View Full Version : Adaptation

02-24-2003, 05:00 PM
A film by Spike Jonze

Life Imitating Art

I’ve been staring at the screen for at least ten minutes now. My coffee is as fresh as the day. My furry monkey slippers are keeping my feet warm. If I were fat and balding with a camera on me right now, I could almost be Nicolas Cage in Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation.” It’s classic art imitating life or maybe life imitating art. Who can tell the difference these days? Charlie Kaufman certainly can’t. Cage plays Kaufman in this film about orchids that starts at the dawn of time and tries to answer that eternal question, “Why are we all here?” Confused? Allow me to explain. Charlie Kaufman is a screenwriter. Just so we’re all clear, I mean Charlie Kaufman, the real person, not the character Cage plays. Right, Charlie Kaufman is a real person. In fact, he’s a successful real person. His last time out, he wrote the ambiguous and complicated “Being John Malcovich”. For his follow-up, Kaufman has re-teamed with “Malcovich” director Jonze to adapt Susan Orlean’s novel, “The Orchid Thief” to the big screen. Only something went terribly awry during the weeks of Kaufman’s writing process. He couldn’t do it. Or more to the point, he couldn’t do it the justice he believed it deserved. Before you know it, the man can’t sleep or eat and becomes obsessed with believing he’s a failure. And right before he’s about to snap, he figures it out. The film becomes less about the novel and more about the process of adapting the novel. So now, for our viewing enjoyment, Jonze presents us with a film, written by Kaufman, about Kaufman struggling with his own worst enemy, himself, and the arduous task of adapting a novel about orchids so that their simplicity and delicate splendour come across on screen, all the while adapting to his own doubting thoughts and everyday life. Oh, and he lives with his twin brother Donald who is basically a manifestation of Charlie’s own tortured psyche. Any clearer?

What’s In a Name?

Each day, when your eyes open after the fifth buzz of the alarm, you are presented with a situation. It may be the same situation as the day before or it may be one you’ve never encountered. Whatever it is, you will need to adapt. Simple enough in theory but the actual practice is not quite so. Jonze presents us with three characters who deal with adapting to life in very different ways. Kaufman can’t seem to deal with very much of anything at all. The simplest of events, like lunch even, force Kaufman to retreat into his own mind out of a fear so strong that his body drips heavy beads of sweat down its forehead. The more time Kaufman spends as a prisoner of his own mind, the more he believes that nothing comes easy to him. He obsesses over whether or not to kiss a girl he genuinely likes simply because he doesn’t trust his own feelings as true. This unhealthy self-scrutiny brings him so far from actually living and appreciating life as it unfolds before him that he comes to believe that nothing actually happens in life. Typical of someone whose life is actually good – just trying to find something wrong with it because we can’t actually have the life we want, can we?

Meryl Streep (God bless Meryl Streep) plays Susan Orlean, author and wife. While researching a story on an orchid thief (Chris Cooper), Orlean stumbles across something she was never expecting. She sees life through different eyes than she is accustomed. She is changed. The life that awaited her return from the swamps of Florida no longer makes any sense. How does one adapt? You think you’ve got it all figured out and you’ve found what you’ve been looking for your whole life and then suddenly you don’t recognize the man you’re sleeping next to. Sure, this happens all the time but how many of us accept that we have stepped through a new doorway that shut before we had the chance to turn back? Streep’s face shows us every moment of this transition. She hides nothing from the audience because she just can’t. Her eyes watch Cooper’s orchid thief, John Laroche, with an intense fascination as he tells her of his life and then those same eyes can’t seem to connect with anyone at all once she has returned to her New York City home for a dinner party with her husband and friends. The organized structure of her perfect life almost seems to push her into the reckless life of flowers and drugs that she was exposed to for that brief fleeting moment in the grander scheme of things as she inevitably returns to the swamps where she felt passionate for a second or two.

Cooper’s Laroche is indeed fascinating. As a character, he seems to be the only one who truly understands the actual concept of adaptation (in addition to Donald Kaufman but he doesn’t really exist so does he really count?). Laroche’s life has been sectioned off into different areas of interest, from fish to flowers. Once a period of interest bordering on obsession ends, he just moves on. He simply breaks away from what he came to know as his life and walks away, never looking back. The truly strange thing about all of this is that he doesn’t walk away because he’s unhappy or disinterested; he walks away because it’s time and he knows that there’s something else waiting for him out there. Cooper undergoes a bit of a physical transformation for his role as Laroche. He has long, stringy hair and is missing most of his front teeth. To look at him, one might peg him as the kind of guy who never gets any attention when he walks down the street. However, Cooper’s confidence turns Laroche into a self-assured and accomplished human being. When he speaks, all the physical deterrents suddenly disappear and an assertive, almost sexual energy emerges. Consequently, he snares Orlean’s attention by awakening this part of her self that not only wants him but wants to be him.

Identical Twins

I always find a Nicolas Cage film to be a bit of a gamble. Here is an actor who voluntarily decides to take roles in such lame explosion-heavy projects (i.e. Con Air) when he has such a deep range in acting style (i.e. Raising Arizona or Leaving Las Vegas). Whereas Cage’s past project decisions force a guy like me to think twice about seeing his latest films, they also make him the perfect casting decision for Charlie and Donald Kaufman. These twins are identical in looks only. In every other area of their life, they are night and day. Donald is a confident man who believes in his abilities and wears his buoyancy everywhere he goes like he would his favourite sweater. Charlie, despite being accomplished, barely even goes outside, choosing to surround himself with fear and live a safer existence in his fantasy world. Donald is a Hollywood blockbuster and Charlie is a small independent feature. Charlie looks down on his brother with much disdain and irritation. Donald’s every decision seems to make Charlie’s blood boil. This reaction blinds Charlie from seeing that Donald is actually happy. Happiness is such a foreign concept for Charlie that he doesn’t believe it really exists and consequently what Donald believes to be happiness is nothing more than a mask to hide his sorrow and confusion. If that’s all Charlie feels in life then how can anyone else be feeling anything different?

As two polar opposites of the same whole, Cage navigates back and forth between hope and despair and life-affirming strength and fear-induced weakness with ease and what seems like very little effort. And whereas Cage’s performances are nothing short of triumphant, it is screenwriter Kaufman who ultimately puts himself on display for the audience to analyze and judge his unique schizophrenic behaviour. It is truly a heroic act of artistic expression to point the camera at yourself, allowing all your own vulnerable insecurities to manifest themselves on screen so intimately. At the same time, Kaufman does not want for people to follow his example. Like most people who become so obsessed with their own thoughts and struggles, Charlie misses out on life itself as experiences pass him by and the world continues without him.

It’s a Movie about Flowers

One of the major reasons that Charlie can’t physically complete his adaptation of Orlean’s novel is because he is hell-bent on not involving any Hollywood-type elements, thinking that they would take away or cheapen his vision of a movie about flowers or perhaps the simple beauty that life has to offer. Of course he can not convey that beauty as a person who never really takes the time to smell the roses in the first place. This incapability to truly stop, take the time to look around and appreciate what you see is what eventually leads to Charlie’s block. Like Orlean in her own novel, Charlie is striving to feel passionate about something. What that something is, he doesn’t know which drives him mad. And again like Orlean in her own novel, Charlie begins his own quest to find the metaphoric ghost orchid, an extremely rare flower of immense beauty that is essentially unattainable. It isn’t until he understands that it’s not the destination but the journey that Charlie can finally see how to complete his adaptation.

Grade: A-