Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation (2002), in its exploration of the problems with adapting Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, into a film, challenges quite a few notions about the nature of adaptation, and about filmmaking in general. From the concept of genre, ideas about truth, fiction, and the line between them, closeness of adaptation, to the notion of the director as the primary creative vision behind a film, Adaptation examines the process of adapting a text through the use of self-reference, meta-textuality, and recursion to posit the ultimate futility of adapting a book like The Orchid Thief, while simultaneously adapting the book quite beautifully on a meta-textual level.
The film blurs the line between truth and fiction immediately, with Charlie Kaufman sharing the screenwriting credit title card with his fictional twin brother, Donald. Later, in the third act of the film, John Laroche, played by Chris Cooper, asks the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, played by Nicolas Cage, who will play him in the movie and suggests himself for the role. Similarly, at the end of the film, Kaufman wonders in voice-over who will play him, hoping for Gérard Depardieu. These moments have the effect of simultaneously breaking “the fourth wall” and laying bare the intrinsic element of fictionalization that occurs in any film adaptation of a nonfiction text. While a nonfiction text such as a piece of journalism or a book like All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward can refer directly to the people and events depicted, a film adaption, such as the one by director Alan Pakula (1976), cannot. There is an additional level of abstraction between Dustin Hoffman playing Carl Bernstein and the actual Carl Bernstein that does not exist in the text. The film exposes this element of fictionalization — something (the actual) screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has explored before and since, in Being John Malkovich (1999) and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) — as a basic and inherent problem of adaptation of nonfiction.
The film also wreaks havoc on François Truffaut’s “auteur theory.” In the opening scene, Charlie Kaufman is on the set of Being John Malkovich, and, despite being the screenwriter, goes unrecognized and appears to have no role in the filming process. This only throws into sharp relief, however, the creative process depicted in the rest of the movie, which is devoted completely to the screenplay. This writing process is so intertwined with, and so inseparable from the film itself, with the numerous instances of self-reference directed only at the screenplay, and not at the actual filming, that directorial decisions are made to seem somewhat subordinate. In an interview with The Guardian, Kaufman says, “one of the reasons we work well together is that I know Spike [Jonze] respects me both on a personal level and a professional one, and actually values my thoughts about what I’ve written. In my experience, that’s not always the case when directors deal with writers. Nicolas [Cage], too, was so respectful to me and to the script. Every word he says in the film is as I wrote it and to me that is… astonishing.” The creative vision here is entirely the screenwriters’.
Early in the second act, Donald bursts in on Charlie raving about the screenwriting seminar he has been attending with self-appointed film guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox). “McKee is a genius! And hilarious! He just comes up with these great jokes, and everyone laughs! But he’s serious, too, Charles. You’d love him. He’s all for originality, just like you! But he says, we have to realize we all write in a genre, so we must find our originality within that genre. See, it turns out there hasn’t been a new genre since Fellini invented the mockumentary! My genre is thriller, what’s yours?” The film cleverly dodges the question with Charlie sullenly responding with “You and I share the same DNA. Is there anything more lonely than that?” In truth, Kaufman cannot answer the question, because he has no real idea, and the film itself veers wildly between genres, from dark comedy, to faux-nature documentary, to dramatic romance, to mystery thriller. A large part of Kaufman’s frustration exposed here is that the book’s genre, a sprawling natural history of orchids intertwined with an investigation of a court case in Florida, is basically untranslatable to film.
Despite Kaufman’s purported inability to capture the beauty of Orlean’s book into a coherent film, the scenes that are closely adapted from the book are exceptionally powerful. In a scene in the first act that does not exist in the book, Laroche takes Orlean to an orchid show and expounds on what makes orchids amazing. “Point is, what’s so wonderful is that every one of these flowers has a specific relationship with the insect that pollinates it. There’s a certain orchid that looks exactly like a certain insect so the insect is drawn to this flower, its double, its soul mate, and wants nothing more than to make love to it. And after the insect flies off, spots another soul-mate flower and makes love to it, thus pollinating it. And neither the flower nor the insect will ever understand the significance of their lovemaking. I mean, how could they know that because of their little dance the world lives? But it does. By simply doing what they’re designed to do, something large and magnificent happens. In this sense they show us how to live — how the only barometer you have is your heart. How, when you spot your flower, you can’t let anything get in your way.” The scene deepens and humanizes Laroche, who has heretofore been something of a cartoon character, self-aggrandizing, egotistical, and condescending, and endears him to both Orlean and the viewer in exactly the way the book does, capturing the tone and beauty in Orlean’s prose perfectly. But, ultimately, Kaufman cannot make an entire film out of this sort of “sprawling, New Yorker bullshit.”
What he does instead with the structure of the film, however, is described by Laroche in the book as well as in the film, and by the film’s second scene. The scene quickly briefly and abruptly depicts the process of evolution in time-lapse as an iterative process, “We start before life begins. All is silent. We see the first amino acid and show step by step how things mutated, adapted, evolved,” as Kaufman describes in the second act. Here Kaufman conflates the two definitions of ‘adaptation’ and exposes his screenwriting process for the film as an iterative one. He begins with vague notions of capturing the beauty of flowers, trying to do something original. When that goes nowhere, he switches the focus of the script to Orlean herself. When this proves equally unviable (because he is afraid of meeting her), he switches focus again to himself and his own neuroses. Finally, in the third act, he gives up and subscribes to all the Hollywood conventions and cheap hacks he set out to avoid at the beginning of the film in his meeting with the film executive Valerie Thomas (Tilda Swinton). “I just don’t want to make it a Hollywood thing… making it an orchid heist thing… changing the orchids into poppies and making it about drug running. I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases or characters learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end.”
While all of this self-reflexivity, the self-awareness of the film, the recursive nature of Kaufman writing himself into his screenplay, the self-reference in structure and in plot, are none of them exactly new ideas, and can be dismissed as simply clever and amusing storytelling conceit, there is a basic sincerity to it all, an heartrending, if somewhat self-indulgent, frankness about Kaufman’s own debilitating insecurities that points to something outside of even the meta-film. He is honestly moved by the book, and honestly and intensely wants to remain faithful to it. And in a sense, he does. “That’s the end of the book. I wanted to present it simply, without big character arcs or sensationalizing the story. I wanted to show flowers as God’s miracles. I wanted to show that Orlean never saw the blooming ghost orchid. It’s about disappointment,” he tells McKee in a bar in the final scene of the second act. And in its abject failure to in any substantial way achieve any of these things, the film is itself about disappointment. And in essence, Orlean’s book is not about flowers or Florida or even Laroche, so much as it uses these things as a medium through which to talk about desire and passion and finding some semblance of sense and meaning in life, and disappointment. “I suppose I do have one unembarrassed passion,” Orlean says in a quote – one of many – taken verbatim from the book, “I want to know how it feels to care about something passionately.” Kaufman similarly uses the process of adapting the book into a film as a medium through which to speak about the same issues. This effect is almost explicit in scenes such as the final scene of act one, in which Orlean’s voice-over contemplation of the different varieties of orchid species segues directly into Kaufman’s voice-over of the different types of women present at the orchid show.
Adaptation, then, is a feature-length treatise on the insurmountable problems with and ultimate impossibility of adapting a book like The Orchid Thief. These are problems of the blurred line between truth and fiction, of genre, of faithfulness, and of authorship. But paradoxically, the end result is a beautiful and profound and capable adaptation of the book, richly resonant and perfectly in line with its themes, knowingly unoriginal in its parts, but wholly original in its sum; the film is simultaneously a multi-faceted critique of adaptation and a robust example of the very thing it critiques.
- Being Charlie Kaufman. Ed. Michael. 2003. 16 Oct. 2004.
- Kaufman, Charlie, Robert McKee, and Susan Orlean. Adaptation: The Shooting Script (Newmarket Shooting Script Series). New York: Newmarket Press, 2002.
- Leigh, Danny. “Let’s Make a Meta-Movie”. Guardian Unlimited. 2007. 14 Feb. 2003.
- Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief. London: Random House UK Limited, 1999.
- Poland, David. “Adaptation.” The Hot Button. 2005. 10 Dec. 2002. Truffaut, François. “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema.” Movies and Methods Ed. Bill Nichols. University of California Press 1954): 224–237.