for other examples of this.”
He also mocks these conventions by sarcastically blurting cliché character concepts when Donald asks for help, such as, “The killer’s a literature professor [who] calls himself ‘the deconstructionist.’” But the irony is really taken over the edge when Donald’s horrible script – which incorporates all of Charlie’s sarcastic suggestions – generates buzz and becomes a hit in the Hollywood community. The juxtaposition of Charlie’s failures as a writer with his twin brother’s success – with simple clichés and formulaic guidelines – provides an exaggerated notion of what makes a hit in Hollywood.
Jonze’s critique fully surfaces when the narrative structure begins to parallel Kaufman’s script and the plot of Adaptation itself. He ultimately writes himself into his own script out of desperation, making the screenplay about Kaufman himself writing about Orlean writing The Orchid thief. And when Kaufman becomes extremely despaired in the face of his writer’s block, he resorts to ludicrous scenarios, such as opening the film “right before life begins on the planet” and progressing through the evolution of life itself and “the whole human civilization” until the plot begins with Charlie sitting with producer Valerie Thomas. However, the humor here lies in the fact that this is exactly how Adaptation opens. Jonze plays on the ridiculousness of Kaufman’s tentative Hollywood script when audiences realize that it is, in actuality, the movie they are viewing. That Kaufman’s horrible screenplay is a Hollywood feature illustrates and emphasizes Jonze’s criticism of similar pieces. Similarly, when Donald naïvely proposes to portray three characters as the same individual in his script through “trick photography,” Charlie scoffs at him. This is another satirical insult of Hollywood writing as trick photography is used to portray twins Charlie and Donald, both played by Nicholas Cage. Thus, Adaptation incorporates these aspects of what Kaufman believes to be poor writing to mock screenplays in the industry.
Finally, once Kaufman resorts to seeking help from Robert McKee’s screenwriting seminar, Adaptation’s narrative structure, in an obviously ironic twist, mirrors the formulaic guidelines Kaufman learns from McKee. Just as McKee advises to save Kaufman’s script by “[wowing viewers] in the end,” the latter portion of Adaptation ventures into a jarringly preposterous plot involving drugs, sex, and a chase scene that ends in Donald’s death. The movie turns into exactly what Kaufman didn’t want to incorporate in his script – treating the orchids like poppies and “turning into a movie about drug running.” Structuring this Hollywood action-packed portion of the narrative at the end of the film creates a humorous contrast with the rest of the film, which in turn makes fun of Hollywood writing that approaches the ludicrous and far-fetched. Plus, having the characters from the separate smaller narratives, Charlie, Donald, Orlean, and Laroche, convene in an epic and somewhat coincidental encounter seems to be mocking the 90’s trend in cinema toward multiple intertwining narratives (ie. Pulp Fiction, Snatch, Go).
Furthermore, Jonze intentionally employs aspects of the narrative that stray from McKee’s formulaic approaches to over exaggerate industry standards. Throughout the film, voice-over narration is used to convey Kaufman’s thoughts and emotions. When Kaufman is sitting in the writing seminar, his thoughts that the program is pathetic and useless is abruptly interrupted by McKee’s towering voice, “and God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends…[because] any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.” This is especially satirical because, as a feature film, Adaptation employs this form of narration throughout its entirety, and is seemingly effective, albeit easy to write. Similarly, McKee specifically warned Kaufman against using a Deux Ex Machina in his script – a plot device whereby an obstacle or situation is overcome through the intervention of some new foreign object or character). And of course, this is employed when, at the climax of the chase scene, an alligator appears out of nowhere and saves Kaufman. Here Adaptation, as a screenplay, is deliberately worse than McKee’s narrative formulas, and makes fun of itself to call attention to the use of these “cop-out” methods in screenwriting.
While Adaptation’s critique is undermined by the fact that it is the horrible script written by Kaufman (here on more than one level; the real writer Charlie Kaufman wrote Adaptation), its message is clear. The film’s episodic nature and juxtaposed structures between script and screenwriter humorously exploits the frustration and futility of screenwriters’ trouble in avoiding selling out and using cliché formulas in their work. By the end of the feature, Kaufman’s life and script are hilariously one and the same. The film Adaptation, as well as Kaufman’s script concludes “with Kaufman driving home after his lunch with Amelia thinking he knows how to finish the script.” This closed perpetual cycle of Kaufman thinking he knows how to end his script with himself thinking he knows how to end the script creates an ironic and funny ending that makes light of the nature of Hollywood screenwriting as a whole. That Adaptation is a Hollywood feature that structurally follows (and essentially is) this script adds another layer of criticism to break and shed light on trends in Hollywood scripts. Jonze’s criticism of these conventions is illustrated by the humorous exaggeration of the narrative structure of the film, which goes to show that not only can imitation be the sincerest form of flattery, but it can also be the sincerest form of mockery.