The aim of this paper is to examine the film Adaptation (Jonze, 2002) and its relationship to the structure of narrative fiction [the novel form]. To do this, I’m asking three questions: what is it and where did it come from – that is, what’s are the film and screenwriter’s histories, what genre does the film belong to and what other films and narratives are related to it? – and, finally, what does its narrative shape look like? a question that examines the film structure, voice over and micronarrative devices used in the film.
What Is It?
Adaptation is the second of three collaborations between the director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. The first was Being John Malkovich (1999), the second was Adaptation and a third is currently in production. Kaufman, born in 1958, is also the screenwriter of two films directed by Michel Gondry, Human Nature (2001) and Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind (2004). A fifth film, Confessions of Dangerous Mind (2002) was written by Kaufman and directed by George Clooney. Prior his film work, Kaufman worked as a TV writer/producer on Ned & Stacey and The Dana Carvey Show.
The narrative of the film is thematically concerned with the characters attempts to engage with their passions and desires, primarily love, acceptance and fulfillment. There are three parallel stories that illustrate the theme: the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is attempting to adapt the book The Orchid Thief into a screenplay called Adaptation while, in flashback, we see the author of the book, Susan Orlean, struggling with her life as a writer for The New Yorker and her attempts to write the third story, set inside a further flashback, of John Laroche and his attempts to construct meaning in his life through a series of increasingly manic obsessions.
Each of these three stories is beset with complications: Kaufman’s life is loveless, depressed and professionally unfulfilled. His live-in brother Donald is his antithesis; gauche, naïve and although an aspiring scriptwriter, his work commercial and lacks artistic merit. Orlean, meanwhile, must contend with the emptiness of her life, her loveless marriage and her desire to engage as strongly as Laroche does with orchids. Meanwhile Laroche is aware of his manic obsessiveness and although he professes to be the smartest person he knows, he is powerless to change.
There is also a framing device in the narrative where Kaufman attempts to tell these stories. His brother, a symbol of his divided personality, is writing a parallel script that is a shallow echo of the main themes of Adaptation, using familiar Hollywood tropes to mock the high art seriousness of Charlie’s story, while reinforcing the sub themes of solipsistic self-awareness and uncertainty.
The film makes discursive detours from the main plot to illustrate these failed attempts at story telling as well as using a complicated multiple flashback structure that is signaled with subtitles such as “Three Years Earlier.” The narrative has a fractured quality and appears to have little forward momentum until Charlie admits that there is no story to the story and turns first to screenwriting guru Robert McKee and then to his brother to figure out how Adaptation will end. At this point the film takes another diversion by enacting an entirely bogus conclusion to the narrative which has been foreshadowed throughout, and which the viewer knows is false. The character of Donald is killed off, reuniting within Charlie both sides of his personality and, after he has declared his love for Amelia, he admits that it feels right. The end.
In the research for this paper while looking over online bibliographies, it was interesting to note how often the term ‘metafiction’ kept cropping up. And it wasn’t just in the usual places. Metafiction was used in articles on the film in The Guardian, The Observer, Sight & Sound from the UK and The New York Times and The New Yorker in the US, but also in surprising places such as Newsweek and USA Today . Like the phrase “post modernity” it seems that metafiction is now mainstream. So what is it, this metafiction?
A useful working definition of metafiction is a fiction that “deals playfully and self-referentially with writing or its conventions.” The term dates back to the early 1970s and the work of various academics theorizing the rise of self-reflexive fictions, in particular William H. Gass who is credited with coining the term in 1973. In Patricia Waugh’s 1984 book Metafiction: the Theory and Practice of self-conscious fiction the author identified reoccurring motifs and techniques used by writers that include:
• creating biographies of imaginary writers
• presenting and discussing fictional works of an imaginary character
• intruding to comment on writing
• involving his or herself with fictional characters
• rejecting conventional plot
• subverting conventions to transform ‘reality’ into a highly suspect concept
• displaying reflexivity
If we are to measure Adaptation by these common features of metafiction, then it is clearly and unequivocally a work of filmic metafiction. It uses all these techniques and combines them with other narrative devices. The character of Donald Kaufman is an imaginary writer, the alter ego of the fictionalised Charlie Kaufman; Donald’s work, a script within a script called The 3, is discussed both on its own terms and in relation to the script that is being written by Charlie, the film that we are seeing; the voice over narration provides a commentary on the progress of the story, foregrounding later developments, as well as intruding on what appears at first to be reality, but is later revealed to be imaginary; the plot, although following a three act structure, rejects a normal narrative causality and, by doing so; subverts the ending of the film, foregrounding the artificiality of the entire construct.
Another curious feature of the reviews and articles on Adaptation at the time of its release were the continual discussions of the film’s main conceit that there was no real Donald Kaufman. It was repeatedly stated that he was the invention of Charlie Kaufman. Another reoccurring subject was that the fictional Kaufman bore little relation to the fictionalised version played by Nicolas Cage. This documentation of the films metafictional devices was not limited to ‘hip’ sources only, such as the review at online sources such as Salon.com , but also from more trade oriented sources as this extract from American Cinematographer demonstrates:
“Try keeping this straight: Adaptation is a movie about a screenplay writer named Charlie Kaufman, who’s struggling to come up with a film script for a movie called Adaptation, which is based on The Orchid Thief, a book by New Yorker author Susan Orleans about John Laroche, a real-life orchid collector in Florida. Kaufman, the actual author of Adaptation, is portrayed by Nicolas Cage. Kaufman the character has a fictitious identical twin named Donald, also played by Cage. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, and if that’s not enough, the film’s opening scene apparently takes place on the set of Being John Malkovich — which was directed by Spike Jonze, who also helmed Adaptation.”
For viewers not already familiar with Kaufman and Jones and going to see the film off the back of its many positive notices, the prevalence of these kinds of explanatory previews and reviews had the result of creating an audience that was primed to understand the fictional conceits of the movie’s narrative structure. For those who had seen Being John Malkovich, it was familiar territory. As Philip French wrote in The Guardian:
“Although Nicolas Cage gives a marvelous sense of reality to the often hilarious scenes between the twins, one suspects or infers that Donald is Charlie’s extrovert, go-getting doppelganger. Donald, a stranger to irony, uses Hollywood argot like ‘pitch’ and ‘industry’ that causes the discriminating Charlie to flinch: he makes successful passes at girls that Charlie secretly envies and sees no harm in the most egregious professional compromise.”
French may have also noted that, aside from the suspicions or inferences drawn by the audience, few audience members would be unaware that Nicolas Cage does not have an identical twin brother. Although the character of Donald is part of the story of Adaptation, we already know that he does not exist in either the real world or the fictive world of the film narrative.
We are left to ponder the question of how the on-screen twinning was achieved. The answer was special effects using computers, lighting doubles and Cage’s cousin, Marc Coppola. It is the film’s second grand conceit, that the actor not only plays versions of himself, but also versions of the characters as imagined by the screenwriter. Wanting to extend the conceit further, the filmmakers credited Donald as a co-writer of the film, quoted his script The 3 at the end of the credits, added a “in loving memory” valediction, had him nominated along with Charlie Kaufman for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and he was given a biography on the Adaptation DVD. It was a conceit that extended far beyond the film itself, out into the media and into the minds of cinema goers. It was the ultimate metafictional device.
Where does it come from?
At one point early in Adaptation Donald asks Charlie what genre his script is in. He gets no answer. Later, discussing McKee’s advice to writers, Donald says he’s going to include a song in his film The 3:
Hey, Charles, I’m putting a song in. “Happy Together.” Like when characters sing pop songs in their pajamas and dance around. I thought it’d be a nice way to break the tension. At first I was nervous about putting a song in a thriller, but Bob says that Casablanca, one of the greatest screenplays ever written, did exactly that. Mixed genres.
Adaptation doesn’t appear at first to sit easily within any genre, perhaps a mixture of the writer film (e.g. Barton Fink (1991), Wonder Boys (2000), the ironically aware pop culture film (e.g. Pulp Fiction (1994), Scream (1996), Train Spotting (1996)) or the twin film (e.g. Dead Ringers (1988), Raising Cain (1992), Ring 0, (2000)). Although Adaptation shares a sense of irony, intertextual and metafictional playfulness common to many contemporary films – and one need go no further than the work of writer/directors Quentin Tarnatino or Kevin Smith for films with distinct similarities, an arch knowingness and genre-raiding disdain for strict taxonomies – Adaptation seems isolated from most contemporary cinema. If one might use an analogy from literature, Adaptation positions itself as a work of literary fiction while movies like The Matrix (1999) are unabashed genre pictures.
In an article in Sight & Sound, the writer Henry Bean connected Adaptation to movies about screenwriters, comparing Adaptation to Paris – When It Sizzles (1963), an Audrey Hepburn, William Holden comedy as an illustration of the dilemmas of writers, both fictional and real. Bean also discusses the fragmentary nature of Adaptation and sees in it a trend from the last decade of filmmaking:
“In recent years, commercial films have begun to adopt unexpected formal devices from the other arts. Se7en (1995) replaces the thriller’s action sequences with what amounts to a series of gallery installations; The Usual Suspects (1995) translates the unreliable narrator from literature to the crime film. Adaptation tries something even more radical: it creates a protagonist who, like those of countless modern novels, imagines everything and does almost nothing.”
Robert McKee writing in an afterword in the printed version of the script compares Kaufman to the great canon of 20th century modernists
“Charlie Kaufman is an old-fashioned Modernist. He writes in the palaeo-avant-garde tradition that runs from the dream plays of Strindberg and inner monologues of Proust through the tortured identities in Pirandello and the paranoia of Kafka to the rush of subjectivities in Wolfe, Joyce, Faulkner, Beckett, and Bergman—that grand twentieth-century preoccupation with the Self.”
In film, one might also consider Sunset Boulevard (1950), a film about a writer struggling with a script for a film that will most likely never be made, a story of unrequited love that ends with the death of the writer and has a voiceover coming from the ultimate location of the omniscient narrator, heaven. A case could also be made for significant similarities between Adaptation and Fight Club (1999). Both films feature a fractured, discursive narrative structure, a divided main character rendered as two people, an archly knowing reflexivity, intertextual jokes and violent denouement that may or may not have happened.
But Adaptation’s main characteristics are primarily shared by the fantasy genre. In recent work by academics such as Damien Broderick , there has been an ongoing examination of what constitutes fantasy fiction . Broderick’s argument is that fantasy is identifiable by its use of methods of cognitive estrangement in creating fictive realities. For example, in a realist fiction, a man regrets his past actions and remembers a wrong he has done to a friend. To remedy the situation the man contacts the friend and makes amends. In a fantasy version of that story, the main character discovers a way to literally travel in time to the past event, to change the past event by stopping it from happening and rectifying the present. Fantasy fiction and cinema makes a metaphor like memory into something literal like time travel and our estrangement from the normal cognitive perception of time is violated. This estrangement can also extend to alternate fictive realities that are rendered as surreal, super real, retrospective or reflexive.
This use of cognitive estrangement and the literalising of metaphors is a constant in Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays. In Being John Malkovich, a film about the pliability of identity, the metaphor of another consciousness and identity as a mirror to individuality is literalised in the form of a tunnel that enables one character to enter the head of another character. In The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a story about love and memory, the concept of remembrance is literalised in the form of a machine that can wipe selected memories of the main characters past failed romance. In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind the main character’s misgivings for his past behaviour are literalised into a story where he “confesses” his double life as a spy. Human Nature’s examination of the meaning of language is underscored by a plethora of random snippets of dialogue that seem to make little sense while literalising the metaphor for the meaning of language in the form of a man raised as an ape who is taught to speak but who cannot understand. And finally, in Adaptation, the main location of cognitive estrangement is the creation of alter egos and identities; there is the real Kaufman outside the film, the fictionalised version inside, his fake brother both in and outside the film, the versions of real people in the movie and the foregrounding of the fake ending.
These kinds of identity games are also a feature of contemporary fantasy cinema. The Matrix (1999-2003) trilogy is one particular example of multiple identities, layered realities and a character attempting to reunite his divided selves. There are also similarities between Adaptation and Kaufman’s other movies and more hard core SF films such as Total Recall (1990), Minority Report (2002) and Paycheck (2003) – all films that deal with identity, layered realities and memory and are all narratives that make extensive use of methods of cognitive estrangement and literalised metaphors.
Of course, all these films are based on the work of the novelist Philip K. Dick and it should come as no surprise that Charlie Kaufman is the author of a screenplay for an unproduced version of Dick’s A Scanner Darkly whose main character is Fred, a cop who is pursuing a criminal named Bob. What Fred doesn’t know is that he is in fact Bob as well as being Fred; he is both cop and criminal. In Adaptation, Donald’s script covers almost identical territory. As he explains to Charlie his film is about a cop chasing a serial killer who holds a girl prisoner in his basement:
It’s a little obvious, don’t you think?
Okay, but here’s the twist. We find out that the killer really suffers from multiple personality disorder. Right? See, he’s actually really the cop and the girl. All of them are him! Isn’t that fucked up?!
Although couched within ostensibly realist settings, Kaufman’s screenplays seem to be removed from broader genre movies, but upon closer examination his work owes a considerable debt to fantasy fiction and cinema.
What does it look like?
To look at the way Adaptation is structured, let’s first look at the wider story and then at the smaller elements.
What Marty, Charlie Kaufman’s agent, has to say of Donald’s script is equally true of the real Charlie Kaufman – he’s goddamned amazing at structure. The film at macro level follows a classic three part structure, book-ended by an introduction and postscript. The broad structure follows:
Introduction – we meet Charlie inside his head as he obsesses over his life and meet the rest of the immediate cast of characters then, Part one – Charlie is given the job of adapting the Orchid Thief into a script and begins the process; Part two – Charlie discovers that there is no way to adapt the book as a stand-alone narrative and introduces himself into the story before quickly realizing that the story has no satisfying ending and, as his desperation mounts, he heads for a crisis and possible breakdown; Part three – he seeks the advice of McKee and Donald who advise him to put in another story which he then does, leading to a Hollywood thriller style dénouement. The Postscript is the meeting between Charlie and his true love Amelia where he declares his love and then realises the ending of the script should be him realising how to finish the script.
As mentioned previously, the first two thirds of Adaptation seem to be aimless and although with plenty of visual interest in the form of montages (the evolution of life on Earth, Darwin hypothesising the evolution of the orchid, insects pollinating orchids and other dramatised snippets from Orlean’s book) there seems to be little forward momentum. This more than anything led some critics to conclude that the film was irritating. Others went a lot further over the sudden turn into parody at the end: Stanley Kaufman writing in the New Republic gave the film one it’s few negative reviews comparing the film to Federico Fellini’s 8½ and finding it wanting.
“The reminder of Fellini is hard on Kaufman. 8½ is a masterwork about the difficulties of making art in our time. It is directed and acted and shot and scored with genius. Kaufman’s film, in every detail […] is an account of Nibelungs moiling away underground, mistaking pyrites for gold.”
One can forgive Stanley Kaufman and other critics for having such a harsh view of the film – despite the privilege of seeing the film with accompanying explanatory notes – they must commit their opinion to paper within a few days or weeks of seeing the film for the first time. After repeat viewings, however, my original opinion of Adaptation changed as I examined the first two thirds and discovered that, apart from the deftly realised macro-structure, the detail within supported, reinforced and advanced every aspect of the greater themes.
How did Charlie Kaufman achieve this? As pointed out previously, the techniques include mirroring and framing on multiple levels in both the characterizations and the individual story components. There are the people who are mirrored: Charlie and Donald – Laroche, Orlean and McKee in real life with their counterparts in the film – the script as it exists (resulting in the film that we see), the script as it is being written and the parallel script written by Donald. There is also extensive visual mirroring: cuts between Kaufman and Orlean both writing, Kaufman obsessing over the picture of Orlean and Amelia, people driving cars, people on telephones etc.
The structural metafictional framing of the film extends into the dialogue of the characters. Just a few examples, Charlie explains to Valerie the film executive in the second scene of the movie what will happen:
[…] I’d want to let the movie exist, rather than be artificially plot driven.
I guess I’m not exactly sure what that means.
Oh. I’m…I’m not sure I know what that means, either. Y’know, I just don’t want to ruin it by making it a Hollywood thing. You know? Like an orchid heist movie or something, or, y’know, changing the orchids into poppies and turning it into a movie about drug running, you know?
And that is precisely what happens in Adaptation as does Valerie’s subsequent suggestion that Orlean and Laroche fall in love. Elsewhere, the use of the song Happy Together provides the ironic commentary on the ultimate reuniting of the two halves of Charlie and Donald, there is the constant questions from the character of John Laroche of who will play him in the movie version spoken by the actor playing him in the movie. There is also the continuous reinforcement of Charlie’s solipsistic dilemma in both visual terms (hyper-stylised montages illustrating his words as they are spoken) along with more obvious references such as the conversation about Donald’s girlfriend’s tattoo – a snake swallowing its own tail.
For a primarily visual medium, Adaptation seems unusually circumscribed by words, both as speech and written text. As Henry Bean points out in his Sight & Sound article the film is an “orgy of voiceovers”:
“Not only Charlie’s endless, self-flagellating, self-absorbed monologues that constitute the core of the film, but also Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) reading voiceover passages from her book […] John Laroche (Chris Cooper), narrating episodes from his own life down the phone. Even an aged Charles Darwin, scratching away with a quill pen, ruminates on the ascent of man. We hear the voices, watch the characters writing, see the words they have written, typed, printed in books, underlined, highlighted, crowded with marginal notes – an endless flood of speaking and writing.”
This tendency reaches its apogee in a montage where the film follows Kaufman’s words into a loop of images each leading down to another level and repeating the same images as they are narrated again. It seems that the film cannot break away from the tyranny of words. Adaptation’s hyper prolixity isn’t a unique feature to filmic metafiction, or to a sampling of recent metafictional novels such as the works of Dave Eggers’ And You Will Know Our Velocity and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Thomas Pynchon’s V, Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho or Don De Lillo’s Underworld.
There are three notable exceptions to this imperative of language in Adaptation – the almost wordless fantasy of Charlie following the café waitress around to the back of the flower show, the car crash which kills Laroche’s mother and uncle, as well as the ending where the film bursts into Happy Together, a soundtrack to a week-long time exposure of flowers blooming in a Los Angeles street. For me at least, these were the moments of story telling with image.
In conclusion, there are two final points to make.
The first is that while Adaptation is supremely well crafted, concise and full of interest for repeat examinations, the film does have one flaw. Perhaps it was intentional, or perhaps it was an oversight, but the hermetic tightness of the plot is violated in one glaring instance. Early in the film, Susan Orlean visits Laroche’s nursery where she meets an Indian named Matthew. His behaviour is odd. He first complements her on her hair and then says he can see her sadness before wandering away saying that he will no longer speak to her because “it is the Indian way.” The explanation for this behaviour comes at the end of the film in the last third where Orlean realises that Matthew’s odd behaviour was the result of the hallucinogenic drug that the Indians concoct from the Ghost Orchid plant. But if the ending of the film is a construct of the imagination of Charlie Kaufman, the Hollywood ending, and the beginning was the “real” story, then how can that be the explanation? Is the end of the film retrospectively violating the meaning of the early scene or is this another way of exposing the artificiality of the construct? Perhaps the explanation is that we never left the blackness of Charlie’s head at any time in the film?
The second and final point is that the most charming aspect of Adaptation is that the authors know that words only have a limited use. When Charlie and Donald are discussing how they would make the script of The 3 and its multiple characters (who are all the same person) work, Charlie eventually runs out of words, out of meaning:
The other thing is, there’s no way to write this. Did you consider that? I mean, how could you have somebody held in a basement and working in a police station at the same time?
Okay, that’s not what I’m asking. Listen closely. What I’m asking is, in the reality of this movie, where there’s only one character, right? Okay? How could you…. What, what exactly would….