Friday, March 7, 2008

adaptation, by spike jonze

Adaptation (2002) is ostensibly a film adaptation of New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean's 2000 piece of nonfiction, The Orchid Thief. But it's really about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's struggle to translate the book into a film. The film brings Kaufman in as a character, and spends a good portion of its run-time dramatizing his confusion, hesitation, distraction, and doubt; as such, it's one of the most memorable, and I would say accurate, depictions of the creative process ever brought to the screen.

Kaufman—at least the character Kaufman, as we see him in the film—struggles with a handful of distinct challenges in the adaptation process. One of them is that Orlean's book doesn't have a strong narrative arc, and furthermore, being highly meditative and reflective, the book doesn't have a lot of material in it that translates well to a visual medium. (The end product uses a lot of voice-over, and explicitly debates the merits and drawbacks of voice-over at more than one point in the film.)

Another problem is that Kaufman seems to have varying additional agendas for his screenplay that go beyond merely wanting to adapt the book successfully. He repeatedly says that he wants the finished film to be a genreless film "about flowers," that will have the end effect of showing audiences how "amazing" flowers are. ("Are they amazing?" Kaufman's fictional agent asks him at one point, to which the fictional Kaufman responds, despairingly, "I don't know.")

In addition to that, Kaufman wants the screenplay to be a work of realism. The desire for a truly realistic fiction, one that shrugs off the various artifices of fiction in favor of the "real stuff" of life has been an obsession of experimental writers for well over a century—it's clearly articulated as early as Zola—but it's no less a grail today than it ever was. (I'm not immune to the pull: nearly all of my own fiction written over the last ten years has been organized around this impulse.) Kaufman declares, early on in the film, that he doesn't want to write something "artificially plot-driven," without "sex or guns or car chases or characters learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like one another or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end."

And this raises yet another problem, namely, the demands of commercialism. The hypothetical adaptation that the fictional Kaufman proposes (within the space of the actual adaptation) sometimes sounds amazing (I, for one, might go to see a genreless movie about flowers) but also runs the risk of being an enormous mess, and looming constantly in the background is the threat of not only creative failure but also commercial failure. The danger that Kaufman might be taken off the project or that the project itself might entirely fail is never really stated outright, but it's underlined constantly by the inclusion of Kaufman's fictional twin brother, "Donald," who is crashing with Charlie and writing a screenplay of his own.

Donald's screenplay is for an unbelievably trite thriller called The Three. Trite, yes, yet also seemingly far more bankable, and towards the end of the film Charlie elicits Donald's help to finish the Adaptation screenplay, and the entire narrative lurches nauseously towards a passably commercial finale. There's some very sharp satire embedded here about the kinds of stories that a massive capitalist industry like the film industry is willing to invest in telling.

Ultimately, Kaufman seems to want to celebrate the power in the creative process: writers, after all, have a literally infinite number of ways to tell a story. At one point, Kaufman makes a decision that the film needs to incorporate a history of life on earth, and, indeed, the finished film dutifully provides this as a montage:

And yet this near-omnipotence is held endlessly in check, not only by the accompanying neurosis and crippling self-doubt, but also by the strictures of capitalism, the existence of a "professionally skeptical" financing system that determines which stories get told (or at the very least produced, or distributed). In its sharp-eyed analysis of this point, the film has a real tragic dimension to accompany its comic moments and metafictional playfulness.

Next week we continue with reflections on the art of adaptation with Skunkcabbage's pick, The Hours. His write-up on Adaptation is here.


Chet Mellema said...

I love this movie. Anyone who has attempted to write any original (even if it's an' still original writing), should have a tough time not getting gloriously wrapped up in Charlie's world. The doubt, writer's block, eureka moments that turn out to be quite banal upon reflection, and on and on. This movie is one of those endlessly watchable pleasures for me. Thanks for the write-up.

jpb said...

This time was the third time I saw it, and it's still engendering new thoughts for me. There were a half-dozen ways I could have written about it...