Restrospective: Adaptation (2002)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed May 28 09:32:00 MDT 2003

I finally got around to seeing Spike Jonze's "Adaptation", a film that
premiered a year ago and that is now available in DVD/Video. Not only
was it written by Charlie Kaufman, who was responsible for Jonze's
"Inside John Malkovich's Brain", it features him as a central character,
played by Nicholas Cage. Cage also plays Donald Kaufman, a fictional
twin brother who is clearly intended to represent Charlie's alter ego.
The two characters are responsible for whatever dramatic tension exists
in this postmodernist confection, with Charlie representing Art and
Integrity, while Donald--an aspiring hack screenwriter--representing
Hollywood commercialism.

While noticed by only a handful of critics, the two brothers have the
same kind of relationship as the brothers in Sam Shepherd's "True West".
In the 1983 Broadway production, the screenwriting brother played by
Gary Sinise was analogous to Charlie Kaufman, while John Malkovich
played his crass sibling who eventually succeeds--like Donald--on
Hollywood's terms.

The title "Adaptation" is a play on words. Kaufman is struggling to
write an adaptation of Susan Orleans's "The Orchid Thief", while her
book is--among other things--a study of how orchids have exemplified
Darwinian adaptation. As a New Yorker writer, she decided to write her
book after learning about the trial of John Laroche and three Seminole
Indians in Florida. They had stolen orchids, a protected flora, from a
swamp on the Seminole reservation. At his trial, Laroche claims that the
Indians are exempt from such laws. In the film, Kaufman puts Orleans's
story into the background and focuses on his own struggle to adapt such
unwieldy material--at least to him--into a viable film. He depicts
himself as an obsessed, neurotic failure, while Orleans (Meryl Streep)
and Laroche (Chris Cooper) are transformed into fictional characters
with only thin connections to the real people. Ultimately, this is not a
film about Seminoles and orchids as much as it is about esthetics.

For careful observers of the Hollywood scene, it is obvious that people
like Spike Jonze or Charlie Kaufman have much more in common with the
studio bosses than one might assume--based on the premises of this film.
Spike Jonze's real name is Adam Spiegel, a scion of the wealthy mail
order family. He is married to Sofia Coppola, the daughter of director
Francis Ford Coppola, who is himself Nicholas Cage's uncle. All of these
connections, which border on incest, are hardly likely to throw
obstacles in the path of an aspiring film-maker purportedly trying to
foist thorny intellectual exercises upon a resistant marketplace. A
shrewder assessment might understand the work of a Spike Jonze as
catering to a jaded college-educated, middle-class audience that does
not want to waste $10 on a summer blockbuster.

Indeed, postmodernist exercises like "Adaptation" can be a box-office
success, just as the films of the Coen brothers are, who are basically
exploring the same kinds of self-referential themes as Jonze and
Kaufman. The sweaty, self-doubting, blocked Charlie Kaufman character
will evoke the Coen brothers' "Barton Fink", a 1991 movie about another
frustrated screenwriter, loosely based on Clifford Odets. In each of
these films, there is scant interest in broader social questions. What
the film-makers are solely interested in is the personal drama of the
artist, whose struggle to remain uncompromised is ostensibly their own
as well. In "Barton Fink", the Odets character is ordered by the studio
bosses to write a wrestling movie that will be a vehicle for Noah Beery.
In "Adaptation", Charlie Kaufman is counseled by his brother to spice up
his movie with an old-fashioned violent climax.

And Charlie Kaufman does seem to take his brother's advice. In the dark
comical conclusion of the film, Orleans and Laroche become drug-crazed
murderers who pursue the Kaufman brothers through the Everglades as if
in a B-movie from the Warner Brothers vault. On the film's own terms,
this succeeds.

The one thing that Kaufman does not seem all that interested in is
something that interests me a great deal, namely the troubled
interconnections between American Indians, ecology, Darwinism and the
flower market. If it was up to me, I would have made the three Indians
who were caught with Laroche into the lead characters and put everybody
else into the background, most of all Charlie Kaufman.

But that's just me.


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