When I first saw Spike Jonze's 2002 film, Adaptation, I hated it...
The story was very slow to start, the characters were quite bland and it starred Nick Cage - not once, but twice... My friend suggested I watch it because it was "about filmmaking" but, at the time, I didn't get that impression at all. As a dingus student enrolled in a media study program, acceptable films about filmmaking were Dziga's film Man With A Movie Camera (1929) or Fellini's classic 8 1/2 (1963)... Adaptation, on the other hand, was more like watching a dying animal on the roadside cling to life...
Now, nearly two decades later, Adaptation is a film I show regularly to my media production students as a masterpiece in the art of storytelling and screenwriting by the one and only, Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York, etc.).
So how did that happen?
Well, I found myself teaching media writing many years later at a small college in central New York and wanted to show a film about screenwriting... Adaptation was the first film that came to mind and so I gave it a re-watch - my second viewing - and was still left confused and somewhat disappointed... But I didn't have much time or other options at the moment and so I went with it. However, as I sat in the back of my class watching the film along with my students - now for my third time - something amazing happened. While Cage's performance was still a bit hard to stomach at times, I began to notice the many hidden layers of the film and the way the script was constantly "talking back" on itself in this strange, yet wonderful, external circular commentary that was both aware of and oblivious to itself.
The fact is, Adaptation is one of those films you HAVE to watch again and again. The film is structured in such a way that it constantly untangles itself while both moving forwards and looking back. However, the average movie-goer misses many (if not all) of the references simply because this is likely the only time they will watch the film. When I first saw Adaptation, I was too young and too naïve to appreciate what it was doing. However, when I watched the film for a second + third time, only 48 hours had lapsed between screenings and so I was able to remember parts of the story and fragments of dialogue in a way I wasn't before which completely changed my understanding of the film.
For instance, the first sequence in Adaptation (after the opening credits) is a bizarre, seemingly low-budget, montage spanning the beginning of time to the graphic birth of a new born child - which abruptly cuts to a sweaty Nick Cage, portraying screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, sitting across from a film producer who wants Kaufman to adapt a book, The Orchid Thief, into a film. As the film marches on, most viewers soon forget about that seemingly misplaced montage sequence that kicks off the film as they enter into the mundane world of Charlie Kaufman's character and his writer's block dilemma. However, nearly an hour into the film, Kaufman's character frantically paces around his house while narrating a description of the opening montage into his tape recorder as a potential intro for his script - only to play it back later, disappointed by yet another false start... To the first-time viewer, this "talk back" moment to the bizarre opening sequence likely goes unnoticed.
However, now having watched Adaptation at least 30 times, I am astounded by the number of times Kaufman (the screenwriter) weaves these false starts and failed moments into the script. The fact is, the first two acts of Adaptation are just that - the real Kaufman's many unsuccessful attempts to adapt an actual book, played back before our very eyes. However, Adaptation doesn't stop there... The film and script also stand as a self-deprecating commentary on all aspects of screenwriting tropes - and it is fantastic!
Probably the most obvious "talk back" moment in the film happens when Kaufman's character decides to attend Robert McKee's (play by Brian Cox) screenwriting seminar out of desperation; hoping to break up his writer's block... During the scene, Kaufman's sits in a crowded auditorium while a nonstop voice over narration of his hyper-critical inner-monologue overpowers the scene as McKee lectures on in the background. Finally, it all becomes too much and Kaufman stands to leave just as McKee issues a harsh warning to his students:
"...and god help you if you use voice over 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 a character."
In this moment, Kaufman's internal rant stops (both in the film and in the script) and he slowly returns to his seat. By this time in the film, the viewer has likely started to notice the "talk back" commentary and has accepted it as a part of the narrative. A few scenes later, Kaufman convinces McKee to have a drink with him so that they can talk over his script and life choices. After hearing Kaufman out, McKee explains that he needs to "go back" and "put in the drama"... McKee then shares one of the most compelling bits of advice I have ever gleaned from a film.
"The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems... But wow them in the end, and you've got a hit."
Immediately after this moment of clarity, everything about the film changes...
Suddenly, the uneventful slog of "false-starts" and melancholy that mirror the struggles of Kaufman's character come to a halt and the film springs to life! As if Kaufman (the writer) flipped a switch, Cage's Kaufman decides to take control of his life and make a change. Almost immediately, he decides to stalk the book's author, Susan Orlean (played by Meryl Streep), to Florida where he uncovers a secret love affair between Orlean and the subject of her book, John Laroche (played by Chris Cooper). In an exciting twist, Kaufman discovers they have been manufacturing a type of narcotic from the orchids they have been claiming to protect. However, Kaufman is soon discovered by Orlean and Laroche who attempt to execute him at gunpoint before he manages to escape into the alligator infested swamps of the Fakahatchee state preserve...
To avoid spoiling the "WOW" ending, I'll stop there.
However, as the final scene concludes and the film fades to black, one can't help but reflect on the first conversation Kaufman has with the producer from the restaurant at the beginning of the film. After the producer suggests that Susan and Laroche could "fall in love" in the film, Kaufman's character reacts passionately about his intentions for the screenplay and his hope to stay true to the book:
"I just don't want to ruin it by making it a Hollywood thing... You know, like, an orchid heist movie or something... Or changing the orchids into poppies and turning it into a movie about drug running, you know? Why can't there be a movie simply about flowers? 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! The book isn't like that and life isn't like that. It just isn't!"
Needless to say, the adaptation of The Orchid Thief doesn't quite turn out the way Kaufman hoped and I can only guess that the character's frustrations mirror that of the screenwriter.