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Published on January 1st, 2003 | by Kenny Hogart

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Adaptation

Classification: 15 Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper

THE message at the heart of Adaptation is in the title. The film is an
adaptation of sorts, of ‘The Orchid Thief’, an actual non-fiction book about
flowers. But in the process of adapting, Charlie Kaufman, both main
character and screenwriter, has to learn to adapt his own life. In that
process, the film doesn’t so much adapt as mutate the book. Lots of
adapting going on then. The sad conclusion seems to be, however, that
change just happens.

In yet another self-reflexive, doors-flung-open, genre-hopping piece of
para-Hollywood cinema, Kaufman and Jonze pull out all the stops. The film
places the screenwriter in the reality of his own creation and creative
process: Played by Nicholas Cage, we see him first on the set of Being John
Malkovich, the duo’s debut feature.
But unlike so many other films-about-filmmaking, Adaptation uses its
techniques to explore grand and questions about life. The plot involves
three different points in time, between which the film jumps. As well as
Kaufman’s struggle with himself and his script, there is the story of John
Laroche, a heaven-taught botanist and flower-thief. We also follow the
author of a book about Laroche, Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep).

Orlean becomes
fascinated by Laroche’s obsession with the secret miracles of nature
contained by flowers – whose mutable qualities provide another level of
‘adaptation’. One of the film’s successes is to actually get us to care
about flowers, albeit as a metaphor for life. But in framing this, Orlean’s
‘one unembarrassed passion’, she becomes disillusioned in the search. When
she finds her rare flower, ‘a ghost’, she realises it is ‘just a flower.’
Likewise, Kaufman can’t work out what is so amazing about flowers, even
though he is obsessed with writing a film solely about them.

Charlie doesn’t want to sacrifice his artistic integrity to Hollywood’s
insistence on action, crisis and formal resolution. In reality, he is a
self-loathing neurotic, crying out for love but too entrenched to change.
He also has a doppelganger. Donald, an invented twin brother, also played by
Cage, is clearly the man Charlie would like to be. Where John Cusack’s
character becomes hooked on ‘being’ Malkovich in the earlier film, however,
it takes until the end for Charlie to recognise Donald as his missing half.
Cage’s double performance is pathetically hilarious throughout. With
Charlie we feel every sling and arrow.

This is a highly split movie but it gains a wholeness through the poetic
quality of Jonze’s treatment and the grand themes of evolution and life.
Darwin makes an entry, but he is used not as science but as poetry.
The ending could be seen as giving in to everything Charlie has resisted,
or as a jokey, ironic twist, but the difference in this most Hollywood of
endings is that the preceding hour and a half has actually made us care
what happens to the characters.
Charlie can’t finish his script from his desk. The twins find their lives
are on the line when they get involved with the subject matter and start
probing into Orlean’s movements. Let’s call it method screen-writing.

Charlie Kaufman

Charlie KaufmanAsk
people to name a contemporary screenwriter and even some of the most ardent film
buffs might be left scratching their heads. In a business where actors are all
the teeth and glamour and the director takes any creative plaudits that are being
hand…


About the Author

A journalist and film critic.


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