Review: Adaptation, a Film by Spike Jonze Print

adaptation_ver3(The Redwood Coast Review Spring 2003)

Get Me Rewrite!

Spike Jonze’s film Adaptation has as its main theme the writer’s struggle to create work of integrity and originality in a world ruled by the corporate demands of sameness and success. This struggle manifests itself in the quirky screenwriter Charlie Kaufman who, on the heels of his previous kooky success, Being John Malkovich, is hired to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, a book about the fascination a few people (Orlean included) have with this plant. Producers want Kaufman’s weirdness but they also want a hit, at least, enough of their investment returned to finance the next venture. A hit, in Kaufman’s over-reactive mind, is the most obviously awful story he could write—a fast-paced thriller with young male-female leads who learn redemptive lessons about love in a violence-obsessed and paranoid world—apparently, what most Americans want and what producers produce. So Kaufman’s drama becomes one of trying not to write such a film. But he ends up writing it anyway in the guise of writing a movie about the actual peril of not writing the particular movie he is writing.

Throughout, we endure the screenwriter’s jealousy of Orlean’s book, its perfect prose and its mesmerizing absorption. Kaufman’s screenwriting character (played by Nicolas Cage, who also plays Charlie’s twin brother, Donald, a hack who buoyantly follows the "Story Seminar" script formula to success) paws and marks and yellow-stickies, reads aloud and groans over, Orlean’s savory work. He is so beguiled by the book that he dreams up a romance with the author, even jerking off to her jacket photo. Enraptured (more with himself than with her), he ponders what all book-loving adaptors, seduced by the prose of a Henry James or a Toni Morrison or a Susan Orlean, ponder—whether the book "is a movie." (Of late this notion has flip-flopped in the hands of hacks who pen scripts with Elmore Leonard-like dash, hoping what they’ve produced "is a book.")

In this duplicitous and one-sided love affair of a book by its neurotic but savvy adapting screenwriter lies, for me, the film’s special interest, and, I think, what stimulates not only the bookish viewers of Adaptation but anyone who’s ever thought, why is the movie always inferior to the book?

Before any feature film is made, producers have convinced the book world and its authors that movie companies can turn anything—the essays of Lord Macaulay or Hints From Heloise—into a film. Obviously, money must be tendered and writerly egos soothed. This is Adaptation’s backstory: "Don’t worry," the producer says to Orlean; her company will hire a screenwriter to move it from text to screen. That out of the way, the fun stuff can begin, like, who’s going to play the orchid thief, John Laroche, in the movie? "He’s such a fascinating character," (or is it "such an interesting man"), the glib producer says to both Orlean and Kaufman, who are complimented into submission.

It may seem at first that the producers are, by buying the rights to Orlean’s book, honoring what fine essayistic writing can accomplish—sustain a voice in and build intrigue for a subject over its narrative potential. The difference between a book-length meditation and a thriller—Susan Orlean v. Tom Cruise—matters not. It’s like the neurosis of a first date, this filmic seduction: the purveyors of cinematic possibility salivate over the book’s ever-expanding nebulae of tangents and history and interior life where an author is the lone operator of her story’s evolution. In the writing there’s no, "listen carefully because our menu options have changed."

But when Charlie Kaufman, an individual writer (and a dysphoric one at that), begins negotiating with the movie production conglomerate, a corporation, the gap between envy and practice steadily, cavernly, widens. The book does not see itself as a movie; it wages nothing on the crossing to another medium. But the movie wages everything on that cross. Most film productions eviscerate the books they are based on in order to become movies. Adaptation feasts on the book’s interiority—the blood of the writing—and replaces it with strained (not dramatic) incidents: cell-phone calls in which actors "discuss" Orlean’s ideas. Plus, to add tension, there are scenes of a first kiss, of being all alone and worried, of trying to get to sleep. The ruthlessness and the imperative to "hurry up" with which Kaufman knows Orlean’s treasure must be plundered—by him, no less—wreaks the greatest havoc. He knows he’s disemboweling Orlean’s uniqueness, like a fern fossilized during the Jurassic. (This elevation of his worry over the subject of orchids, I confess, was for me drama enough, the fact that Kaufman could have ended up not doing what he’d been hired to do.) But no matter how elevated his worry gets, finishing this script is tantamount to a rung on Darwin’s ladder: the weak—Orlean’s book and Kaufman’s sleepless love of it—must cave in to the strong—the production values of hiring big-name stars like Cage and Meryl Streep, paying millions to make the film then have it advertised and shown in first-run theaters.

Kaufman’s character repeatedly says how important it is to preserve Orlean’s vision. Which, Big Chief irony, he had the power to do (he reminds us of that fact by positioning in Adaptation his prior bit of wizardry, Being John Malkovich) but chose not to. If the film means anything, it is that the extreme makeover of Orlean’s book is ridiculous, not artistic, sort of like preserving the Sistine Chapel under a coat of Lucite. Did Kaufman think that in writing his adaptation he would, as a screenwriter, add an artistic dimension? What dimension is that, other than his neurosis? Why did he attempt to adapt it? Because it would be a challenge? Because its unlikeliness would make an eccentric script and—fabulous world that we live in—there’s lots of eccentrics (with money) who would want to film it? Why wasn’t Kaufman content to merely paw Orlean’s book? Or if he had to adapt it, why not adapt it more literally. My film fantasy, an essay-drama: Actors reading Orlean’s prose with still and moving pictures of orchids intercut with Laroche being Laroche, that is, letting him talk. Why doesn’t Kaufman just write a book about his struggle to adapt a book into a movie? He’s a talented-enough guy. Why is writing a film of his distrust of Hollywood’s obvious distrustfulness his cross to bear?

Seldom in the film is the probable reason for Kaufman’s journey into this adaptive nightmare given: That since Malkovich Kaufman’s head has been swelled, in hothouse Hollywood, by fields of agents and publicists: "You’re a genius, Charlie, you can do anything!" So, in response, the efflorescent Kaufman must parade his insecurity with his own enthrallment and, in effect, ruin Orlean’s by making her the subject of her book, and not her (and Laroche’s) fascination with orchids? I don’t get it.

The adaptation of Orlean’s book is Kaufman’s albatross, not that of Paramount Pictures. This is why the movie does not flail between the corporate will and Kaufman himself. It’s all in Kaufman’s mind—and yet, I maintain, it’s not in his mind. The business of culture is too big to be in any individual’s mind. In the end, all this stunts Kaufman’s putative desire to be true to literature; his actual motivation is to meet his producer’s belief in him as a trusted eccentric. Which, perhaps, he achieves. But Orlean’s desire, already evident in her book, is to show us the world of the orchid and the lusts of its collectors. As that world is bigger than she is, it is not so big that it escapes her personal attentions. Orlean makes the orchid world matter for she makes herself matter in proportion to it. Would Kaufman have realized a similar proportionality instead of, how do I survive. But then he’s more Darwinian than artistic.

Despite Adaptation’s seeming openness and experimentalism, its seeming difference from most all feature films, the movie reminds us just how deceptive movie possibility can be. There’s ultimately a kind of a sucker punch to Kaufman’s decision in the end—just so he, the screenwriter, can sleep—to turn his beloved Susan Orlean into a drug addict and a killer of the good-hearted Donald Kaufman, laying life-and-death blame on Charlie Kaufman for having attempted the very adaptation and its mega-dorky ending we have just been forced to endure. And then in the cheesiest part of all to ask us to believe him when he tells his former girlfriend that, gee, despite everything I’ve been through, I guess I really do love you. "Charlie, I love you, too," she says, and we breathe easy knowing he’s been saved by the love of a good woman. Oh, please.


In 1933, Darryl Zanuck paid Nathanael West $4000 for the film rights to West’s critically admired but slow-selling novel, Miss Lonelyhearts. The book is about a Depression-era newspaperman who, on a whim and at the urging of his editor, becomes the paper’s advice columnist. In the column, he has fun replying to the troubled people who write in at the nadir of their desperation. But—surprise!—they take his advice seriously. "For the first time in his life," Miss Lonelyhearts, West writes, "is forced to examine the values by which he lives. The examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator." In a series of worsening incidents the joke plays itself out.

After buying the rights, Zanuck hired a team of writers to adapt West’s book. The result was a comedy-melodrama, Advice to the Lovelorn, which added a mystery plot, a romance, and a happy ending. Stripped of its social comment and its religious/satiric tone, the movie had no soul, and it flopped, losing Zanuck’s investment. But that investment convinced West that he could ride the gravy train of the movie industry by going to Hollywood and writing hack scripts to finance his writing short sardonic novels, whose rights, in turn, he might sell to producers.

West was not alone in this seduction. S. J. Perelman and Erskine Caldwell had sold original stories and done well as scenarists (the old word for screenwriter). F. Scott Fitzgerald, a close friend of West’s and one who needed to pay Zelda’s hospital bills, was one of the best rewrite men of the 1930s. Dorothy Parker enjoyed some success until the producers found out just how active in left-wing causes she was, then began pulling back on her assignments. She once quipped that the only "ism" Hollywood understands is plagiarism. Daniel Fuchs, another Lower East Side novelist like West who took the celluloid bait, said, "The first thing you have to learn out here is that you can’t make anything good . . . but if you play it right, you can be . . . making big money." West went to California in 1933 to keep poverty at bay. He was exhausted with being broke, running the Sutton Club Hotel in New York, where many writer-friends lived cheaply, thanks to him. Once west of Pasadena, though, the thought never left him that he was prostituting himself.

Importantly, West had been stamped with failure early—and often. The powerlessness he felt after Zanuck did as he pleased with Miss Lonelyhearts, was neither sublime nor empowering. Everyone knew that the studio system and heads of production had total control. Feature film was not open to experimentation, and adaptation meant formula not the preservation of the novelist’s vision. (The best book on this subject is Lillian Ross’s Picture, which shows the hopes and compromises that director John Huston and producer Dore Schary endure in 1950 during the filming Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.) The screenwriter’s art was chiefly one of treatments and synopses, plot outlines and rewrites; dialogue needed to be "fixed" to make it sound "authentic," that is, true to the rhythms of bad-guy good-cop speech patterns already developed in motion pictures and in pulp fiction.

West was quite good at the sorts of treatments studios asked him to do. He wrote one dozen scripts, calling them all "insipid," invariably turning material into boy-girl romances that might swirl around a bank hold-up or the ever-popular pair of orphans on the street who survive by solving a murder. Once launched, he never kidded himself about these films. He said in a letter that "I write grade-C scripts only—dog stories and such things for low pay. If the director’s wife finds them sloppy enough, then they are accepted." He worked off and on in Hollywood during the last four years of his life, at times, making $350 per week. Sizeable money in those days.

Since its inception, Hollywood’s wholesale makeover of any book has been total. Previously, few whined; they adapted, most writers glad—if not chastened—to be working. It isn’t until we get to the age of personal disclosure—our age—when a Charlie Kaufman can exist, that is, a screenwriter whose "integrity" is something a production company wants to hire. And hire him they do: telling him that they love his zaniness, that (of course) they’ll want to approve the ending, that they too feel it’s time to challenge the star factory with a noble bit of innovation. We often call feature films, "star vehicles"; soon, we may be adding a new idiom, "screenwriter vehicles."

This advertisement of the screenwriter’s integrity is far more insidious then what West faced in the authoritarian film era of the 1930s. Then, the producers were categorically rigid, stern parents to wayward novelists. The producers today, cottoning to the cult of personality, must stay ahead of the game by matching the investor’s dollar to the culture’s love of the offbeat, which this cynic interprets as typically just another investment. With one hand, the money lures Charlie Kaufman and Susan Orlean while the other hand nooses the freedom the money has seemingly ensured. From West’s day to ours, flattering lonely, broke writers will get you everywhere. This time, maybe an Oscar.