The second feature film by the creative team behind the hilarious, heartbreaking mindfuck Being John Malkovich, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, director Spike Jonze, cinematographer Lance Accord, and composer Carter Burwell. It will be theatrically released worldwide on December 6, 2002. If you consider yourself a writer (and who here doesn't?), you must see this movie.


(don't say I didn't warn ya)

Charlie Kaufman was hired to adapt a novel, The Orchid Thief, by New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean, into a Hollywood screenplay.

The book is about Florida horticulturist John Laroche, who prowls the gator-infested Big Cypress swamp, getting Seminole Indians to pluck rare and valuable ghost orchids for him without fear of prosecution for harming protected wetlands. (One endangered species deserves another.) Yet, at the core of the book is the flower itself. The singlemindedness, or zeromindedness, of its existence; its perfection in pollination and its ultimate, pure beauty. John is consumed with passion for orchids, and Susan, observing this, wishes to feel a corollary passion, to be simple like a flower.
Charlie, after reading Susan's book and wishing to be true to it, has the same urge. A desire to know desire, and a need for drama and conflict where there is none. So, as she wrote herself into the novel, he writes himself into the screenplay.

All of these events happened in real life. They are also the events you see happen in the film.

Most of the body of the film cuts between Charlie in LA as he searches for the correct approach to the script, and Susan three years earlier in the Florida Everglades as she searches for the elusive ghost orchid. Eventually, (and admittedly) a story about itself becomes like a snake eating its tail, and must escape its own gravity well. Which it does, remarkably, in a fascinatingly wild third act. As Charlie struggles to understand the properties of a successful story, as he deconstructs the fictional, his own life becomes more fantastical. He is unsure if he is still the real Charlie. And, of course, in a way he never was.

This movie dares you to guess its own twist ending. Multiple personality disorder! Deus ex machina! It was all a dream! Like The Player, it dangles all these possibilities in front of you and still surprises you, with something much more satisfying. This film could be said to pick up where that one leaves off, even managing to wrest moral high ground from the recursion cycle.

Nicolas Cage, I forgive you for everything since Leaving Las Vegas. Yes, even for Snake Eyes, Con Air, and Gone in 60 Seconds. Cage (who, don't forget, is Jonze's wife's cousin) carries the film as Charlie Kaufman, fully likeable while full of self-loathing, and Charlie's twin brother Donald, also at work on a screenplay, a riotously cliched serial killer thriller. The many scenes between the two brothers are a triumph of unobtrusive special effects. Meryl Streep, probably the most distinguished and decorated American actress of our time, brings a profound sadness and surprising rawness to the character of Susan (not at all based on the real Susan, who I had the pleasure of speaking to at a special NYU screening). Chris Cooper, however, who you may remember as the ex-soldier father from American Beauty, is so reminiscent of the real John Laroche that it jarred even Laroche, according to Orlean.

Please, please, please go see this movie. You get everything. You get warm, emotional humor and biting satire. You get touching romances and terrifying car crashes. And you get the Big Issues: Existence is so glorious when simple, but that could never be all life is. It grows, it changes, it evolves, it adapts.

I'm going to avoid all the details mentioned by the noder above, and get straight to the good stuff. That said, this node is going to be made entirely of !!!spoilers!!!, so if that scares you, skip this.

Adaptation is a fine movie, but it's very convoluted and confusing. It's not told in chronological order. It's a movie about a guy making a movie, and you are watching him write the script for the movie you are watching. Confused yet? Sadly, this movie is very fine indeed, but it never really manages to escape being merely interesting, owing to this and its ending.

Let's start at the beginning before we talk of the end. Charlie Kaufman has to write a movie. Charlie Kaufman can't think of ideas. Charlie Kaufman is fat, bald, and ugly, and reminds himself constantly of this. He's also intelligent, yet he lives with Donald Kaufman, his doofus brother. Now the pathos. Cut to scene of Charlie on the set of "Being John Malkovich"; the actors are all together talking and enjoying themselves; Charlie sits in a corner by himself. His lovable brother Donald comes in, embarasses Charlie, and a week later Donald is hobnobbing with all of the actors who ignored Charlie. Donald is also dating an attractive makeup artist from the set of the movie; the woman Charlie is interested in now has a boyfriend.

Charlie's still failing miserably at writing his script when Donald decides that he too should become a movie writer. Donald is going to a class on movie writing, held by a man who claims to have figured out the formula that guides classic movies and now teaches his students how to replicate this formula in their own movies. Charlie says that what that man teaches is formulaic and a stifling of the creative process. Donald ignores him. Donald writes a cliched story about a killer with multiple personalities. Donald makes millions. Charlie is still struggling with his script.

As part of a last ditch effort to write an ending to his movie, Charlie goes to the workshop his brother went to, meets this man, and decides to abandon the creative process and follow this man's ideas. Here's where the satire begins, and this satire seems to be either Kaufman's private joke on how moronic he thinks his audience is, or on how his audience has no taste, and as a result the irony is so subtle most people will miss it.

Remember, Charlie is writing this movie as you watch him. So he writes some clichéd Hollywood nonsense in accordance with the advice from the man who runs the workshop. Remember Susan Orlean, the New Yorker writer doing an article on John Laroche? She's really in love with Laroche, and she also turns into a raging drug addict. Charlie needs to find out if this is true, so he goes down to Florida following Susan Orlean to see if she really is having an affair. She is. Now this movie slips into the absurdity that is difficult to catch because Hollywood revels in such things.

Charlie is caught prowling around Laroche's house late at night while Orlean and Laroche are getting stoned. Laroche takes him inside, and Orlean demands that they kill Kaufman. Chase seen ensues, cut to the thrilling climax where Laroche is pointing a gun at Charlie;Charlie is saved at the last minute when an alligator devours Laroche!!! Cut to cheesy romantic epiphany, cut to feel good ending, hurray for satire.

This movie had great potential. Instead it becomes Kaufman's rant against the movie industry and life in general; he feels that those who sell out (in the case of the movie industry) and idiots in general (in the case of life and the movie industry) succeed while the true geniuses suffer. His own main character suffers until he sells out, not only in the movie industry but in life; his own main character who is supposed to be him. You could take it as tragedy I suppose in which our stoic hero finally gives in, but I expected better from Kaufman than an ending that was merely a joke; I suppose he gets the last laugh because his movie will do well because he sold out. This movie is pretty good, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" is better.

A noder who wishes to remain anonymous made a good point. The Orchid Thief is a book about obsession, and this is important because Charlie can't find it, because obsession is ultimately not real life. He wants to write a movie about normal life with no car chases or anything; he realizes this will not sell so he throws in an action scene at the end and a convenient ending that ties up all the knots. He adapts, hence "Adaptation"; all life must adapt or be lost to history.

A few people have also messaged me about the ending to this movie. My thoughts: you can either say he adapted, and learned to live with not being able to date the woman he loves, or you can say it was part of the cheesy romantic ending. I'm starting to learn towards the adaptation explanation, because it seems too deep to be merely a cheesy romantic ending. You decide.

The end of this movie simply confirms its beginning. The point is more toward irony than satire, as Charlie Kaufman creates his Adaptation by breaking every single rule of good writing and then giving the movie a completely hack ending, which works nicely.

The appeal of the movie is in its exposition of the tortuous process of creative writing. By demonstrating all the mistakes and hack devices, Kaufman creates a snake eating its own tale.

What Jorge Luis Borges does with the short story, Kaufman does with a movie.



Ad`ap*ta"tion (#), n. [Cf. F. adaptation, LL. adaptatio.]


The act or process of adapting, or fitting; or the state of being adapted or fitted; fitness.

"Adaptation of the means to the end."



The result of adapting; an adapted form.


© Webster 1913.

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