Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.
Change happens. In nature. In people. In art. Adaptation (Spike Jonze’s 2002 film now available to stream via Netflix) is about one man trying to figure out how and why it works.
The movie tries to make its titular process more manageable by whittling it down to one man (Charlie Kaufman, played by Nicholas Cage) trying to write one script (ostensibly, the script to the very movie we’re watching) based on one book (The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, played by Meryl Streep) that is itself about one man (John Laroche, played by Chris Cooper) trying to steal one flower (the ghost orchid).
The plot keeps eating itself, adding layer after layer of self-reference and self-critique, which leads us to the following paradoxes.
- Charlie Kaufman is most true to Orlean’s book when he betrays it.
- He can only break The Orchid Thief’s penchant for sprawling meditation by personally wallowing in introspection and self-loathing.
- Most importantly, he discovers that the only way to write a new and original screenplay is to include every single Hollywood cliché in his script.
The film is so hyper-aware that it starts anticipating your objections to it. Think that protagonist Charlie is self-indulgent and narcissistic? Just wait a couple minutes until Kaufman admits to the audience just how selfish he is. Tired of Charlie’s constant voice-over narration? Wait for the scene where script doctor Robert McKee (Brian Cox) warns screenwriters that voiceover narration is sloppy, flaccid writing.
For all of this witty meta-one-upsmanship, the film does make two thought provoking points: adaptation involves all of us and it occurs outside of the conscious decision of any one person. In terms of the plot, this means that Charlie only begins to write well when he embraces human contact, and that as he tries to discover how his characters change, he undergoes change quite unintentionally.
But Charlie isn’t the only person undergoing unintentional change. In flashbacks, we get Susan Orlean writing the New Yorker piece that would later become the basis for The Orchid Thief. Her central character is John Laroche. We learn that Laroche picks up and leaves obsessions at a mere whim. He doesn’t even try to explain why or what causes them. “Let me tell you a story,” he’ll tell Orlean before regaling her about his torrid love affair with something he no longer cares about. One such story concludes with Laroche’s matter-of-fact, “Through with fish.” Laroche spares Orelan a Damascus story, a moment of blinding light that makes him re-evaluate his life. The fish obsession simply ends, without pomp or circumstance, and another fascination sits there waiting to take its place. His renunciation is so complete that he forsakes the very ocean because it’s associated with the spurned fish. In voiceover, Orlean expresses bewilderment at how Laroche could simply leave something he once loved so passionately.
This complicates the assertion made by Donald Kaufman (also Nicholas Cage), Charlie’s twin brother, that you are what you love, not what loves you. Donald’s quotation works well for if you’re signing someone’s yearbook, but it deceptively covers over the film’s argument. It’s true that you are what you love, but Donald leaves out the following caveat: in the world of the film, you don’t get to choose what you love. Now, once love has taken possession of you, it is your duty to hold on to it, to own it. But you didn’t buy it for yourself. Adaptation is not, strictly speaking, a conscious act.
In this movie, movies themselves are therapeutic. Charlie’s conversion experience happens at a scriptwriting workshop. He learns to be a better writer from his brother Donald, who is himself a screenwriter. As is often the case in Kaufman’s films, no one ever thinks of God.
Kaufman’s films are interesting thought experiments where we’re shown situations that scream “Creation!”, “Fall!”, “Redemption!” but remain wholly secular. Kaufman has depersonalized God and called him Adaptation, to which I respond, He is working in and through creation whether you notice Him or not.