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Film Review: Adaptation
Adaptation is one of my favorite movies, but I can understand why it doesn't have mass appeal. It's screwy. It's different. It does things with a movie you're not supposed to do with a movie. And it calls attention to this.
Adaptation is, on the surface, about the difficulty screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage) has writing a film adaptation of Susan Orlean's book, The Orchid Thief. The book has little drama or narrative tension, it's just a book about flowers. It's an amazing and interesting book about flowers, but Charlie, in wanting to stay true to the book, finds it incredibly difficult to write a screenplay based on it. He doesn't want to make typical Hollywood crap, like putting drugs, sex, or violence into the story that wasn't there before.
But when his twin brother Donald (also played by Nick Cage) starts going to a screenwriting seminar and working on an action-y thriller, that's exactly what Charlie ends up doing. But what's weird about that is that he's living the movie in the movie, not merely writing it, so you can see how his thoughts changing changes the reality he's in. It's kind of crazy, and it shows the deranged though processes of a frantic, desperate, self-loathing writer and his struggle to adapt, in every sense of the word.
While the title refers to screen adaptation, the process of adapting a book into a movie, it also refers to personal and biological adaptation. Susan in this story changes, from having this squeaky-clean New York image to being a pathetic drug addict, having an affair down in Florida with the man she swore was just a subject she was interviewing. Charlie changes, because his own desperation and feeling of personal failure cause him to go with the screenwriter seminar lecturer's advice, to go back into his story and "put in the drama". Throughout the film, the theme of biological adaptation is explored. Susan talks about how it's "almost shameful" for humans to adapt, that it feels like "giving up", which is reflected with Charlie's inner struggle.
While I can see how this movie isn't for everyone, I liked the layers of complexity in it. It's a story about battling crippling self-doubt. It's also about the process of writing, which I liked because, well, I'm also a writer. Writing is challenging, and adapting someone else's writing into a new medium is even more so because you struggle between wanting to respect the original work and wanting to make a good movie or whatever you're trying to create. It's about how the needs and conventions of one medium are different than those of another. A book has a lot more freedom to explore, to waste time, to just peacefully exist. But a movie has to have a pulse, it has to be alive, it has to have action. It has to show, not tell with voice-over narration. It has to have drama to interest the viewer and not feel like a waste of time, while a book can take up a lot of space in diversions and not even need a dramatic narrative to still be entertaining and interesting. Adapting a non-fiction book into a fictional movie is probably the most difficult, because it means you have to kind of invent a story where none really existed, but still be true to the book's focus.
Another thing I liked is that this is all based on reality, after completing the hit film, Being John Malkovich, the real Charlie Kaufman and the real Susan Orlean got together and he agreed to write a film adaptation of her book. And this is the result.
Adaptation is primarily about writing, and will primarily appeal to writers and other creative types, who will be best able to understand the dilemma of Charlie Kaufman in this movie. However, for everyone, I suppose it is funny, interesting, and the plot's twists and turns make it a mind screw and that should appeal to anyone. Like I said, it is one of my personal favorites and I watch it often. I guess I like it because the story of the process and story of making art is sometimes even more interesting than the art itself, as I've learned through my studies as an art history major.