Adapting to ADAPTATION: Considering a Screenwriter's Middle-Aged Angst
I heard it took three years for screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage), to adapt the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orleans (Meryl Streep): A nonfiction book from an article Susan wrote for the New Yorker about John Laroche (Chris Cooper), an orchid thief in Florida who used the aboriginal natives who had swampland in Florida to skirt around legalities of his poaching. What was a nonfiction story about an obsession with orchids turned into what is described as a “metafilm” about Charlie Kaufman and his writer’s block. Adaptation. became a story about Charlie’s inability to adapt the “non-adaptable” book into a screenplay.
I was hesitant for a while to watch Adaptation. There were a few things stopping me. One was: Did I need to watch another movie about the inner dialogue of a middle-aged white man? My answer to that question is, “Not really.” The reason being: I am a woman without a voice (at the time especially) in film and theatre, and it was my decision to immerse myself rather in films that relate to me as a woman - at that point in my life, this did not.
But I knew that one day I would watch it because of the kind of film it is. I see its merit in the annals of filmmaking. There’s a lot to appreciate. Charlie is really good at subtext and metaphor. He is an artist. At one point, Laroche says, “Adaptation is a profound process. Figuring out how to survive in the world.” And Susan replies, “Some think that adapting is almost shameful like running away.” These two statements illustrate the inner-world struggle of the two sets of characters in the film: Charlie’s inability to accept conventional storytelling (shameful) as opposed to his brother’s enthusiastic adherence to “the rules” (surviving), and Susan’s denial that her marriage is a sham (shameful), and Laroche’s need to move on from one “passion” to another (surviving).
Adaptation. is the perfect title. Darwinism is: in order to adapt, a species needs to fundamentally change its makeup to the point that the original species no longer exists. Take the example of the white moth during England’s Industrial Revolution. Over time the white moth became a black moth. Some speculate that in fact, it wasn’t evolution, but rather survival of the fittest. Meaning the black moth had a better chance at survival than the white moth on the black soot covered trees where the white moth got picked off more often than the black moth by its predators. That kind of adaptation is from outside influences that require change on a surface level, survival of the fittest. It’s not the species changing, it is actually the “brother” of the moth taking over. This kind of adaptation is not deep change.
The adaptation required in the film feels like “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” - giving in to a status quo or a trope of society that asks you to blend. This is evident in the way that Charlie slowly lets his brother’s (his alter-ego’s) influence in and rewrites some parts of the script. In the end, Charlie accepts his brother (alter-ego), essentially allowing himself to give up on his vision, or lack thereof.
What I appreciate about the film is Kaufman’s invention of his brother/alter-ego to help him tell the story. This technique:
Created conflict where there was none. His brother helped to emphasize the story about himself and his rejection of conventional storytelling. Creating the personal conflict. Without it, it is obvious that there is no conflict.
Created drama of a bigger-than-life personality which was in stark contrast to that of Charlie’s own self-loathing.
Illustrated the theme of adaptation. As the story goes on, we can see that the film takes on characteristics that could only be from his brother’s influence and where he might have edited – especially the ending.
The death of his brother could signify the merging or adaptation moment of these two personalities because Charlie does change a little in the end – illustrated by the kiss.
Charlie was mortified to disappoint anyone. That’s what drove him. His inability to act in the world made him ineffectual – in his love life and writing life. At one point, he classifies women as a botanist would an orchid in a desperate attempt to “break the world into bite size pieces to make it smaller,” and more handleable, as Susan Orlean speculated why people become obsessed with things. He resorted to making women objects of obsession so he could masturbate and feel that this is a relationship – similar to the obsessive nature claimed to be the passion of Laroche with his turtles, and then his tropical fish, and finally his orchids. But these obsessions don’t last and ultimately leave us empty. Charlie objectifies Susan to be able to handle the paralyzing fear he had of meeting her. His paralyses created the need to become someone else (his brother), something that he adapted out of desperation and not a willingness to accept the way he truly is.
As spiritual people, experience will tell us that we do not lay down and die to the circumstances of our lives, but rather we become aware of a change that needs to be made and consciously make decisions according to what needs to be done in order to make that change deep and lasting. Awareness. Action. Acceptance. Creates real change. This kind of change or “adaptation” needs a willingness to grow from accepting who you really are because that will increase the quality of your life.
Charlie’s character could only survive this dilemma, this paralysis, his writer’s block, by adapting the bigger-than-life affectations of his alter-ego (his brother). Like the white moth, Charlie as Charlie couldn’t survive his own neurosis or his predators in the Hollywood game like his brother, the black moth, could.
In the end, as an audience member, I don’t relish watching the neurotic inner-dialogue of a middle-aged white man. But as a writer, I appreciate the techniques Kaufman uses to tell an unadaptable story. As an intellect, I am tickled by his wit. As an artist, I resonate with the self-conscious struggle that I and my work be liked and accepted, and to create anyway, in spite of it all.