Computer scientists call it recursion. It is a term used to describe something that can only be defined by smaller instances of the same thing. Charlie Kaufman, with his metaphorically boundless ideas, adapted this concept into a screenplay. "Adaptation." could be either narcissistic or brilliant, as Kaufman wrote about himself in his screenplay. Charlie Kaufman became the leading role of the movie he wrote. This story was certainly uncommon, yet it’s also undoubtedly genuine at the same time. Some even called it a breakthrough in building ideas for a screenplay. Now, the question is, could a genuine, non-mainstream story entertain?
It’s yours to decide. “Adaptation.” (with a dot after the word) was started in the filming location of “Being John Malkovich”. Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage), as the screenwriter of that film, went out of the studio with his problem in his mind, as he previously approached by a film producer named Valerie (played by Tilda Swinton) to adapt a non-fiction book titled “The Orchid Thief” written by Susan Orlean (played by Meryl Streep) into a film screenplay. In her book, Susan told a story of an orchid lover named Jack Laroche (played by Chris Cooper) and explored how Jack was so obsessed and passionate with the beauty of orchid. Charlie found that this story was so hard to be visualized into a screenplay, that in his stressful condition, he finally started to write his adaptation: he wrote about himself dealing with his problem adapting “The Orchid Thief” into a screenplay.
"You are what you love, not what loves you." - Donald Kaufman
Here is the recursion: “Adaptation.” is a film about how the screenwriter of “Adaptation.” write the screenplay of “Adaptation.” by adapting from “The Orchid Thief”. And, while “adapting” is slightly different from “adopting”, Charlie Kaufman explored this recursion to a broader topic that could hardly be categorized as a form of adaptation. So, I don’t fully agree if the real Susan Orlean received credit for her non-fictional book, as it was taken as a material for the screenplay, because finally we knew that “Adaptation.” was not fully about orchid whatsoever (although the film was told in a back-and-forth timeline which alternated from the event in the book to the adaptation process Charlie was dealing with). It’s about Charlie Kaufman and his imagination that took place in real life. See, with the presence of a character named Donald Kaufman (also played by Nicolas Cage) as a fictional twin brother of Charlie Kaufman, we were invited to obscure our own mindset in seeing if the film is a true adaptation or not. Until this point, I would agree that Charlie Kaufman was brilliant: he fictionalized real event in such a way that we could see it as a non-separated part of reality. It’s no longer an adaptation, it’s like a different screenwriter observed how Charlie Kaufman met his writer’s block in adapting a book into a screenplay, that this unknown screenwriter finished his screenplay which eventually became a film titled “Adaptation.”. The brilliant part is, this unknown screenwriter guy is Charlie Kaufman himself.
But, back to the question, did this adapting-an-adaptation stuff work? While it received acclaims from many critics and awards (Academy Awards and Golden Globe were absolutely no exceptions), average viewers may think that it didn’t work out. It was less entertaining, quite hard to follow, and somehow tricky. A line of outstanding performers was truly an added value, as Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper (and even Tilda Swinton or Cara Seymour who played Amelia Kavan, Charlie’s crush) did a very good job for each character. Nicolas Cage did a remarkable achievement for his acting, as he not only portrayed a real person (Charlie Kaufman) but he also portrayed a fictional character (Donald Kaufman), and both had a very different characterizations (while Charlie was always nervous, skeptical, and thoughtful, Donald was more passionate, warming, and relaxing). It’s indeed a hard job for Cage, but he could show a nearly flawless performance for the two characters. It’s great. Meryl Streep was always amazing, and portraying Susan Orlean (with her developing characterization) might be an easy task. Chris Cooper, receiving his first Oscar statue for his acting, successfully brought a good character of Jack Laroche with his obsessive, straight-forward, and earnest heart (although I think his acting was less spectacular compared to Cage).
Charlie Kaufman is one of the best auteurs for today’s age of cinema, for sure. He found nothing limited him from putting any kinds of idea into a visual work. Finally, the power of the screenplay overran the other aspects of film-making, not to mention the job Spike Jonze did as the director. That “Adaptation.” has a very contrast screenplay compared to other mainstream films was notable, but that it could entertain mainstream viewers was arguable. Still, it’s unquestionably genuine, so if you want to try a fresh, one-of-a-kind film that is surely dissimilar to others, “Adaptation.” is worth to try.
▲ Brilliant idea of story, Cage's acting
▼ Quite hard to follow
ADAPTATION. | COUNTRY USA YEAR 2002 RATING Rated R for language, sexuality, some drug use and violent images RUNTIME 114 min GENRE Comedy, Crime, Drama CAST Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Cara Seymour WRITER Susan Orlean (book), Charlie Kaufman & Donald Kaufman (fictional) (screenplay) DIRECTOR Spike Jonze IMDB RATING 7.8/10 METACRITIC 83/100 ROTTEN TOMATOES 91% MORE INFO