Adaptation


Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by:Charlie Kaufman, Donald Kaufman
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Brian Cox
Released: December 26, 2002
Grade: A

Being John Malkovich was one of the most inventive films of the modern era.  The screenplay came from the mind of Charlie Kaufman, a mysterious writer who keeps his own personal details very much to himself.  So how was Kaufman going to even attempt to match the originality of Malkovich?  Simple.  By writing a film about himself writing himself into a film.

How can I even begin to describe this film?  It’s a bizarre mix of both truth and fiction.  The story begins with Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) on the set of Malkovich and ignored by everyone as just another member of the crew.  Kaufman maybe of the most talented screenwriters in the industry but he is extremely self-conscious.  He worries intently about other’s perceptions of him and overanalyses situations before taking no action.  I have no idea if the real Kaufman is like this.

Am I going too fast?  I need to back up a little.  The leading character in Adaptation is called Charlie Kaufman, the same name as the writer.  The Kaufman in the movie shares many similarities with the real Kaufman but since we know so little about the real Kaufman, it’s hard to say just how much is true and how much isn’t.  What we do know is that the real Kaufman doesn’t have an identical twin brother called Donald, like he does in the film.  This is of course despite the fact that Donald Kaufman is listed in the credits as a screenwriter.

Confused yet?  I haven’t even began to describe the plot.  Kaufman (this is the one in the film) wants to adapt a novel written by Susan Orlean called The Orchard Thief.  Orlean is a writer for The New Yorker who met a lover of orchards, John Laroche and initially wrote an article on him before expanding it into a novel.

The film is topsy-turvy but can be broken down into two stories, three years apart, which are told simultaneously.  The first is that of Charlie struggling to adapt the novel.  He realises that it can’t be done because the novel has no story - a beautiful book but nothing actually happens in it.  As he struggles, his twin brother has decided to write a screenplay of his own.  After attending a screen writing seminar, he effortlessly puts together a commercialised thriller about a serial killer with multiple personality disorder.

The second story is that of Susan Orlean writing the article/book in the first place.  We see her initially meeting Laroche, developing a friendship with him as she writes the article, and then re-evaluating her own dull life in a search for something better.  Once again, I have no idea if the real Laroche or Orlean are anything like these film “adaptations”.

If you think it’s all nuts, wait for the ending.  The perfect term would be to call it ironic.  That’s all I’ll say.  Director Spike Jonze blurs the two stories together with effortless ease and despite an initial jaggedness in the beginning, the film flows perfectly.  Included in the film are some hilarious behind-the-scenes stuff from Malkovich with help from its stars.  Those familiar with Wonder Boys and L.A. Confidential will also find delight in seeing the unusual casting choice for Orlean’s husband.

Cage delivers his best performance since Leaving Las Vegas.  The special effects that enable him to appear with himself on screen are seamless and you’ll actually believe there are two of him.  Cage also does a wonderful job of differentiating the two characters.  Despite the fact they look the same, you can tell which is which from their dialogue and mannerisms.  It’s a cherished role for any actor and Cage’s slight similarities with the real Kaufman would have contributed to his casting.

See it if you dare.  It’s a movie for true film aficionados and whilst it’ll make about one tenth of the box-office gross of a thriller about a serial killer with multiple personality disorder, it’ll provide about ten times more satisfaction.