Mon, 15 November 2004
Email the Author
It is no great secret that originality in the movie world seems to be reaching an all time low. These days instead of fresh material we get countless sequels, prequels, remakes and films based on old television shows. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with that in small doses- we all want more of the things weâ€™ve grown to love and have become familiar with. But the key phrase there is â€śin small dosesâ€ť- a concept much of Hollywood seems oblivious to. So those in charge (the ones who sign the cheques) insist on beating their horses long after they have died and scraping the bottom of every barrel that ever made money, regardless of quality for the most part. Therefore it is little wonder that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) is considered to be a breath of fresh air. He can always be counted on to write some relatively unique material. Of course just because something is unique doesnâ€™t necessarily mean it is any good- but, in Kaufmanâ€™s case, it is extremely good.
A funny thing about movies is how the director and actors involved are acknowledged with great admiration, while the person who wrote the thing usually gets little recognition. Some of the reasons for this are justifiable; for instance the screenplay might be adapted from a book. Or adapted from a play. Or adapted from a play that was based on a book. Or several different people could have written the script throughout numerous drafts. Or, as is apparently the case sometimes, some kind of poorly trained and slightly brain damaged monkeys must have been used.
There are various factors that can complicate things when it comes to specifically acknowledging the author responsible for a script. Nevertheless a movie writerâ€™s job is generally quite a thankless one. Charlie Kaufman is one of the few current screenwriters to be credited heavily as a selling point for his films, which is a pretty good indication as to just how special he really is. Kaufman is perhaps the most intelligent, quirky, unusual and talented writer working in movies today.
One way for a screenwriter to get himself some attention would be to write himself into the script. That seems like a fairly desperate and egotistical idea, but it is just what Charlie Kaufman ended up doing with Adaptation. Yet he managed to do it in such a manner that it works brilliantly, without glorifying himself.
For Adaptation Kaufman crafted a screenplay that operates on a few different levels all at once. As a result the movie is almost impossible to digest fully during a single screening. Now that the film is available on DVD, allowing us the luxury of multiple viewing, it can be more closely scrutinised and appreciated. On closer inspection it becomes apparent that Adaptation might not be perfect, but it is one of those movies where the more you choose to invest in it the more you are likely to get in return.
Director Spike Jonze (who also directed the aforementioned Being John Malkovich) seems very adept at capturing on screen the appropriate feel for Charlieâ€™s characters, story and writing style. The two are a pretty ideal team.
The plot of Adaptation sees Charlie (played by Nicholas Cage) trying to adapt a book called â€śThe Orchid Thiefâ€ť into a movie screenplay. Which is exactly what he was attempting to do in real life. After getting stuck he ends up writing a movie about his attempts at writing the movie- which is the movie that ended up being made.
Included in the story is Charlieâ€™s twin brother Donald Kaufman (also played by Cage). Despite looking identical the two are pretty much complete opposites. Charlie is extremely clever, yet self-loathing, uptight, somewhat depressed and painfully shy. Donald is confident, out-going and joyful, yet exceedingly unoriginal and rather ignorant. The banter between the brothers is enormously entertaining and perfectly demonstrates just how differently individuals might approach things. In real life Donald does not exist- Charlie Kaufman has no twin brother. Donald is a fictional character created by Charlie and seemingly represents all the personality traits that he lacks, for better or worse.
Does all that make sense? Undoubtedly it can be pretty confusing. Adaptation combines fact and fiction (or real world and movie world) in an intricate way, intentionally blurring the lines to the point that eventually there is no clear distinction.
Using this approach enables Kaufman to explore things from a more flexible position. It allows him to present an intimately personal offering, while still affording him the opportunity to detach himself when necessary. Particularly clever are his observations of the many absurdities within the movie industry. He points out and pokes fun at every clichĂ© and standard formula used in movie writing. Then he humorously proceeds to blatantly incorporate nearly every single one of them into his script.
The movie could have easily fallen flat without a cast up to the task of making these rather unorthodox characters endearing. Thankfully the actors in Adaptation are some of the best in the business. Nicholas Cage (who has sometimes been guilty of overacting) as both Donald and Charlie gives perhaps the greatest performance of his career- definitely right up with there with his work in Leaving Las Vegas. Meryl Streep plays Susan Orlean, the author of the book Kaufman was attempting to adapt, and she does her usual stellar job. Chris Cooper (The Bourne Identity) is orchid collector John Laroche, who is the main character in Susanâ€™s book. He is an odd fellow but his passion and intelligence is very appealing. The relationship that develops between Susan and John is fascinating and extremely well played- both Cooper and Streep won golden globes for their efforts.
The DVD release offers a good quality picture, presented in widescreen. The sound is fine, although there is very little soundtrack to speak of in this movie- it is mostly just the occasional barely noticeable background music. It is very light on extras; a featurette called â€śHow to shoot in the swampâ€ť is the only real addition. One funny thing is that one of the included talent profiles is for Donald Kaufman who, as mentioned earlier, is not a real person.
There is so much going on in Adaptation, with multiple plots and numerous comments and observations about life taking place. It can be both funny and touching, with some terrific explorations of human nature and also the nature of story telling. Sometimes the film can almost be a little too clever for its own good and comes close to collapsing under its own weight. The ending in particular is quite bizarre. But you have to understand what he was going for- basically throwing in a bit of everything in a rather comical manner because he couldnâ€™t decide how to finish things. So Kaufman takes everything he (or, at least the movie version of himself) claimed to be utterly against and jams it all together in one absurd and convoluted finale.
The movie really does have plenty to offer, but it depends on how much attention the viewer is willing to pay. So if you are not in the right mood you might find it to be a bit much. Some have stated that Adaptation verges on being condescending towards its audience. But that is not the impression I get from the movie.
Ultimately Adaptation succeeds in offering an impressive and refreshing alternative to the majority of mainstream movies that spoon-feed audiences. Whether you enjoy his work or not, everyone would have to agree that the likes of Charlie Kaufman donâ€™t come along too often.
Email the Author
More articles by Hillelman