Friday, 18 March 2016

Adaptation: A Meta-Textual Comedy About Trying to Adapt

The review starts oddly with reviewer Caleb Sherriff, 26 and wondering what he's doing, narrating in the third person as he watches the film. He's not sure if this is a good idea since it's likely most people won't even get what he's trying to do. It's so forced - writing the review in the style of the film's narration by Nicolas Cage's neurotic Charlie Kaufman? That's surely a hamfisted, inept attempt at parody. Hamfisted and inept mean similar things. Off to a great start.

Caleb is undecided if he should review the film as a live blog reaction like his last review which was fun or save that for the next review in the series. He is also still questioning whether he should keep narrating in the third person since it must be annoying to the reader and he doesn't want to alienate the little readership he has.

What if this is just a pointless exorcise and I'm just wasting my time writing words no one wants to read?

He decides to give some background here so those reading this will know what the film he is supposed to be reviewing is about. Adaptation was Charlie Kaufman's first script following the success of his breakout debut film Being John Malkovich and ostentatiously is supposed to be an adaptation of the non-fiction novel The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. Caleb writes 'ostentatiously' since Kaufman was struggling to adapt the novel into a screenplay and was facing severe writer's block due to his failure and the pressure he felt to live up to the success following Being John Malkovich.

Therefore, Kaufman decided to write the screenplay about his difficulties adapting The Orchid Thief into a screenplay and wrote himself into the script. Of course being Charlie Kaufman, this isn't as simple as that would make it sound. He also created a twin brother for himself, Donald Kaufman, who shares screenwriting credit on Adaptation, invented a made up romance between Orlean and the novel's subject, John Laroche, and fabricated completely fictional events involving Orlean, Laroche, and the Kaufman twins set three years after the novel's release.

This makes sense for Charlie Kaufman's writing process.

The film opens with Nicolas Cage's Kaufman narration as the credit appear on a black screen setting the tone of the movie right away, self-deprecating, neurotic, incredibly meta-textual and self-aware. Caleb had to turn the volume up at the beginning since he missed the first sentence or so. He's still milling over whether he should keep doing this review in the third person but sometimes he feels he just has to commit even when it probably isn't a good idea. He's stubborn like that sometimes.

It then does this thing where they go to a scene three years earlier showing Meryl Streep's Orlean writing the book and then goes to 2 years earlier than that to show Chris Cooper's Laroche stealing an orchid from a reserve. Caleb isn't sure if that is is a flashback within a flashback or a dramatisation of the events of the novel within the dramatisation of the writing of the novel or if Laroche's scene is just a dramatisation of the event which sets up Orlean to research the article which eventually turn into the novel.

Caleb brings this up, not because it's the first scene in the film chronologically, he skipped two previous scenes, but because it shows the dense layering that is going on in this film. While there were aspects of this in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, it did seem a bit toned down whereas this film is full on layering.

"Hey, remember how I don't exist but still share screenwriting credit? Layers, right?" - Donald Kaufman, probably

Caleb notes that additional of Charlie Kaufman's twin brother Donald is a nice touch since his bouncy optimism and carefree nature is a perfect counterpoint to Charlie's (the character, not the person) eternal pessimism, self-deprecation, and depression. Also, it allows Nicolas Cage to embody two completely different roles within the same film and have those roles balance the other out.

While he finds it slightly disappointing that there is no real Nic Cage freakout in the film, Caleb thinks Cage's performance it fantastic. As Caleb already commented in his post on why Nicolas Cage would have been the best Superman ever,
[Cage] wants to you experience a visceral reaction to what he's doing, where the lines of reality are blurred such that even his most measured performances have a surreal quality to them. You can't tell what elements are part of the performance and what are real.
Which makes him an actor who is perfectly suited for a Charlie Kaufman film. Kaufman's movies always have surreal touches and meta-textual layering which obscure what could be considered real. This is a film where Cage plays Charlie Kaufman himself and his fictional twin brother Donald after all.

Oh, Meryl Streep's feet star in this too.

Ironically for a film about writer's block and the difficulty of adapting someone else's work, Caleb is struggling to write this review consistently but has to do it in short bursts and still doesn't know what his final comments on the film will be.

He also noticed that Cage's Kaufman narration is in the first person but he's being doing this review in the third person. Kaufman only starts referring to himself in the third person when he writes himself into his script way later in the film. As parody goes, this review is pretty much dead on arrival, Caleb observes with quiet resignation.

He has been repeatedly stopping the film to write which has completely disrupted his viewing experience so he has decide to let the film play and then write about it after.

I can do this.

Okay, one more pause so Caleb can make an observation before he forgets and it bugs him he didn't write it down. Kaufman's protagonists are often unlikable, anxiety-riddled white men who are hesitant or unable to make a connection with anyone else since they are so obsessed with their own problems and overthink all their actions leading to inaction. And Kaufman writes the fictionalised version of himself Charlie as possibly the most unlikable of his protagonists.

It is definitely an unflattering depiction. I mean, Charlie sees everyone woman as a potential lover and we constantly see him masturbating to sexual fantasies. Whether this is meant as an exaggeration of how he views himself or his own anxieties, it is an interesting choice. Luckily Cage pulls it off while still being charismatic due to his innate Cage-ness.

But the film is also brutal in its depiction of other characters as well. Each character is given moments to display some admirable qualities while also displaying some real disgusting, yet all too human, traits.

"Yes, I'm a morally ambiguous rogue who steals endangered flowers to make a drug but I can be real poetic in my passion."

"Wow them in the end," Brian Cox's script guru Robbie McKee tell Charlie.
Find an ending, but don't cheat, and don't you dare bring in a deus ex machina. Your characters must change, and the change must come from them.
So it isn't that surprising the last act of the film is rather different in tone and execution that rest of the movie. For one thing, the movie is no longer alternating dramatisations of the events of The Orchid Thief set three years earlier or scenes of Charlie trying to adapt the screenplay, it's about things happening in the now as the Kaufman brothers interact with Orlean and Laroche.

For another thing, Charlie stops continually narrating. Also, he starts to include Donald and takes action to meet, then investigate Orlean. The whole movie to this point had been about Charlie's depressed loneliness and inaction, his inability to grow, to change, and here he is including his brother and taking action.

"In hindsight, maybe inaction would have been safer," - Charlie, probably.

The last act is almost a detective adventure as Charlie and Donald follow Orlean to Miami where she meets Laroche to partake in illegal orchid drugs and extramarital sex. But Charlie being Charlie is caught and they take him to the swamp to kill him. However Donald helps him escape but is shot by Laroche before dying in a car crash.

In a nice twist, Charlie is saved by a deus ex machina as an alligator kills Laroche before he is able to shoot Charlie. In some ways, it's like the last act both takes on McKee's advice and ignores it in equal measure.

The film ends with Charlie in his car narrating how he knows how to end the film, with narration as he sits in his car. Because the film couldn't be more meta or self-aware if it tried. And it tried.


Musing Rating - 5 Musings

Enough meta-textual layers to have you question where fiction ends and reality begins. But then you remember that Charlie Kaufman doesn't have a twin brother and that reality is a myth.



References:

Adaptation Wikipedia page

About Me

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This introduction is supposed to let you know that you have found the correct Caleb. 

I am here to tell that your search is over. I am indeed the correct Caleb for any given situation. Parties, hunter-gatherings, long walks on the beach, shindigs, guest appearances, and so much more. I am an multi-purpose Caleb guaranteed to impress friends and influence your uncle.

I also write stuff online.