It’s been two days since I finished watching Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002) and now I’m sitting in front of my computer, drinking coffee with too much sugar, struggling to figure out how I should write this article. I consider writing it as a musical, but the logistics of that seem difficult, and besides, I’m a lousy singer with a nasally voice. So, I think about why I set out to write this blog in the first place. That is, because I’m passionate about movies. But I also want this blog to be original and unique. I want it to be simple and straightforward. Honest and real. In essence, I want to find my voice. This can be difficult at times. It’s difficult to overcome self-doubt and negative obsessive thoughts. It’s difficult to battle cliché and create something that is truly original and honest.
In these ways, I totally and full heartedly sympathize with the protagonist in this movie— a miserable, fat, balding character named Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage), who co-wrote Adaptation. with his fictional identical twin brother, Donald (also played by Nicholas Cage). The result of this unlikely collaboration is an Academy Award nominated screenplay revolving around a morose screenwriter who is struggling mightily to adapt a book about flowers into a screenplay. So, really, just as you have two writers, you have two movies here. In one movie, you get a simple, straightforward adaptation of the book, “The Orchid Thief,” which, by the way, is a real book in the real world written by a real person (Susan Orlean, played by Meryl Streep). In the other movie, you get a self-reflexive story about a lonely screenwriter failing in both love and in adapting Susan Orlean’s book (mentioned above). These two complimentary stories interweave with one another in a symbiotic way until they literally crash into each other in the end.
This is a remarkably creative way to adapt a book into a movie. But what’s even more remarkable is that Adaptation. does what I think is almost impossible to do. It dramatizes the act of writing and somehow makes it entertaining to watch. This is done so effectively that even if you’re not a writer, you can empathize with the ups and downs of Charlie’s life, the supreme feeling of inspiration followed by the sharp pain of self-doubt. But what really makes this movie work is the humor. Without it, the movie would be bleak and I’m not so sure it would hold an audience’s attention. That’s not to say that this is a broad, raucous, slapstick, laugh out loud movie. On the contrary, a lot of the humor is very understated, including jokes that feature the mispronunciation of the word, denouement (dey-noo-mah, whose definition is: “the final part of a narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are resolved”). These types of brainy jokes can go over the head of many, but luckily, a good amount of the humor surrounds Charlie’s twin brother, Donald, an obliviously cheery character, whom never seems bothered by anyone else and who is always optimistic regardless of the circumstances. The way these brothers play off each other’s opposing ideologies is hilarious, and because of this, the invention of the identical twin brother is perhaps the smartest conceit about this movie. Not only does this invention fit perfectly within everything that is bizarrely “Kaufman-esque,” it also adds light to an otherwise dark-ish movie, which allows Adaptation. to be that much more accessible.
Adding to the themes of self-doubt, loneliness, and finding one’s voice, is the adaptation part of Adaptation. In these sections, Meryl Streep’s Susan Orlean struggles to find her voice as she writes what will eventually become her novel, “The Orchid Thief.” But as she observes her charismatic subject (Chris Cooper’s John Laroche), she realizes that there’s something quintessential missing in her own life— passion. Early in the movie, she states that she wants nothing more than “to know what it feels like to feel passionately about something.” Thusly, Laroche is Susan’s Donald. Or, conversely, Donald is Charlie’s Laroche.
What this all leads up to is a mad-dash, hectic third act that ironically embodies everything that Charlie Kaufman (the writer of the script) is adverse to. Sex. Drugs. Car chases. Emotional manipulation. Adaptation. becomes what Charlie Kaufman most despises in movies, which is an interesting choice to say the least, and the outcome is a movie that both dispels clichés and reinforces them at the same time. Speaking of clichés, something else happens here. Charlie undergoes change. He finds confidence. He discovers his voice, which is the brutally honest screenplay that we see play out in front of us.
And that brings me to my very own denouement, in my very own article. How to wrap this all up in a meaningful way? What impression do I want to leave you with? How about this: I’ll tell you what I left with. What I left with was a feeling of satisfaction. I left feeling that Nicholas Cage’s performances were unexpectedly delightful. I left feeling that Meryl Streep was her usual powerful self, and that Chris Cooper was impossible to look away from (he did win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, after all). I left feeling that Adaptation. was smart, dramatic, funny, and unexpectedly full of heart. But I also left feeling a renewed passion for finding my own voice. Regardless of how “fantastic, fleeting, and out of reach” it may sometimes feel. Yeah, I like that. That feels conclusive. That’s how I’ll end this article. That’s what I’ll leave you with.