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Movie Review: Adaptation

By Mike Everleth ⋅ December 12, 2002

ADAPTATION is a movie about a screenwriter who, when traumatized by a severe case of writer’s block while working on an assignment, decides to insert himself as a character into said screenplay in order to finish it. Myself being a movie reviewer who has frequently inserted a caricature of himself into his reviews, I could relate very much to this film.

There’s only one thing more self-indulgent than writing a movie about writing movies and that’s writing a movie about yourself. But what’s really screwy is that ADAPTATION is ultimately really about neither. Although Kaufman uses himself as a character, the film is a perfect physical realization about the general inner workings of the creative mind.

Or maybe Kaufman’s and my brains just work on similar levels and I’m thus only now projecting that other writers go through the same process expressed in the film.

But how much of the film can even be believed? How close to the real Charlie Kaufman is the “Charlie Kaufman” played by Nicolas Cage in the movie?

It is true that the general plot of ADAPTATION — at least the first half of the film — is based on the real events that Kaufman went through trying to adapt the non-fiction book “The Orchid Thief” for a major movie corporation.

“The Orchid Thief” is a profile of obsessive horticulturist John Laroche authored by “New Yorker” writer Susan Orlean. However, there was such little material to fill up a book about Laroche that Orlean inserted herself as a character in her own work. The book — as I understand from reviews I’ve read of it; I haven’t read it myself — is as much about Orlean’s obsession of getting a look at a rare orchid growing in the wild as it is about Laroche’s obsession at cultivating them.

What was the studio thinking in acquiring the movie rights to “The Orchid Thief” in the first place? There’s no drama or tension to the story, so what they originally hire Kaufman to do is to invent a plot from the elements of a plotless non-fiction book, e.g. have Orlean and Laroche have an affair. What Kaufman wants to do is exactly the opposite. He is determined to make the ultimate anti-Hollywood film: No action, no romance, no structure, i.e. nothing “phony.” Again, why the studio even hired Kaufman is a total mystery since he never planned to do what they wanted. Or, maybe that’s just another invented scenario in the film.

If Kaufman were an independent or underground filmmaker, he wouldn’t have had a problem realizing his initial goals. I’ve seen plenty of beautifully constructed plotless films. The work of James Fotopolous comes to mind first. If Kaufman ever runs into his particular problem ever again, I would refer him to Fotopolous’s work. But, hired by a studio that demands a certain product and have that product based on an existing work, Kaufman is forced into this predicament.

To give Kaufman (the character) a foil so that there’s a physical representation of exactly what he’s internally struggling against, the real Kaufman invented a twin brother, Donald, who is easily writing a different screenplay that contains everything that Kaufman (the character, and possibly the real) despises.

It’s then at this point difficult to talk about the film anymore because it would be a terrible, terrible shame to reveal any of the plot in the second half of the film. There’s much I want to write about the significance of what Kaufman eventually comes to learn, but that wouldn’t be fair.

All I can really say is that, in my own opinion, the conclusions made by Kaufman and ADAPTATION are dead on.