Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Evolution Through Adaptation

(Note- Side Notes in the body of this piece contain spoilers)

Adaptation is it's own self fulfilling prophecy. It stresses over the concept of it's own making, rejects the concepts that would make it no more than dumb American trash, weaves three different films together and then employs those concepts anyway (poorly, of course, for comedic effect) as a way to make all of this work in an intelligent, engaging and fully involving way. It is also, above all, hilarious and thoroughly entertaining. At the end of the day, after all the stress, headaches, false starts and hair loss, it knows that it is both great cinematic art and still just a movie. It is, quite literally, the snake that eats it's own tail at least three times over. It is also, as far as American film goes, I think, nearly perfect.

So just what the heck do we make of all this information? Sometimes the best way to approach this big fragmented jumble of pieces is by laying them all out on the table. So we have three stories, in this chronological order:

1. Susan Orlean (a real reporter, played here by Meryl Streep) drives to Florida to do a report on an eccentric orchid poacher named John LaRoche (Chris Cooper) who is on trial for poaching endangered orchids out of the local swamp.

2. Orlean writes a best selling non-fiction book based on the response to the article called The Orchid Thief, which finds her exploring the idea of orchid collecting and ultimately finding interesting musings on the lines that divide passion and obsession through sad, beautiful prose.

3. The book is optioned to be made into a film. Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage), the mad genius screenwriter behind Being John Malchovich is given the job and, so the story goes, struggles so much with tying to figure out how to adapt this damn storyless book into a  narrative film that he ends up writing himself into his own screenplay.

And thus brings us to Adaptation, the finished film, a film about Charlie Kaufman desperately trying to adapt The Orchid Thief into cinema, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by the equally brilliant music video director Spike Jonze.

There are also two very important characters in the subtext of the Kaufman story. One is Charlie's twin brother Donald (also played by Cage) who, unlike the manic, paranoid, too-smart-for-his-own-good Charlie, is happy, free, liked by many but not too swift in the intelligence department. He's also decided, to add even more insult to injury, to became a screenwriter like his brother.

Side Note 1: Donald and Charlie represent the great writers battle between making great works and making popular ones. Alas, Jonze is very funny with the way he films Donald, looming behind Charlie and lit from below like a villain from a thriller. It's also fun to note the high canted angle, just moments prior, which sees Charlie looking into a mirror as Donald tells him he thinks he's going to put an imagine systems into his script and thinks it should be broken mirrors.

Side Note 2: Even deeper into the context of the film is the concept of Donald and Charlie's mother. It is implied constantly that Charlie rejects Donald's help as their mother favoured Donald and probably constantly told him he should be more like his brother. One gets the feeling that all Charlie needs to finish his script is the support of a good woman telling him he's doing a great job. It makes the phone call home at the end, probably years overdue, even more bittersweet. 

This leads them to Robert McKee (Brian Cox), a real life figure who does host regular screenwriting seminars where he will teach you, I suspect, not so much how to write a great story as how to properly structure a screenplay into three acts.

Let's break for a word on screenwriting. The rule is always Three. Three acts that each end with their own major plot point that shifts the story into the next act. What did Howard Hawks say when asked what a great movie is? "Three great scenes and no bad ones." Notice also how many stories we have already broken this film into, which also represents the three stages of adaptation itself.

From this advice Donald comes up with an idea for a benign to the point of hilarity horror script. What does he call it? The Three. See a pattern? Kaufman is poking fun at unimaginative screenwriters who make millions by churning out structured crap. Throughout the course of the film Kaufman so gleefully pokes fun at the conventions that are driving him insane but which without he could not finish his movie (thus explaining the ironic co-writer credit being given to Donald Kaufman in the film's opening credits)

Looks like Donald's script is going to be huge too. Charlie's agent thinks it will fetch him a pretty penny.Oh, and by the way Charlie, how's the Orchid movie coming? Even this man (played brilliantly by Ron Livingston), who has never seen a woman cross his path that he hasn't thought about fucking up the ass, tells the hard headed Charlie how to finish his damn script already, which of course, flies right over Kaufman's head.

The centrepiece of Adaptation is then the point when Charlie finally swallows his pride, listens to Donald and attends a McKee seminar. Charlie addresses McKee only to be scolded by the man, asking why the fuck he should waste his two hours on seeing his movie if it's not even going to be about anything? (It's also the funny moment he learns to stop using voice over).

This is the epiphany Charlie needs that leads towards the end of the movie in which the film abandons all connections to it's real world source material and creates a (rather shoddy) filmic narrative that brings all three stories together in a perfect dialectic (another principle of three).

Side-Note 3: When Charlie meets McKee after the seminar to ask for his help, his parting word on the final act is "And God help you if you use a deus ex machina." Now go watch that third act in the swamp again and get a good laugh. 

So what does it all mean? Well, quite literally, it's about exactly what it's title suggests. It is an adaptation. Actually it's three adaptations. It's also about the process of adaptation and, because adaptation is also a part of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, it's thus also, tied right back into real life.

It's about the three stages a story must evolve through along the path of adaptation and how/what changes about it each time. In the beginning John Laroche was a man, then his story was adapted into literature by Susan Orlean who recreated him based on her perceptions, which then became a movie in which Charlie Kaufman creates a story where they have an affair and become involved in a drug ring. Life needs stories, books need perspective and films need characters inside of stories where exciting things happen. That's evolution.

And that's also life. We meet people, change perspectives, realize our ways of doing things are not the best ones, become influenced by new people, places, pieces of information, etc. In the end, whether you like it or not, everything is Adaptation.

1 comment:

  1. Since I know this is not the first version you wrote of this post, I'll say that you ended up with the right one. One of the best papers I ever wrote in college was one where I had the guts to throw out what I'd already spent hours writing. Unfortunately, that's the only time in my life I remember doing that. (Because all the other times I got it right the first time, ha ha.) Interestingly, that paper was a comparison of the Hitchcock film Rope and the 90s romantic comedy Threesome. I can't even remember how, but my thesis worked brilliantly.

    You've given this great thought and I love the conclusions you've reached. And while I also am a person who expresses himself in words, Adaptation is one of those rare films where I simply don't CARE that I lack the words to tell you exactly why I love it. What better proof of the effectiveness of a film than that you CAN'T distill its greatness into mere words? (Though you have come pretty damn close, I must say.) After all, isn't film first and foremost a visual medium? Maybe if I worked at it, I could explain its greatness visually.

    I of course agree with your assessment that it is either perfect or near-perfect. The only thing I don't like about it is ... nope, I can't finish that sentence because there's no honest completion of that thought. Simply put, I love Adaptation.