Could Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (’02), which stars a balding, overweight, Uriah Heep-like Nicolas Cage as a bizarrely fictionalized version of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, be made today? I saw it again a few nights ago (4K Bluray), and yeah, it’s possible it could be made today, sure. But some characters would have to be un-whited as the film, shockingly and almost incomprehensibly, doesn’t have a single African American or Asian American face….eeeeeeee!!!! And Ron Livingston‘s Marty Bowen, Kaufman’s agent, wouldn’t be allowed to say that he fucked this or that girl in the ass.
22 years ago I reviewed Kaufman’s Adaptation script and called it ‘one of the most inventive and out-there scripts I’ve ever read.’ The main character, I explained, “is Kaufman himself, and that’s a big whoa right there. A screenplay about a screenwriter trying to write the screenplay? But it’s much more than that.
The ‘subject’ of Adaptation is an actual, one-time orchid-worshipper named John LaRoche (Chris Cooper), whose attempted theft of rare flora from a Florida state preserve eight years ago resulted in his being prosecuted by the state and, from that, a New Yorker profile of LaRoche and then a book called “The Orchid Thief” (Ballantine), by staff writer Susan Orlean (so named in the film and played by Meryl Streep).
Adaptation is primarily about Kaufman’s struggle to adapt “The Orchid Thief” into script form, but it’s also about LaRoche and Orlean and the importance of nurturing a devotion in life to something perfect and beautiful. It’s about the striving of mortals to merge themselves with the sublime — Kaufman in his way, LaRoche and Orlean in theirs. Like the screenplay, the movie is half about Kaufman’s situation and half about LaRoche and Orlean’s. But it begins and ends inside Kaufman’s head.
Foremost among his issues is an earnest determination not to turn Orlean’s book into formulaic Hollywood pap — no guns or shootings or scenes with gratuituous sex, he proclaims. And no characters growing or learning life lessons, or coming to like or appreciate people they didn’t like at the beginning.
Kaufman is also dealing with pressure to deliver from a producer and his agent (based to some extent on Kaufman’s United Talent Agency agent Marty Bowen), his loneliness and longings for various women (including Orlean), and his frustrating relationship with his no-account brother, Donald, a dim-witted devotee of the famous scriptwriting instructor Robert McKee (Brian Cox) who’s trying to write a screenplay of his own about a serial killer.
The reality is that Donald Kaufman is a phantom character along the lines of Andy Kaufman‘s alter-ego Tony Clifton. As Donald is also played by Cage, you can accept him as a feckless, oafish boob who is Charlie’s brother and is in fact writing a moronic serial-killer screenplay, or as a mirror reflection of some kind — a wish-fulfillment image or maybe a crassly opportunistic side of Charlie’s own nature.
The nifty thing about Adaptation‘s third act — what I really love about it, and not what confuses me or hangs me up — is that Charlie’s difficulties in writing an ending for his bizarrely self-referential script are both cynically and sincerely “solved” by Donald and McKee.
It was clear from Kaufman’s script that he considers McKee to be nearly the villain of the piece. Kaufman obviously despises the screenwriting principles McKee espouses in his classes and in his book, “Story”, which many feel have resulted in thousands upon thousands of screenwriters churning out the same type of cookie-cutter plots with the same mechanisms and rhythms.
The irony of Adaptation is that Charlie, desperate to pull his script together, goes to one of McKee’s classes and asks for his help. He also enlists the assistance of Donald, who flies to New York and gooses things along by interviewing Orlean at her office (‘She’s lying!,’ he announces triumphantly when he returns to Charlie’s hotel room) and then persuading Charlie to join him on a fast hop down to Florida.
The goal of this excursion is to see what’s really going down between Orlean and LaRoche who, it turns out, are having a passionate affair and involved in the selling of hallucinogens. They’re also more than willing to kill the brothers after their secret is discovered. But there’s an upside to these Michael Bay shenanigans: the brothers wind up sharing a tender moment together, and Charlie comes to realize how much he loves his dopier, less-hung-up half.
Believe it or not, there are people who’ve seen Adaptation who are taking these pumped-up events half-literally, and not as a metaphor for Charlie-the-screenwriter’s ultimate act of adaptation — i.e., devising an ending that most Hollywood producers would probably be satisfied with, or that Donald might have written, or McKee might have sanctioned.