Charlie Kaufman and the Art of Adaptation

AdaptationAdapting a novel into a film is a sensitive and hazardous process, especially if the novel has already garnered a following of avid readers. When adapting an already existing work the screenwriter may have the leisure of not having to come up with everything from scratch, but they must endure the added stress of wanting to do the source material justice and not fail the expectations of possibly millions of fans. In this article I will not be looking at the adaptation of massive international best-sellers such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, but will instead focus on a movie which more than any other facilitates a discussion around adaptation: Charlie Kaufman’s aptly titled Adaptation (2002), directed by Spike Jonze and starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Tilda Swinton and Chris Cooper.

The screenplay for Adaptation is based on the novel The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. The Orchid Thief was commissioned due to an article Susan Orlean wrote for The New Yorker about the orchid thief John Laroche, on trial for stealing rare and endangered orchids from the Floridian swamplands. Random House approached Orlean with the question of whether she would want to turn her article into a novel and Orlean was up for the challenge. Once she started to ponder how best to capture the inspiration she derived from orchid collecting, Orlean realised it was going to be much more difficult than she had anticipated. The result is a novel lacking a clear narrative in the traditional sense.

In part The Orchid Thief tells the story of a meeting between two people, in part it is a meditation on life and, for long passages, it becomes a factual text on the history of the orchid and on how the adoration of this plant, over the past two centuries, has been cultivated into an obsession within a community of devoted collectors. This tangle of perspectives would seem nigh on impossible to comb out into anything that resembles a functioning film narrative.

Kaufman makes the rather ingenious choice to write a movie about how one attempts to adapt a book that appears to be impossible to adapt, at least if said adaptation is to stay faithful to the source material. He makes himself into the main character, and mixes reality with fiction in a way that might have proven dizzying in its eccentricity, if it were not carried off with such a strong narrative core that is never allowed to spin out of control.

The main character Charlie offers the viewer a front row seat to a writer’s neurotic self-doubt, and in a refined way Kaufman finds a parallel between humans and the flowers, so vital to the novel, which his main character so desperately wants to honour in his screenplay. This lovely bit of insight into the process of adaptation, not to mention the screenwriting process itself, in combination with the storytelling perspective used, make this film something truly extraordinary.

Book and Film: The Similarities

The Orchid Thief is a novel mainly concerned with the subject of orchids and the community of enthusiasts whose lives are entirely dedicated to the fascinating flower. The novel offers up an excess of information and history, which becomes a reflection on human behaviour and the lengths we go to in order to obtain what we desire.

Adaptation Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter of ‘Adaptation’

It is written from a first person perspective as the journalist Susan Orlean based it on her own experience researching her article for The New Yorker, and the impact it had on her life. Her relationship – or lack thereof – with the enigmatic John Laroche is designated to the backseat of the novel, but if one was to take stock of anything in the narrative when trying to turn book into film, this somewhat tentative friendship would be it. The tension that exists between them is based on how they are each others’ opposite in every respect, but Laroche is the reason Orlean uncovers her own joy of discovering, which makes her aware of an absence in her life that is hard for her to define. Kaufman picks up on this in the novel and makes it a neatly planted aspect of their subplot throughout Adaptation, the undercurrent of it being there in their first meeting at Laroche’s trial, in his quirky – but insightful – character and how it is becoming ever more apparent that Orlean is dissatisfied with her life.

The crux of the importance of the orchid as a major focus of the novel, and how the rather plotless weight of this will be handled in the film, is also established early on when Charlie, in the opening sequence, states to his producer that the book is about flowers and that is what he wants his screenplay to be about. Thus the flower is immediately made integral to the progression of the plot as it is part of the main character’s goal.

Charlie and Donald: Indie versus Blockbuster

Charlie is quickly established as a man tormented by low self-esteem, self-loathing and an overbearing insecurity when it comes to women. He is also a dedicated artist who, because of his lack of confidence, has gotten stuck in the writing process and somewhere along the way has lost his voice. He knows what he wants his screenplay to say – but he doesn’t know how he’s going to make it say it. His lack of confidence, in this regard, can be traced to his strong opinions on what the writing process should be, which is organic and without relying on doctrine such as those suggested by screenwriting guru Robert McKee.

Charlie stresses that there are no guidelines and rules one should follow when one is striving to create something original, which is exactly what he feels under pressure to put out after his first screenplay Being John Malkovich has received acclaim by the audience and critics alike.

Adaptation Nicolas Cage Charlie Kaufman

Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman

Charlie’s twin brother Donald, on the other hand, decides to become a screenwriter mostly on a whim. Spiritually and mentally he is Charlie’s opposite in every regard and, naturally, devours McKee’s screenwriting opus Story and sets to following McKee’s listed “principles” to the letter. His screenplay is therefore a commercial beast enslaved by the conventions of its genre. Charlie is appalled, but gives sarcastic and tired advice whenever Donald seeks it – advice that shows how Charlie, in spite of his aversion to it, has an understanding of how a more commercially viable screenplay is structured. When Donald later sells his finished product one wonders if it might not even be thanks to Charlie’s unwilling guidance that he does so.

Charlie’s and Donald’s contrasting points of view can be interpreted as a representation of the discussion that has been held in relation to literature versus film ever since the movie first saw the light of day. Adaptation is, in and of itself, a reflection on adaptation as a process and highlights the difficulty a screenwriter is faced with when taking on the task of transforming a literary work into a visual one.

In his essay Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest, film theorist and critic André Bazin writes:

[…] faithfulness to a form, literary or otherwise, is illusory: what matters is the equivalence of meaning of the forms.

Bazin wishes to underline that what matters in the discussion around adaptation is not whether the content is exactly the same: the words on the page precisely translated into an image on the screen; but rather that the meaning of the content is aptly interpreted: the girl feels lonely as she’s lost in thought walking home.

AdaptationWhat the screenwriter and filmmaker strives for is to take the thoughts and emotions of the character, described through paragraphs in a book, and effectively promote the same emotion and evoke the same reaction with the viewer as was established in the reader, which is accomplished by using well-chosen and edited together images. As such, the differences of the mediums come into play in the distilling of paragraphs into one strong image. The girl in the film might not “feel lonely as she’s lost in thought walking home”, but may instead be shown sitting in a park, alone on a bench, watching two children her own age playing and laughing together. This does not change the meaning of the content, but the content takes a new form since its message – the girl is lonely – needs a stronger visual image to be properly represented to the audience.

Charlie and Donald are a representation of the artistic versus the commercial, the original versus the conformed; but Adaptation doesn’t take sides, instead the progression of the plot becomes a pointed finger at the established core of critics saying that the commercial cannot also be artistic and that conformity cannot be the basis of originality.

Creating the Narrative Thread

In his quest to infuse his screenplay with the essence of The Orchid Thief, Charlie’s adaptation (and ultimately Kaufman’s own) becomes an original work, his own interpretation of the book in which he manages to hit at the heart of the story – Orlean and Laroche – and take their relationship to a level it never reached in real life. Could it have? Was there attraction hidden beneath Orlean’s fascination with Laroche? Most probably not, but in the book it is the possibility of it that makes the passages dedicated to them such an interesting read.

As already mentioned, Charlie begins his journey completely determined to keep his focus on the flowers. A film about flowers has never been done before, he insists, and it is something he is passionate about. In the opening dialogue with his producer he states:

Okay. But, I’m saying, it’s like, I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases, you know… or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end, you know? I mean… The book isn’t like that, and life isn’t like that, you know, it just isn’t. And… I feel very strongly about this.

But the more it dawns on him that he can’t seem to find the right way into the screenplay he so desperately wants to write, he slowly, but surely, begins to pay attention to Donald’s repetitive praise of McKee and his “principles”.

When Donald actually sells his script, Charlie gives in and goes to a screenwriting seminar hosted by McKee. When McKee says that one’s protagonist must have an expressed goal in order to exist, Charlie poses the question of how one, as a screenwriter, should approach ones idea if it is based on the main character not evolving, not learning any major lessons or going through any changes whatsoever – more like how it is in the real world. As a reply he gets this outburst from McKee:

Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ’s sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life! And why the fuck are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don’t have any use for it! I don’t have any bloody use for it!

This lecture shakes Charlie to his very core and he grabs McKee at the end of the seminar, asking to speak with him, stating that McKee’s words hit home with him probably a little harder than was intended as they weren’t simply attacking his choices as a storyteller, but his choices in life through which he is stuck longing for a relationship, but cursed with a terrible sense of timing, causing him to miss or misinterpret every chance he gets.

Furthermore, McKee’s agitated outburst at Charlie’s question can also be seen as Kaufman’s way of expressing what he finds to be the most important part of a filmic narrative: a strong protagonist who faces a row of obstacles and are put through tough choices to reach a fixed goal. Charlie’s fixed goal is to write his screenplay. Through meeting McKee he gets the much-needed answer to how he can reach this goal, but, of course, it is far from everything he is set to learn during his journey. And he has had a rather subtle helper right there with him every step of the way.

Donald as Doppelgänger

A doppelgänger is, in the more classic and folkloric use of the word, usually an evil creature who comes to turn its counterpart’s life upside down. However, in literature it can also act as a mirror image of what the main character needs to evolve into in order to become a whole person.

Adaptation Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean

Donald is outgoing, optimistic and open to new experiences. He takes the day as it comes with the attitude that everything will work itself out for the best. He writes his screenplay, he gets himself a girlfriend and in doing all this he is an example of the mentality Charlie needs to possess if he wants to solve all of the problems he’s facing, the internal as well as the external.

After meeting McKee – an encounter in which McKee tells Charlie ”Your characters must go through a change, and the change must come from them” –  the plot takes a new turn as Charlie now actually starts to evolve toward a change.

Charlie’s involvement with Orlean, a person whom he has up until now been too intimidated to even speak to, also moves forward, much thanks to Donald, who is convinced there is something more to her relationship with Laroche than she is willing to admit. Donald’s conviction leads to the brothers following Orlean to Florida where they discover she is visiting Laroche. To Charlie’s horror, and Donald’s triumph, they discover that Laroche has been making a powerful drug by exploiting the flowers he claims to love, as well as being involved in an affair with Orlean, who knows about the drug scheme.

Charlie’s protestations to his producer in the quote from the opening sequence now becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as everything he didn’t want as a part of his screenplay and has been avoiding like the plague is introduced into the plot of his own story: drugs, sex, car chases and characters going through life-altering experiences in order to grow and change. Of course, the character growing and changing is him.

As the brothers escape a murderous Olean and an equally dangerous Laroche, Charlie and Donald end up in an accident in which Donald dies – another part of the conventions around the use of a doppelgänger as they are typically and symbolically sacrificed once they have served their purpose and helped their counterpart to an awareness of their weaknesses and how to counterweight them.

Book and Film: The Differences

Charlie’s story obviously is not the same as the story of Susan Orlean. Charlie’s evolution as main character cannot be traced back to Orlean’s novel since there is no Charlie Kaufman present in those pages, but the theme of self-discovery is very much there. It is evident that the process of writing the book changed how Orlean perceived herself and she found herself wanting, more than anything, to be someone who passionately wants to care about something passionately, the way the collectors care about their orchids. In reality she doesn’t even know where to start. Charlie goes through a similar journey because even though he feels he knows what he wants, he cannot make it a reality without learning the lessons of finishing the screenplay to Adaptation.

Adaptation Chris Cooper

Chris Cooper as John Laroche

The orchids, which Charlie so decidedly want to be a part of his screenplay, are visually planted in his own story through a sequence in which Charlie brings the girl he’s secretly in love with – Amelia – to an orchid show. In voiceover we hear Charlie name the flowers in Latin, a commentary which then flows into his longing observations of the women around him, who all seem so rare and precious and out of his reach. The film shows the external conflict for Charlie being the pressure to finish his script, while his internal conflict is his failure in love. The flowers, which in the novel express Orlean’s thirst for a true passion, in the film become symbolic of Charlie’s hidden feelings for Amelia.

My point with these examples is that, even though the screenplay diverts from the novel on almost every detail, it still captures the spirit of what Orlean wishes to communicate. The themes of the book are reflected throughout the script, and though Kaufman was more or less forced to invent his own narrative thread, the screenplay still shows respect for the source material, especially through Charlie’s unwillingness to allow the orchids to be forgotten or hidden away. The necessity for Kaufman to build his own story in order to capture the story of The Orchid Thief does not make his adaptation any less worthy, but instead his work should be judged on its own merits, rather than by comparing it to the original.

Film theorist Dudley Andrew writes in his article Adaptation:

Adaptations claiming fidelity bear the original as a signified, when those inspired by or derived from an earlier text stand in a relation of referring to the original.

The film Adaptation is, when looked at from Andrew’s point of view, a work of fiction inspired by an original. But is an adaptation not an original in and of itself when transferred from one medium to another?

In Conclusion

Regarding the critical discussion surrounding adaption I find it interesting that it hardly ever seems to be mentioned how practically every movie starts out as text on paper. A screenplay may not be prose, but it resembles poetry with its short, to-the-point sentences designed to hold the interest and create strong images in the mind of the reader. Why is this fact never considered in these debates? That all film is essentially an adaptation of a text.

AdaptationAs far as a great adaptation goes, I can only surmise that my personal experience when feeling let down by an adaptation of a written work I’ve loved has had to do with the parts they chose to skip or change for, to my mind, no good reason. They have taken away from, or completely changed, the feeling I was left with after being touched by the novel, and when that happens it usually won’t help watching the film a second time.

The debate of what is acceptable, appropriate or agreeable when it comes to adaptation will continue, though I am rather of the opinion that it’s hopeless. I choose to side with Bazin, who proclaims that literature and film are two separate mediums, in spite of their similarities, and they will always use different means to impart their stories. As such there is no point in trying to prove which medium tells a story in the most convincing way, what matters is that the story ”wows them in the end”.

Annelie Widholm is a screenwriter, blogger and freelance writer who is passionate about storytelling in general, but storytelling in film and television in particular. She is an avid tea drinker, aspiring globetrotter and a believer in the goodness of very dark chocolate.

12 thoughts on “Charlie Kaufman and the Art of Adaptation

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  3. Great stuff, Annelie. I see Adaptation the same way I see Rashomon. Rashomon is very good, but I prefer other movies that dramatize subjectivity without being about subjectivity. With Kaufman, I prefer his screenplays for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Adaptation. In Adaptation, I don’t think he ever solved the problem of how to write a movie about traditional Hollywood style and structure without giving in to it in the third act. I think Simon’s complaint about the end speaks to that point. It made for brilliant satire, but it did not make for a satisfying dramatic ending. Still, the guy’s a friggin genius. Spike Jonze tried to get Robert McKee to play himself, but McKee refused. He is, however, a fan of the movie even though he comes in for his share of satire.

    • Hello, Jon! Love those movies as well, of course, but I do feel, as I already commented to cinematoonist81, that the ending is deliberate and that the entire plot of the first half of the film is driving towards this meltdown from a more loose indie feel in the structure to something almost extremely Hollywood and commercial. As such I do feel satisfied because all the bricks of the first half are being used to support the final act. I’m not entirely sure I agree with you about the film being a satire. It doesn’t ridicule the process of adaptation, I would say I rather see the movie defending it. But hey, that’s my impression of it! He sure is a friggin genius, though. Man. 🙂

  4. A fine article, Annelie. This is a movie that I quite liked … until the end, where I felt it fell apart. You have some excellent observations here about the nature of art, and one thing I enjoyed about the film was that it did delve into these issues. It’s certainly original!

    • Thank you – very nice that you enjoyed it! I hear what you mean about the ending falling apart, but to me the entire movie is moving towards it and the more freestyle indie feel of the first half of the film then becomes the commercial beast, laden down with clichés that are used masterfully to create something touching and inevitable. Just had to defend it a little. 🙂 Thanks for leaving a comment!

  5. A fully comprehensive review of the film, and a thoughtful discussion about the difficulties of interpretation and adaptation Annelie. As someone not involved with any aspect of screenwriting, my reaction as a reader and viewer to adaptations of books is usually negative.
    This centres on the timeless problem of imagination. Characters in books are always perceived differently by readers, as are scenes, locations, and even events. This makes it well-nigh impossible to satisfactorily bring a well-read book to the screen, and to satisfy the readers when they become viewers.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete! Always good to hear from you and glad you enjoyed my thoughts on this subject. I agree with you, usually with written works that I absolutely love (to the point of having read them over and over again) I am disappointed with how they’re interpreted from page to screen. Some of my all time favourite novels were suddenly appearing in the movie theatres almost at the same time: The Lovely Bones, Never Let Me Go, Life of Pi – and I wasn’t all that impressed with any of them. The Lovely Bones especially, because it is one of my favourite books ever and the structure of it is holy. I just didn’t get the necessity in changing the imagery used in the book to something else for the film. Why, Peter Jackson, why?

      Then there are the adaptations that are golden. That are perfect. That capture the tone of the book and the expressions of the characters perfectly. And we’ve had a lot of them over the last decade, which is grand! It is well-nigh impossible, but not entirely. As with anything else it takes intelligence to see what the heart of the book is and why people love it so much. Once you capture that part of the novel, the few changes you might have to make in order for it to fit into a new medium will be forgiven. At least by this reader/viewer. 😉 Got any examples of adaptations you’ve actually really enjoyed?

      All my best!

      • There have been a few Annelie…
        The Russian version of ‘War and Peace’ (1968 by Bondarchuk) does a fine job of bringing the book to the screen, but demands a lot of time; over six hours on a DVD set. I once had this on two four hour VHS tapes, so it has been cut. The film version of ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ is very true to the book, and in its day, ‘Dr Zhivago’ was a fair example too. Most of the Dickens books have been thoughtfully rendered on film, especially ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘Great Expectations’, and ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. It can be done, just not all the time.
        Oh and watch ‘Rashomon’. Bump it up the list. Ignore the critics, sit back and enjoy Kurosawa’s genius.
        Very best wishes from Norfolk. Pete.

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