The film Adaptation (2002) was directed by Spike Jonze, but it’s really screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s movie. Kaufman, who is also responsible for such mind-bending classics as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, writes himself into his own script and sets the stage for one of the most literary flicks of our time.
Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage in an un-Nic-Cage-like performance) is a flannel-clad screenwriter trying to write a follow up to his acclaimed Being John Malkovich. He is hired to write an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief, about an eccentric man named John Laroche who is passionate about collecting rare orchids from the swamps of Florida.
“I don’t want to cram in sex, and guns, and car chases,” he says to a movie executive. Charlie wants to present his story about flowers as simply as possible — no contrived story arcs, no character development, just the beauty of nature.
“I guess we thought Susan Orlean and John Laroche could fall in love,” says the bewildered exec.
Meanwhile, Charlie’s (fictional) brother Donald (also played by Cage), a goofy lay-about, decides to try his hand at screenwriting. Unburdened by Charlie’s intellectual heft, Donald signs up for a screenwriting seminar and buys into the instructor’s axiomatic dictums hook, line and sinker.
The movie goes on to track the progress Charlie’s progress as he tries to write a script for the very film that we, the audience, are watching.
In an early scene, the entire four billion year history of the Earth is captured in a montage, later in the film we actually see Charlie writing the earlier scene. The Russian Doll structure of Adaptation allows for plot strands to hook and dive around each other, becoming both part of the movie and a commentary on the movie itself.
Charlie’s script is not going well.
He tries to capture the wistfulness of Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) as Orlean tries to capture the passion of Laroche (Chris Cooper). But without guns and sex and car chases there isn’t much of a story.
While Charlie mires himself in miserable solipsism, Donald finishes his by-the-numbers serial killer script and it catches the attention of Charlie’s agent, who sells it for a lot of money.
In his haggard despair Charlie solicits Donald to help him finish his orchid script. Suddenly the movie becomes a thriller. The brothers spy on Orlean and Laroche, who catch the pair of screenwriters and decide to kill them. A manhunt through the everglades ensues. As Donald and Charlie hide from their would-be killers, they exchange revelatory confessions and come to a deeper understanding of each other. Mild spoiler alert: the film ends on an optimistic note, with Charlie figuring out how to finish the script.
So it’s a happy ending. But is it? After all, Charlie’s goal was to write a movie free of Hollywood claptrap, but under his brother’s guidance his film ends up gleefully employing the standard plot devices of the thriller; he failed to simply capture the beauty of flowers.
Round and Round, Adaptation loops in the mind, simultaneously forsaking and embracing the rituals of plot-driven filmmaking. It manages to be postmodern yet traditional, ironic yet touching, derivative yet completely original. If nothing else it is a masterpiece of storytelling acrobatics.
In 2012 seven of the top 10 grossing films were either sequels or prequels. Charlie Kaufman must just want to die.