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Adaptation and the Art of Survival

1To use the overworked metaphor of the movie reviewers, Adaptation (2002)—directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman—is that rare Hollywood flower, a “literary” film that succeeds both with the critics and at the box office. But Kaufman’s literary colleagues, his fellow screenwriters whose opinions are rarely noticed by movie reviewers or the public, express their support in more interesting terms. Robert McKee, the real-life screenwriter and teacher played by Brian Cox in the movie, writes about Kaufman as one of the few to “step out of screenwriting anonymity to gain national recognition as an artist—without becoming a director” (131). And the screenwriter Stephen Schiff (Lolita [Adrian Lyne, 1997], The Deep End of the Ocean [Ulu Grosbard, 1999]) embraces the film as a manifesto, claiming that Kaufman’s work offers “redemption” to him and his fellow screenwriters who are “struggling to adapt to the world’s dismissive view of adaptation.”

2The comments by Kaufman’s colleagues suggest that new respect for the work of adaptation, and the role of the screenwriter go hand in hand. The director—whom auteur theory, the New Wave, and film schools helped to establish as the primary creative agent behind a film—has long overshadowed the screenwriter, but Kaufman’s acclaim as a screenwriter reflects a new sensibility. This was illustrated by the controversy among Academy Award voters in 2002. They found that year’s nominees, including Adaptation, unsettled the Academy’s traditional distinction between “original screenplay” and “adapted screenplay”, debating whether a nominee for best original screenplay, such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding (Joel Zwik, 2002), was more like an adaptation, while Adaptation, a nominee for best adapted screenplay, was more like an original screenplay. The Academy’s confusion on this score is not without precedents; nonetheless, as Rick Lyman of The New York Times reports, it led some to wonder, “in an age of narrative deconstruction and ‘reality television’,” whether the distinction between original and adaptation was still valid.

3If, as the famed critic Alexandre Astruc claimed, the director should be seen as someone who uses the camera as a pen to “write” the movie, then the screenwriter, in Ben Stoltzfus’s words, is increasingly seen as someone who uses the pen to “shoot” the movie. While this appreciation of the screenwriter as an “adaptor” who directs the movie opens new possibilities within Hollywood filmmaking, it also occurs in a Hollywood where TV shows, video games, and rides at Disneyland are adapted to film as readily as literary works once were. Granted, some stand to gain, but who or what is lost in this new hyper-adaptive environment? While there is much to be said for Kaufman’s movie, I suggest its optimistic account of adaptation—both as an existential principle and cinematic practice—is one-sided.

4Part of the dramatic impact of the movie’s one word title is the way it shoves the act of adaptation out from the wings and places it front and center in the filmmaking process. An amusing depiction of the screenwriter’s marginalisation occurs at the movie’s beginning, immediately following Charlie’s (Nicholas Cage) opening monologue delivered against a black screen. It is presented as a flashback to the making of Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999), the movie for which Kaufman wrote his first screenplay, making him “a name” in Hollywood. Although scripted, the scene is shot with a hand-held video camera and looks as though it is occurring in real time. The central character is John Malkovich in costume as a woman who shouts orders at everyone on the set—deftly illustrating how the star’s power in the new Hollywood enables him or her to become “the director” of the movie. His directions are then followed by ones from the first assistant director and the cinematographer. Meanwhile, Charlie stands silently and awkwardly off to the side, until he is chased away by the first assistant director—not even the director or the cinematographer—who tells him, “You. You’re in the eyeline. Can you please get off the stage?” (Kaufman and Kaufman, 3).

5There are other references that make the movie’s one-word title evocative. It forces one to think about the biological and literary senses of the word—evolution as a narrative process and narrative as an evolutionary process—lifting the word’s more colloquial meaning of “getting along” to the level of an existential principle. Or, as Laroche (Chris Cooper) explains to Orlean (Meryl Streep), “Adaptation’s a profound process. It means you figure out how to thrive in the world” (Kaufman and Kaufman, 35). But Laroche’s definition of adaptation, which the movie endorses and dramatises, is only half the story.

6In fact evolutionary science shows that nature’s “losers” vastly outnumber nature’s “winners.” As Peter Bowler expresses it in his historical account of the theory of natural selection, “Evolution becomes a process of trial and error based on massive wastage and the death of vast numbers of unfit creatures”(6). Turning the “profound process” of adaptation into a story about the tiny fraction who “figure out how to thrive in the world” has been done before. It manifested itself in Herbert Spencer’s late-nineteenth-century philosophical “adaptation” of Charles Darwin’s work on natural selection, coining the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” Both the scientist Darwin and the philosopher Spencer, as Bowler points out, would have been horrified at how their work was used to justify the rapacious capitalism and harsh social policies of American industry (301). Nonetheless, although by now largely discredited in the academy, the ideology of social Darwinism persists within the broader culture in various watered-down or subterranean forms.

7Perhaps in the movie’s violent climax when Laroche is killed by an alligator—a creature that represents one of the more impressive examples of adaptation in the natural world—Kaufman is suggesting the darker side to the story of natural selection in which adaptation is not only a story about the mutable and agile orchid that “figure[s] out how to thrive in the world.” There are no guarantees for the tiny fraction of species that do survive, whether they are as perfectly adapted to their environment as orchids and alligators or, for that matter, individuals like Laroche with his uncanny ability to adapt to whatever life throws at him. But after the movie’s violent eruption, which does away not only with Laroche but also Donald (Nicholas Cage) and in effect Orlean, Charlie emerges as the sole survivor, reassuring the viewer that the story of adaptation is about nature’s winners. The darker side to the story of natural selection is subsumed within the movie’s layers of meta-commentary, which make the violence at the movie’s end an ironic device within Charlie’s personal and artistic evolution—a way for him to maintain a critical distance on the Hollywood conventions he has resisted while simultaneously incorporating them into his art.

8A cinematically effective montage dramatically represents the process of evolution. However, as with the movie’s one-sided account of adaptation, as a story about those who “figure out how to thrive in the world,” this depiction of evolution is framed, both figuratively and literally, by Charlie’s personal growth—as though the logical and inevitable endpoint of the evolutionary process is the human individual. The montage is instigated by Charlie’s questions to himself, “Why am I here? How did I get here?” and concludes with a close-up on the bawling face of a newborn baby, whom the viewer assumes is Charlie (Kaufman and Kaufman, 3). This assumption is reinforced by the next scene, which begins with a close-up on the face of the adult Charlie who is sweating profusely as he struggles to survive a business luncheon with the attractive studio executive Valerie (Tilda Swinton).

9Although Orlean’s novel doesn’t provide a feminist reading of Darwin, she does alert her readers to the fact that he was a Victorian man and, as such, his science might reflect the prejudices of his day. In discussing Darwin’s particular fondness for his “‘beloved Orchids’” (47), she recounts his experiments to determine how they release their pollen: “He experimented by poking them with needles, camel-hair brushes, bristles, pencils, and his fingers. He discovered that parts were so sensitive that they released pollen upon the slightest touch, but that ‘moderate degrees of violence’ on the less sensitive parts had no effect ….” (48). In contrast to this humorous view of Darwin as the historically situated man of science, the movie depicts Darwin (Bob Yerkes) as the stereotypical Man of Science.

10Kaufman does incorporate some of Orlean’s discussion of Darwin’s study of orchids, but the portion he uses advances the screenplay’s sexualisation/romanticisation of Orlean’s relationship with Laroche. At an orchid show, Laroche lectures to Orlean about Darwin’s theory that a particular orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale, is pollinated by a moth with a twelve-inch proboscis. When Orlean takes exception to Laroche for telling her that proboscis means “nose,” he chides her, “Hey, let’s not get off the subject. This isn’t a pissing contest” (23). After this scene bristling with phallic imagery—and with his female pupil sufficiently chastised—Laroche proceeds to wax poetic about pollination as a “little dance” (24) between flower and insect. “[The] only barometer you have is your heart …” (24) he tells Orlean, who is clearly impressed by the depth of his soliloquy.

11On the literary and social level, a one-sided reading of adaptation as a positive process may be more justified, although here too one may question what the movie slights or ignores. What about the human ability to adapt to murderous and dehumanising social systems: slavery, fascism, colonialism, and so on? Or, more immediately, even if one acknowledges the writer’s “maturity,” as T.S. Eliot famously phrased it, in “stealing” from his or her source, what about the element of compromise implicit in the concept of adaptation? Several critics question whether the film’s ending, despite the movie’s self-referential ironies, ultimately reinforces the Hollywood formulas it sets out to critique. But only Stuart Klawans of The Nation connects it to the movie’s optimistic, one-sided view of adaptation. “Still,” he concludes, “I’m disappointed by that crashing final act. I wonder about the environmental pressure that must bear down on today’s filmmakers as they struggle to adapt, even when they’re as prodigious as Charlie Kaufman.”

12Oddly, for a self-reflexive movie about the creative process, it has little to say about the “environmental pressure” of the studio system and its toll on the artist. There are incisive character sketches of studio types, such as the attractive and painfully earnest executive, Valerie, who hires Charlie to write the screenplay for Orlean’s book, or Charlie’s sophomoric agent, Marty (Ron Livingston), who daydreams about anal sex with the women in his office while talking to his client. And, of course, a central plot line of the movie is the competition, at least as one of them sees it, between Charlie and his twin brother Donald. Charlie, the self-conscious Hollywood screenwriter who is stymied by his success and notions of artistic integrity, suffers defeat after humiliating defeat as Donald, the screenwriting neophyte who will stoop to any cliché or cheap device to advance his screenplay, receives a six-figure contract for his first effort: a formulaic and absurd serial-killer movie, The Three, that their mother admires as a cross between Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) and Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991). Because of the emotional arc of the brothers’ personal relationship, however, any qualms about Donald selling out look churlish at best. When Donald excitedly tells his brother about his good fortune, Charlie responds approvingly, rather than with one of the snide putdowns the viewer has grown to expect from him, signaling not only Charlie’s acceptance of his brother but the new awareness that will enable him to overcome his writer’s block.

13While there is a good deal of satire directed at the filmmaking process—as distinct from the studio system—it is ultimately a cherishing sort of satire. It certainly doesn’t reach the level of indictment found in Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) or Joel and Ethan Cohen’s Barton Fink (1991) for example. But the movie most frequently compared to Adaptation is Frederico Fellini’s masterpiece of auteurist self-reflexivity, 8 ½ (1963). This is high praise indeed, although the enthusiastic endorsements of some film critics do not stop there. Writing for the Observer, Philip French cites such New Wave movies as Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (1963), Francois Truffaut’s La Nuit Americaine (1973), and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express (1966). However, in passing, he qualifies the comparison by pointing out that, unlike the French auteurs, “Kaufman and Jonze are concerned with turning someone else’s idea into a piece of commercial cinema.”

14Some would argue the filmmakers’ ability to playfully adapt Orlean’s artistry to the commercial environment of Hollywood is what saves Adaptation’s meta-commentary from the didactic and elitist seriousness of many of its literary and cinematic precursors (Miller). This is a valid preference, but it slights the “environmental pressure” of the new studio system and how it sets the terms for success and failure. While Fellini and the New Wave auteurs were not entirely free of commercial cinema, they could claim an opposition to it that Kaufman, even if he wanted to, cannot. Film scholar Timothy Corrigan argues that the convergence of the new media, in particular television and film, radically alters the meaning and function of “independent” cinema:

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a more flexible and varied distribution network has responded to contemporary audiences, who now have the need and the power to pick and choose among the glut of images in contemporary television and film culture. Within this climate and under these conditions, the different, the more peculiar, the controversial enter the marketplace not as an opposition but as a revision and invasion of an audience market defined as too large and diverse by the dominant blockbusters. (25-6)

16Corrigan’s argument explains the qualitative differences between the sense of adaptation employed by the older auteurs and the new sense of adaptation required by contemporary auteurs fully incorporated within the new studio system and its new distribution technologies.

17Not everyone is disturbed by this state of affairs. A. O. Scott, writing for the New York Times, notes a similar “two-tier system” in Hollywood—with studios producing lavish “critic- and audience-proof franchise pictures” on the one hand and “art” or “independent” movies on the other—which strikes him as “a pretty good arrangement.” Based on what Adaptation does and does not say about the studio system, one imagines that Kaufman would, ultimately, concur.

18In contrast, however, a comment by Michel Gondry, the director Kaufman worked with on Human Nature (2001), gives a better indication of the costs incurred by adapting to the current system when he expresses his frustration with the delayed release of the picture by New Line Cinema:

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‘First they were, like, “O.K. if Rush Hour 2 [Brett Ratner, 2001] does good business, then we’re in a good position,”’ Mr. Gondry said. ‘You fight to do something original and then you depend on Rush Hour 2 for the success of your movie? It’s like you are the last little thing on the bottom of the scale and you’re looking up watching the planets colliding. It’s been so frustrating.’ (Rochlin)

20No doubt, when Fellini and Godard thought about doing “something original” they also had considerable obstacles to face. But at least the success of 8 ½ or Le Mepris wasn’t dependent upon the success of films like Rush Hour 2. Given this sort of environmental pressure, as Klawans and Corrigan remind us, we need to keep in mind what might be lost as the present system’s winners adapt to what is generally understood as “a pretty good arrangement.”

21Another indication of the environmental pressure on artists in Hollywood’s present arrangement comes from Adaptation’s own story of adaptation—not the one told by Kaufman or his movie, but the one found in Susan Orlean’s account of how she and her novel were “adapted” by the filmmakers. Although Orlean is an enthusiastic supporter of the movie, when she first read the screenplay, she thought, “the whole thing ‘seemed completely nuts’” and wondered whether she wanted “that much visibility” (Boxer). She decided to give her consent on the condition they not use her name. This solution, however, wouldn’t work because she didn’t want her book “in a movie with someone else’s name on it” (Boxer). Forced to choose between an uncomfortable visibility and the loss of authorship, she chose the former. Of course, her predicament is not Kaufman’s fault; nonetheless, it is important to stress that the process of adaptation did not enforce a similar “choice” upon him. Her situation, like that of Gondry, indicates that successful adaptation to any system is a story of losing as well as winning.