Writers like to see themselves not only as heroes but as saints: they think their words matter not only on some universal level but also have the power to mend a broken cosmos.
In the case of the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, this grand ambition starts close to home. As his most recent effort, Adaptation, opens, Kaufman finds himself not only in the role of screenwriter but accidental protagonist, commissioned to translate Susan Orlean’s best-selling The Orchid Thief to the screen. Anyone who has seen Being John Malkovich knows Kaufman’s penchant for pressing the boundaries of the self: He likes to put his audience into the head of a tormented soul grasping for an authentic identity. In Adaptation he turns this theme inward, casting himself as the lead in what is supposed to be someone else’s story.
The Orchid Thief, ostensibly Orlean’s account of her encounter with the eccentric flower collector John LaRoche, is a desultory meditation on her own inability to empathize with her subject. LaRoche (played in Adaptation by Chris Cooper) is a man whose life came to a tragic halt with the death of his wife and the loss of his greenhouse business. When Orlean (Meryl Streep) meets him, he has tried to fill these gaps by listening to The Origin of Species on tape and devoting his life to the search for a rare swamp orchid known as “The Ghost.” Consumed by the passion of the hunt, LaRoche relishes a zest for the marrow of life that Orlean can barely comprehend. Orlean’s retelling of LaRoche’s story becomes a personal account of her struggle to recognize anything in life that is worth loving as much as he loves his flowers.
Enter Charlie Kaufman, as played by Nicolas Cage, facing the impossible task of trying to adapt for the screen a story about a woman profiling the eccentricities of a passionate collector while staring into her own void of desire. Charlie finds himself getting nowhere, grappling with a writer’s block of Sisyphean scale, sick with dread that no one will care to read what he’s written. He can’t begin to heed the wisdom of the Orchid Thief himself: “Just say, ‘Fuck it!'” LaRoche advises, “and charge ahead.”
As the title suggests, Darwinian evolution becomes the (loose) mythological thread followed by Kaufman’s narrative. But instead of a straightforward, simple line, the progress toward authenticity and unity is a sort of punctuated equilibrium. Through the many false starts and cul-de-sacs life throws before us, we can find an “arc”– a trajectory through life — and thereby “adapt.” Artists (more specifically, writers) have the creative power to show others how to pick up the loose pieces and connect them again. Charlie’s duty, he tells us, is to help us “to find that arc.”
Charlie feels a moral injunction to be faithful to the “truth” of Orlean’s narrative while navigating its sprawling introspection and lack of a theater-friendly storyline. But his quest to tell Orlean’s story exposes his own slippery sense of self. Instead of suturing together Orlean’s loose ends, and succeeding where she has failed, Charlie only opens his own spiritual wounds, and pours salt in them. The opening voiceover is a tirade of self-loathing that becomes both the film’s main engine and the bog into which its author’s ambition perpetually sinks. Charlie begins to feel less like a writer and more like Ouroboros, the snake eternally chasing and eating his own tail: The chase sustains Charlie in his journey as much as it dooms him from the start. Out of full-blown existential crisis, the struggle turns inward, and sixteen weeks of frustrated effort lead him inadvertently to the unconscionable. He writes himself into his own screenplay. Now Orlean’s story (originally LaRoche’s) becomes Charlie’s own highly personal account of his own ordeal to write, and from this point on everything that happens in Charlie’s life becomes part of his script. He must venture into his own movie for resolution.
Somewhere in the primordial stage of the writing process, Kaufman abandoned any intention of fidelity to Orlean’s novel. “Adaptation” signifies more than a Darwinian rumination on the human condition or even a self-conscious reflection on the art of screenwriting. It becomes the central conceit through which Kaufman pulls off the trifecta of translating Orlean’s and LaRoche’s stories and of interweaving a travelogue of his own quest for completeness, marking the trail toward resolution along the way. But deft as it is, Adaptation leaves one wondering whether Kaufman’s internal struggle for articulation and validation was truly a cathartic exercise that just happened to provide compelling material for a screenplay, or was the whole filmmaking process just so much masturbation? In other words: Is Adaptation a true account of his own pilgrimage toward, as one character puts it, “settling the whole Charlie Kaufman mess once and for all”? Or is the movie in its self-reflexive glory one big joke on an audience whom Kaufman has vowed to respect?
As much about coming to terms — with loss of love, with frustration on top of frustration, with inadequacy — as it is about finding a voice, “adaptation” is the “journey we all take.” Charlie’s faith is that a writer can find among the dizzying stops and fitful starts of our individual lives the appropriate dramatic “arc that unites us all” for the adventure. Kaufman’s narrative draws its audience into empathy with its writer-hero so that his journey toward self-articulation becomes your journey towards self-authentication.
When Orlean — now a character in the story that she began — cries out for rebirth, to “be a baby again,” Charlie realizes that he must head back to his typewriter and bring his odyssey to a wrap. The power to make all things right and new rests within his ability to create a better ending. But the creative impulse that begins as a saintly act ends up more like playing God, despite receiving the warning, “Don’t you dare bring in a deus ex machina!”
In order to make everything new again and to wrangle the arcs together, he has to do something, has to end his movie somehow. So he goes with what “just feels right”: as Sixties pop music plays beneath another voiceover, Charlie drives into a sunset of time-lapse footage of pretty flowers growing. Truth is ultimately bound up in the beauty and unity that the artistic mind provides — out of death and chaos and longing for wholeness, Charlie hands down his sermon that everything is really one process and therefore okay.
But in Adaptation we see more than process; we see intention. The film is Kaufman’s baby, his creation — and so the punchline: The writer of an autobiography is his own deus ex machina. He can resolve his story in any way he wishes. Regardless of the material and of which arcs he chooses to rein in and make conform, writing through darkness ignites a light of self-satisfaction with which, when finished, the creator can sit back and enjoy his work and pronounce it good. This wasn’t true for long for God, and I doubt that Charlie Kaufman truly believes that his utopia will last. Yet, as Charlie the screenwriter has Charlie the on-screen writer come to understand in the end, the truth of Adaptation is that it is hard-fought for and hard-won, and that though it is an act of self-preservation, it is no less a labor of love.