Adaptation (2002)

D: Spike Jonze
S: Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep

Adaptation is not so much a movie as it is a thesis on screenwriting. The film is likely to prove fascinating for those of a mind to appreciate its level of thematic, symbolic, and psychological self-involvement, but casual viewers may be baffled by a text which revels in transforming itself to the point where it becomes another film entirely before it comes to its conclusion. It self-consciously plays narratological games with the ironclad rules of Hollywood screenwriting. It even has its central character receiving dollops of wisdom from Robert McKee (not played by himself). If you don't know who that is, then you really shouldn't bother with the film, because what value it has is rooted deep in the satirical undercurrents which link its various metaphors of self and other through the conventions of story structure.

Written by Charlie Kaufman, the film is centred on a character called Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage), a hot young screenwriter with a distinctive cinematic 'voice' introduced on the set of Being John Malkovich (another treatise on self and other which the real-life Kaufman wrote) as the shuffling, almost invisible man behind the scenes that no one knows and few appreciate. Charlie has been hired to adapt a non-fiction book about a man with a passion for rare flowers (simultaneously cueing a thematic concern with evolutionary 'adaptation' and the adaptation of a text from one form to another in a process which also changes the one into something other than what it was to begin with), but is having trouble. To add to his woes, his more confident and outgoing identical twin brother Donald is making progress on his by-the-number's thriller script (which is called "The 3" - geddit?). The fact that there is no Donald in real life but that 'he' has nonetheless been credited as co-author of the screenplay is yet another clue about how deeply self-involved this film really is. The fact that it also features several scenes of Charlie masturbating in frustration pre-empts any critical use of the words 'self-indulgent', which Charlie (the character) himself uses at one point to describe the script he is writing, which is, of course, the film the audience is seeing.

It goes on like this, intercutting Charlie's struggle to create his story based on someone else's story (which has a story behind it which he is trying to uncover as he goes) with a (re)construction of that story (confused? You should be) starring Meryl Streep as the book's author and Chris Cooper (American Beauty) as the plant enthusiast. Kaufman and director Spike Jonze create enough narrative momentum to hold it all together, but by the time the film reaches its 'subversive' climax, it is clear that they really have nowhere to turn to other than cliché. It is often observed that a parody which sticks too close to its inspiration merely ends up a copy of what it sets out to satirise. When Adaptation lurches into a ridiculous thriller finale which breaks all the rules of screenwriting which the Robert McKee character has just expounded upon in his own condescending fashion, the film has not so much turned up the heat on the formula as simply come up with a relatively arbitrary (though not unforeshadowed) final act. It's all very clever if you've read Syd Field and McKee and have sat through enough seminars (and, to be fair, the film gives you as much help as you can have to understand all of this), but there is very little reason to care in spite of all of Kaufman's efforts to explain himself as clearly as he can.

Adaptation is certainly an interesting follow up to Being John Malkovich, and though it falls into a sub-generic category of Hollywood movies about movie making, it does have enough of a 'voice' (the elusive quest for 'voices' in Hollywood is another running gag, embodied in agent Tilda Swinton using the same line of praise on both Streep and Cage's characters at different points in the script) to make it a genuine work of cinematic art. It is nonetheless a film which offers few real rewards for the level of attention it requires to sort through its various layers of self-reflexivity. There are those for whom the journey alone will be worth it, but there is ultimately less here to ponder than there actually appears. It does ultimately boil down to a simple set of dialectical oppositions between notions of self and other, run through with a concern for the meaning of true 'adaptation' which it links to social, psychological, and ultimately physical survival. Is this what Charlie Kaufman needs to do in order to survive? God help him.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.