When I first saw Spike Jonze's 2002 film, Adaptation, I hated it...
The story was very slow to start, the characters were unlikeable and it starred Nicholas Cage - not once, but twice... My friend suggested I watch it because it was "about filmmaking" but, at the time, I didn't get that impression at all. As a snubby student, a film about filmmaking would have been something like Dziga's 1929 film Man With A Movie Camera or Fellini's classic 8 1/2 (1963)... Adaptation, on the other hand, was more like watching a dying animal on the roadside cling to life.
Now, nearly two decades later, Adaptation is a film I show regularly to my media production students as I have come to recognize its brilliance - especially the writing by infamous screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.
So how did that happen?
Well, I found myself teaching screenwriting many years later at SUNY Cortland and wanted to show a film... Adaptation was the first obscure film that came to mind and so I re-watched the film - a second time - and I was still left confused and disappointed... But I didn't have much time and so I went with it. However, as I watched the film with my screenwriting students - now for a third time - I found a new appreciation for it... While Cage's performance was still hard to overcome, I began to notice the many hidden layers of the film and the circular commentary was finally coming into focus.
The fact is, Adaptation is one of those films you HAVE to watch again and again. The film is structured in such a way that it constantly points back to itself but the average movie-goer misses many (if not all) of the references simply because this is likely the only time they will watch the film.
For instance, the first sequence in Adaptation (after the opening credits) is a bizarre, seemingly low-budget, montage spanning the beginning of time to the graphic birth of a new born child - which abruptly cuts to a sweaty Nick Cage, as the film's screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who sits across from a film producer who wants Kaufman to adapt a book, The Orchid Thief, into a film. As the film marches on, most viewers soon forget about that seemingly misplaced montage sequence that kicks off the film as they enter into the mundane world of Charlie Kaufman's character and his writer's block dilemma. However, nearly an hour into the film, Kaufman's character frantically narrates the content of the opening montage into his tape recorder as a potential opening for his script - only to play it back later, disappointed by yet another false start... To the first-time viewer, this "talk back" moment to the bizarre opening sequence likely goes unnoticed. Now, having watched Adaptation at least 30 times, I have come to realize that this film (and script) does this constantly - and it is fantastic!
Probably the most "obvious" commentary (talk back) moment in the film happens when Kaufman's character decides to attend Robert McKee's (play by Brian Cox) screenwriting seminar out of desperation to break free of his writer's block... During the scene, Kaufman's nonstop, hyper-critical inner monologue (portrayed as voice over narration) overpowers the scene while McKee lectures on in the background. Just then, Kaufman's rant stops abruptly as McKee issues a harsh warning to his students:
"...and god help you if you use voice over in your work, my friends! God help you! It's flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voice over narration to explain the thoughts of a character."
In this moment, Kaufman's internal rant stops and he slowly returns to his seat... By this time in the film, the viewer has likely started to notice the "talk back" commentary. A few scenes later, Kaufman convinces McKee to have a drink with him so that they can talk over his script and life choices. After hearing Kaufman out, McKee explains that he needs to "go back" and "put in the drama"... McKee then shares one of the most compelling pieces of advice I have ever heard in a film.
"The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems... But wow them in the end and you've got a hit."
Immediately after this moment, the film changes direction...
Suddenly, the uneventful slog of "false-starts" and melancholy that mirror the struggles of Kaufman's character come to a halt and the film comes to life! As if Kaufman (the writer) flipped a switch, Cage's Kaufman decides to take action. Almost immediately, he stalks the book's author Susan Orlean (played by Meryl Streep) to Florida and uncovers a secret love affair between her and the subject of her book, John Laroche (played by Chris Cooper), who have been manufacturing a type of narcotic from the orchids they have been claiming to protect. However, Kaufman is soon discovered, chased and held at gunpoint before he manages to escape into the alligator infested swamps of the Fakahatchee state preserve...
To avoid spoiling the ending, I'll leave stop there. However, as the final scene fades to black, one can't help but reflect on the first conversation Kaufman has with the film producer at the restaurant following the bizarre opening montage. Hoping to remain true to book with his film adaptation, a sweaty Kaufman explains:
"I just don't want to ruin it by making it a Hollywood thing... You know, like, an orchid heist movie or something... Or changing the orchids into poppies and turning it into a movie about drug running, you know? Why can't there be a movie simply about flowers? I don't want to cram in sex or guns or car chases or characters learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end! The book isn't like that and life isn't like that. It just isn't!"
Needless to say, the adaptation doesn't quite turn out the way Kaufman planned.