Adaptation: In Which There Either Is or Isn’t
Why am I here? How did I get here?
Adaptation is now the last in the line of Kaufman films I’ve seen. I suppose I shouldn’t call them “Kaufman films” – they’re Gondry/Kaufman, Jonze/Kaufman, and only one Kaufman/Kaufman – but the themes and ideas are so similar in all four films, it’s difficult for me to focus on the directors over Kaufman’s screenplays. And with the exception of Eternal Sunshine, which I first saw some years ago, I’ve seen Synecdoche, Malkovich, and Adaptation in pretty quick succession, in that order, relatively recently. So in some ways, it may be difficult for me to stop the urge to trace the similar threads in all the films as I try to write about just Adaptation here, but I’ll indulge just a little here and there. The images and quote above is part of one thread that runs through all the films (though maybe more obliquely in Eternal Sunshine), I think - those often asked, so very human questions coupled with the main character’s sense (but also the side characters’) of being out of place, uncomfortable in, and out of sync with his own body and mind. We’re “All trapped in our own bodies, in moments in history,” he writes – he feels trapped rather than at home. After the brilliant opening voiceover by Nicholas Cage as Charlie Kaufman (the film had me, absolutely, from those opening moments), highlighting the character’s discomfort and frustration with his own body and mind -
- Do I have an original thought in my head? My bald head. . . . Fat ass. I should start jogging again. Five miles a day. Really do it this time. Maybe rock climbing. I need to turn my life around. What do I need to do? I need to fall in love. . . . Why should I be made to feel I have to apologize for my existence? Maybe it's my brain chemistry. Maybe that's what's wrong with me. Bad chemistry. All my problems and anxiety can be reduced to a chemical imbalance or some kind of misfiring synapses. I need to get help for that. But I'll still be ugly though. Nothing's gonna change that –
- we move fairly quickly to the set of Being John Malkvovich, where Charlie feels out-of-place and uncomfortable though it’s one place of all places he should probably feel most comfortable, in a set built to a design of, essentially, his very own. If my sympathies weren’t with Charlie, the character, that is, in the voiceover, they certainly are now in this scene in the beginning:
And then later in the film on the same set, Charlie attempts to be friendly, confident, and nonchalant,
but is effectively rebuffed by the blank looks from Cusack and Keener and by his own insecurities surging beneath the surface.
So painful and absolutely identifiable even from the opening moments. Doesn’t matter if I’m not a famous screenwriter, I know all too well those same humiliating kinds of moments. In places, with people in/with which I ought to feel at home, I still say to myself, “Be confident, be yourself, be friendly” – then, ha! Internal mortification and misery with myself. My only desire is to get away, get away, get away:
And so the film has begun. With Charlie feeling alone and on the outside. And when the film turns in, and turns in, and, wonderfully, turns in again on itself so that I don’t know what is real world and what is film world, who is character and who is real person, what is fiction or fantasy and what is reality, Charlie, as that utterly sympathetic character, remains the core of the film experience. From the very beginning, with the words “screenplay by Charlie and Donald Kaufmann,” I know, because there is no Donald Kaufman, that I am entering a world where classic conventions are being overturned – those conventions that direct me as a viewer as to how and when I should suspend my disbelief are upended. The boundaries aren’t the same boundaries anymore if I can’t take even the credits at face value. And yet still, this Charlie Kaufman character, played by Cage, is a steady emotional core – I’m on the journey with him. Really with him.
The film constantly draws attention to itself as a film, as a thing that is, or once was, a process of creation – a few recurring phrases spoken by different characters at different times come to mind at once:
“Laroche is a fun character” and “Who’s going to play me?”
The Laroche line demonstrates that real people are made into “characters” in the film (and in films in general), made smaller – caricatured – made larger – made into something that may or may not reflect the real person at all.
The “who’s going to play me line” reflects something of the same thing, and more. It draws attention to Meryl Streep playing Susan Orlean, Chris Cooper as John Laroche, Brian Cox as Robert McKee, and, of course, Nicholas Cage as Charlie . . . and Donald.
And in Donald’s presence throughout, I am kept, as a viewer, on unsure footing, in a state of unease about the boundaries of the film. Streep and Cooper are playing just one real life person each. Cage is playing one real life person and one fictional person – what does it mean? Does Donald represent something? Maybe he, with Charlie the twin brother, represents the two real halves of Charlie Kaufman the real person in some way? Is Donald even real in the world of the film, or is he in the film maybe a figment of Charlie’s neurotic imagination? A split personality maybe? When Charlie calls home at the end of the film, at the scene of the accident, he says only, “Mom?” And she doesn’t say, “Is this Charlie or Donald?” She assumes it’s Charlie. So is there no real Donald? Was Donald’s screenplay actually Charlie’s? The film leaves those questions essentially unanswered, and ultimately, I didn’t really care whether I knew the answers or not - though I like asking them anyway. Even if the questions are unanswered, both Charlie and Donald, whether one person or two, are absolutely sympathetic – the one insecure and neurotic and probably brilliant as an artist, the other confident and charming and probably fairly generic as an artist.
The interplay between Charlie and Donald is some of my favorite stuff in the film. Charlie both winces at Donald’s attempts at screenwriting, a screenplay rife with Hollywood clichés and happy mediocrity, and looks on enviously at the happiness and freedom Donald finds in his writing and in his life.
The contrast between the two men is wonderful: Charlie, a successful screenwriter, awkward socially, unhappy and tortured by paralysis, brought on by insecurities, insecurities related both to his writing and to his relationships with women;
Donald, unsuccessful from a career-related perspective, but charming socially - moving at ease on the Being John Malkovich set and apparently unselfconsciously befriending Catherine Keener as well as becoming involved with Caroline, the make-up girl – he is happy and secure in himself as a writer of typical Hollywood fare (even though he cheerily bows to Charlie’s genius) and in his relationships with women.
Donald is, perhaps(?), the kind of person I think most of us want to be; Charlie is, perhaps, the person we most often are(?).
Another theme of the movie that runs throughout all the Kaufman movies I’ve seen is the theme of what I’ll perhaps call solipsism, and, ultimately, an awareness of that solipsism (Charlie identifies his own screenplay as solipsistic) and the attempt to deal with it. This solipsism and, especially, the awareness of it, is most exemplified in Charlie, but there’s a telling scene featuring Streep as Susan Orlean and Cooper as John Laroche that beautifully captures the idea, too:
Orlean is riding with Laroche in his van, ostensibly interviewing him, notebook in hand. Instead of writing down Laroche’s words, Orlean writes about her own reactions to what she is experiencing: Laroche says one thing, and Orlean writes down something else – her own interpretation of and thoughts about Laroche.
She can’t, at this point in the film (or ever perhaps?), really see or care much about anyone but herself. It’s much easier to say, “Laroche is a fun character” and leave it at that – though she seems uncomfortable with that particular designation by others - than to truly engage with him as a real person. Her written words are things that keep Laroche contained, keep him in that purely professional space, keep him away from her personally.
Charlie does the same thing – he is absorbed in himself, and his written words are things that contain, encapsulate others - on a much larger scale. His task as a screenwriter is to adapt a screenplay from Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief. He wants to write about orchids or even about Orlean, but his repeated attempts fail, and he finds that instead of writing about something else or someone else in a real way,
“I’ve written myself into my screenplay. It’s narcissitic, solipsistic. . . . Because I’m fat and I suck.”
Instead of writing a screenplay about a real other, he’s found he cannot write about anything except himself. He spends hours dreaming about who Orleans is, and he creates images of her for himself, relative to himself:
so that when he has the opportunity to meet her, he simply cannot go through with it:
The very idea of getting outside his own head is terrifying even though he knows he should, and he’s weighed down by the guilt and failure of not really engaging with others.
There is a longing in the film, for all the characters, I think, to somehow get outside of their own heads and bodies and be truly connected with someone else or with something else – to find a way to be passionate about someone or something outside of themselves. There is the sense that the three most central characters – Charlie, Orlean, and Laroche – want to find a way to get away from themselves – the selves they are so tired of - but also to, perhaps, find themselves more truly, by being in a real relationship with something or someone outside of themselves. The question of the movie is, in part, whether that relationship is possible. They are, all three, lonely characters. Donald is the only character in the film – one that has no real life counter-part – who knows who he is and is happy with himself but is not obsessed with himself either; he has easy, happy relationships with others.
Orlean is alone even in her marriage:
Laroche is alone, having killed his mother and being left by his wife:
Charlie is alone, trying to find empty comfort in his sexual fantasies – born of his own imaginings, not out of real relationship.
He murmurs under his breath at one point when he is in the room with Donald, “You and I share the same DNA. Is there anything more lonely than that?”
Charlie writes, “It is the journey of evolution, adaptation, the journey we all take, the journey that unites each and every one of us. Darwin writes that we all come from the very first single cell organism. Yet here I am, and there’s Laroche, and there’s Orlean, and there’s the ghost orchid.”
And so there is the sense that all living things are united even while there is a terrible loneliness. And with the loneliness, while there should be adaptation, change, survival, there is only this heartache and this sense of standing still, this paralysis, so that the characters want to go back, not forward, and start over:
Orlean, with the dead or dying Laroche in her arms says,
“It’s over. Everything’s over. I want my life back. . . . . I want to be a baby again. I want to be new.”
Part of the question of the film whether adaptation is really taking place at all-
Charlie remains stuck in his writing – his failed adaptation – until Donald takes over. But then the question is, is what the film becomes something new or merely more of the same? For it does become, in the last 30 minutes, something that follows all the clichés of a Hollywood genre –
a kidnapping and guns,
a violent death
the central character who has an epiphany about himself,
the central character who finds love.
Charlie’s screenplay, the film itself ends by following McKee’s 10 commandments after all
. . . with a few small exceptions.
But in the end, as we see Charlie, happy at last, and saying, “I know how to finish the script now,” I come back to the same kind of question about whether Charlie is a Charlie with a split personality or Charlie is just Charlie who has a twin brother named Donald, because here’s the thing: I don’t think I really care and I don’t think the movie wants me to care whether Kaufman has succeeded in truly adapting, in changing, in producing something brand new and in being something new.
What matters, I think, are two things:
Charlie’s made a connection – one that feels real – with someone who loves him
And he’s succeeded in creating something that is whole, that is complete, “conclusive,” that feels right, and he can say, “I like this. This is good.”
He knows it: he is a creator of some thing, and it is good.
I think it’s pretty good, too. But I don’t know if that really matters.
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