Agency in Adaptation

How to Cite

McMerrin, M. (2007). Agency in Adaptation. M/C Journal, 10(2).
Vol. 10 No. 2 (2007): 'adapt'
Published 2007-05-01

Contemporary approaches to agency and film authorship, such as performativity and “techniques of the self,” (Staiger, 2003) provide an explanation for the expression of agency within the always-already-existing structure of the text, yet fail to account for, firstly, how the individual determines which agential choices to make and, then, interacts with society with causality and efficacy (Staiger, 2003). Critical Realism, in particular Archer’s 2003 theory of the internal conversation (Structure), provides an alternative theoretical framework to postmodernism by acknowledging both the existence of orders of reality that impact upon the individual’s choices, and the effects of cultural and societal structures. I would suggest that postmodernism has restricted our understanding of human agency and how individual choice is determined within the highly structured creative industries. Although interplay between agency and structure applies to all creative collaborators, in this essay I will focus on the agency of the screenwriter as author (an overlooked aspect of film authorship), as Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002) provides an excellent illustration of the function of the internal conversation in the development of a screenplay.

Adaptation, written by highly regarded contemporary screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, also presents an interesting comment on the role of the screenwriter within the Hollywood film industry, and foregrounds the notion of creative film authorship. The film can be considered a postmodern film, in its intertextuality, deconstruction of both the subject and the filmic structure, the parodic theme and the oppositional characterisation. Charlie Kaufman even becomes his own textual creation represented in the film, and many of the other characters in the film are based on actual people. However, the film also contains representations of reality, conflicting accounts of authorial intent, and a positioning of the subject and object that realises reflexive deliberation and human agency. Thematically, the film expresses a philosophical concern with individual human identity, and societal interaction and development. I would suggest that, although the film is usually considered a fine example of the postmodern film, from a Critical Realist perspective, it can be read as providing a critique of the “postmodern condition”, in particular the repetitive, formulaic mainstream Hollywood film.

Archer argues that there must of necessity be both a separation of the individual from society or culture and an acknowledged mingling of self and society. Agency is dependent upon engagement with social and cultural structures, but this could not happen unless there were other (non-social) identifiable aspects to the individual (Structure, 7). According to Archer, natural reality consists of three orders: nature, which concerns physical well-being; practice, where performative achievement is necessary for work; and the social, where the individual’s main concern is in the achievement of self-worth (Structure, 138). The sense of self, or continuity of consciousness, constitutes the natural human and is universal. Therefore the individual, although a part of society, does not exist because of society, but because of reality. Without this continuing sense of self, an individual would not be able to “appropriate social expectations and … recognise what is expected of them” (“Realism”, 13). For society to function effectively, people must have a continuity of consciousness that transcends society. Human agency “originates in people themselves, from their own concerns, forged in the space between the self and reality as a whole” (“Realism”, 12). This is a liminal space—that is, an unstructured area of imagination—in which a screenwriter who wishes to create original acts of authoring operates.

The internal conversation takes the form of a dialogue conducted with oneself, not with society, but about society. The individual conducts a conversation between their subjective self, which asks a question, and their objective self, which provides the answer. The person is speaking to themselves, but occupying transitory positions in order to process information, thoughts, and possible courses of action. It is a method for arriving at self-knowledge and decisions through the process of “discernment, deliberation and dedication” (Archer, Structure, 138). Through this internal process, individuals prioritise their concerns, and how they will accommodate those other necessary aspects of reality that may impinge on what they care about most. This process develops and changes as individuals mature, and as they are affected by all aspects of reality.

The internal conversation provides a conciliatory approach to the interplay between the filmic culture industry and the individual screenwriter. The screenwriter as author can be seen to negotiate personal projects within the structural constraints and enablements of the film production process, and to enact agency through personal reflexive deliberation, choice and thematic style. How socially efficacious the resulting screenplay is depends upon the screenwriter’s authorship skills, the story’s cultural resonance, societal relevance, and the freedoms and impositions encountered within the filmic industry structure. Adaptation can be read as illustrative of this process.

The film opens with an inner dialogue. “Kaufman” (the character, as opposed to Charlie Kaufman, the writer) is questioning, and answering, himself regarding his concerns. He considers his current situation, and his ability as a screenwriter, then deliberates on possible strategies for improving himself. This inner conversation continues throughout the film, both as voiceover, and as a dual characterisation, that of “Kaufman” in relation to his identical twin brother, Donald. Immediately we are given an insight into “Kaufman’s” mind. He is concerned with his health, his work practices and his self-worth. The three orders of reality are then presented as themes in the film. Nature is addressed through the subject of the book: orchids and their adaptability, and how this relates to human beings and their mutability. Practice is seen in “Kaufman’s” and Donald’s opposite approaches to writing a screenplay, the effects of the accepted industry format and expectations, and the eventual resolution of the film. Finally, society itself is questioned through the contrasting self-worth of the characters. “Kaufman” compares himself to: Orlean, as a competent writer; Laroche, as possessor of self-esteem and passion; and Donald, as carefree and socially adept. That the film encompasses all orders of reality reinforces Archer’s point that individuals must conceive of projects that “establish … satisfactory practices in the three orders … [as this process is] the inescapable condition for human beings to survive or thrive” (Structure, 138).

“Kaufman” entertains the project of adapting a book into a screenplay when he meets with Valerie, an attractive executive producer. However, once he has entered into the project, he must negotiate the limitations and possibilities of the cultural structures of both the film industry and the book. “Kaufman” is considered for the adaptation because of his reputation as an unusual screenwriter. However, when he states that he wants to let the movie exist, and not turn it into a typical Hollywood product with car chases, turning the orchids into poppies, cramming in sex and guns, and characters learning profound life lessons, Valerie suggests that Orlean and Laroche could fall in love. Immediately “Kaufman’s” ideas are constrained. He is subjected to the hierarchical structure of the Hollywood film industry where the producer holds power. The screenwriter is an employee, contracted to do a job: that is, write a screenplay that can be made into a high-grossing film.

As well, “Kaufman” has read the book and wishes to stay true to Orlean’s story. This poses another limitation, especially given that The Orchid Thief is a non-fiction book, a factual account of a rather unique individual (John Laroche) who came to Orlean’s attention when Laroche was charged with orchid poaching from a Florida state preserve. The book has no narrative structure, but digresses among Laroche’s story, Orlean’s personal reflections, the passion orchids inspire in enthusiasts, and the history of orchids and orchid hunters. However, once “Kaufman” has accepted the project, he must begin his process of deliberation and creation, and negotiate his strategy for completing the screenplay.

If we take the fictional identical twin brother Donald to be “Kaufman’s” alter-ego, the two characters can be seen as separate facets of “Kaufman’s” negotiation of The Orchid Thief project, and their conversation reflects an internal dialogue of deliberation. By juxtaposing Donald and “Kaufman” as both the subjective (or speaking) self, and the objective (or answering) self, we can follow the internal dialogue that “Kaufman” conducts during the film. This highlights “Kaufman’s” concerns and possible choices regarding the project he has undertaken. He questions the task ahead of him and weighs the options available. The easy way forward would simply be to write a repetitive generic Hollywood film, and still get paid a lot of money. But “Kaufman” has ideals, and values his writing as a craft: as creating a literary work. In contrast, Donald finds it easy to write a screenplay by following the accepted cultural order, whereas “Kaufman” has personal (authorial) concerns that he wishes to express. “Kaufman’s” specific interests take precedence in his work and can be seen as other orders of reality impinging upon the social order.

In order to understand the book he is adapting (and also to fulfill his own personal concerns as agential author) “Kaufman” must attempt to encompass the natural-order theme of the book, and the social-order expectations of the film industry. He has to decide which is more important. Initially, “Kaufman’s” preference is for the reality of the book, the actuality of how the world is, and this is where his interests as both a writer and an individual lie. This focus can be seen through the themes of Charlie Kaufman’s other screenplays. In his films, his main thematic concern—as he himself states—is “issues of self and why I’m me and not that other person” (cited in Kennedy). Charlie Kaufman delves deep into the notion of subjectivity, agency and human consciousness. However “Kaufman” (and, the implication is, in real life Charlie) is constrained by the cultural order of Hollywood which, although he tries to evade it, continually imposes limitations upon the completion of this screenplay. Donald is that side of “Kaufman” which keeps reminding him that, although he has freedom as a respected screenwriter, there are some aspects of writing for film that cannot be discounted.

“Kaufman” and Donald are two sides of the same coin. They represent “Kaufman’s” inner dialogue and his internal conflict. The twin screenwriting characters personify his struggle to produce a screenplay that satisfies his ultimate personal convictions as a unique and creative writer (to remain true to the thematic concerns of the book) and the need to conform to the accepted Hollywood ideal of a high-budget feature film.

The film can also be read as the actual writing of the screenplay unfolding on the screen. As “Kaufman” writes it, this is what we see visually. For the first two acts of the film, “Kaufman” succeeds in portraying his thematic concerns with the progress of life, and the necessity of change, and his involvement in the process of screenwriting. In this he stays true to Orlean’s book, even including digressive “chapters” where he not only introduces the real characters (that is, the story of the book), but also investigates the history of orchids and the concept of adaptability. “Kaufman” balances these thematic interests against each other through his own process of writing the screenplay. He also addresses issues that are of concern to him personally. He deliberates on these through the juxtaposition of his character “Kaufman” with those of Orlean and Laroche. He regards Orlean as the consummate writer, shown comfortably working in her office, in contrast to “Kaufman” hunched over an old typewriter perched on a chair. Laroche is a passionate individual who becomes engrossed in projects, but can then abandon them completely. “Kaufman” finds this difficult, as he is a screenwriter who, although passionate about his craft, cannot distance himself from his project.

These oppositions are further reinforced through the character of Donald, who adopts a formulaic approach to writing his own film, to finishing his thriller-screenplay, while “Kaufman” is still struggling with his own adaptation. Once Donald has completed his film, he divests himself of all interest in it except for how much money he will receive. Donald also shows passion, not for his craft, but for women, whereas “Kaufman” finds it difficult to maintain a continuing relationship and resorts to fantasy and masturbation. “Kaufman” becomes so involved in the writing of the screenplay that Orlean becomes a part of his sexual fantasies, yet he cannot bring himself to meet her face to face.

The opposition and comparison of these three characters, “Kaufman”-and-Donald (as one composite character), Orlean, and Laroche, is also reflected in Donald’s screenplay, The Three. Donald’s screenplay is about a cop, trying to find a serial killer’s latest victim; she becomes his Holy Grail. However, Donald’s three characters are, in fact, all the one character, who is suffering from multiple personality disorder. In Adaptation, “Kaufman” is questioning himself about aspects of his personality and providing the answers to those queries through other characters. As the search for perfection is Laroche’s Holy Grail, and passion is Orlean’s, for “Kaufman” it is the completion of the screenplay with integrity and aplomb. What “Kaufman” questions about the filmic reality of, and complications with, Donald’s screenplay are in fact included in “Kaufman’s” own screenplay that we see unfolding on the screen. The two screenplays are questioning and answering each other, and represent an internal conversation.

Through these characterisations (and in particular the dialogic interactions with Donald), “Kaufman” is diagnosing his circumstances. By the end of the second act, “Kaufman” is coming to a realisation that it would have been much easier to write something else, anything else (including The Three), than attempting to complete the project he has started, and maintain his stance regarding the truth of the book, and the reality of life.

In the third act, “Kaufman” accepts that he cannot complete his project and admits he needs help. However, he cannot simply cease working, as this would reflect on his other concerns: those of his own well-being and his work ethic, as well as his social standing as a Hollywood screenwriter. He is dedicated to completing the screenplay, but has to reassess his methods, and his options. His deliberations become more conventional, in keeping with the need to accommodate the constraints of the Hollywood cultural structure, and it is here that “Kaufman” must abandon his idealistic approach and allow Donald to take over. “Kaufman” cannot sustain his original concern of staying true to Orlean’s book and also maintaining the screenplay structure. He has to negotiate the limitations and consider new possibilities. According to Archer, “Once an agential project has activated a constraint or enablement, there is no single answer about what is to be done, and therefore no one predictable outcome” (Structure, 131). This is illustrated in the film, through the variant scenic possibilities “Kaufman” imagines and attempts to coalesce into his screenplay. However, he cannot bring the screenplay to an acceptable (and therefore, satisfactory) climax and resolution. “Kaufman” becomes like the serial killer in Donald’s script, who, because he is forcing his victim to eat herself, is also eating himself to death. In the same way, the film begins to consume and kill the characters one by one. “Kaufman” has a problem that he must overcome. He achieves this by making the third act a fiction of reality, and the characters into caricatures.

The third act, “Kaufman’s” Japanese paper ball which, when dropped into water turns into a flower, is a metaphor, where the film turns back on itself. Instead of showing the reality of the book, the book becomes a fiction of the film. Donald takes over, and the climax of the film provides all the conventions of a typical Hollywood film: much more like Donald’s generic thriller than “Kaufman’s” initial premise. All “Kaufman’s” detested conventions are included: Orlean and Laroche fall in love, the Ghost Orchid is a potent psychedelic, there are guns, car chases, and death. “Kaufman” as protagonist learns a profound life lesson, and the deus ex machina is included, not once, but twice. An unsuspecting Ranger causes an horrific car accident and Laroche gets attacked by an alligator. Orobouros has been let loose. The characters have turned on themselves and are being deconstructed to death.

Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay both encompasses the postmodern and rejects it. Through his writing skill, his unique plot conventions and his character development, he lays bare the contemporary conceptions of reality, filmic reality, and the influence of Hollywood production on both the audience and the screenwriter. He addresses the oppositional: the creative voice and the clichéd utterance; reality and fiction; disappointment and fulfillment; entrapment and freedom; and creates a new totality, a unique film that provides an alternative to the tired screenwriting paradigm. That he has managed to adapt a non-fiction book, insert real people as characters within the film, and write a critically acclaimed screenplay, shows both his skill and craft as a screenwriter and his efficacious agency. He has posited that there is an alternative to the conventional Hollywood film and that film can pose the “big” questions, about life, about what it means to be human and why things don’t change. Charlie Kaufman has taken the postmodern film, turned it inside out, and managed to not only expose the fiction, but embrace the reality.

Adaptation provides a visual example of both the interplay between individual agency and socio-cultural structure and the screenwriter as author. For most of the film, “Kaufman” occupies a liminal space that—although existing in reality—is separate from society and the natural world. This, it could be said, is the “in-between space” of the practice of the screenwriter. It is a creative area of communitas (in the case of the screenwriter, as singular, rather than as a group); an unstructured equality that exists between boundaries, and where meaning is found in the imagination of a writer. In this liminal space, the author lives in a world of images and words, of personal concerns and the desire to share stories, but is always mindful of the restricted, accepted, mainstream film structure. The screenwriter’s liminal space is both expressively free and creatively constricted. Yet, because of this, the screenwriter provides an excellent example of the role of the internal conversation in the mediation of agency within cultural and societal structures.

A discussion of agency and authorship is not simply a matter of repetitive cultural discourses, or existing social structures, but an incorporation of all orders of reality. It is through the formulation of specific projects that agents interact with social and structural power. Adaptation presents the Critical Realist concept that human beings and society are continually changing and developing, and neither agents, nor structure, can restrict the other completely. The creative agent absorbs current shifts in culture and society, reflects topical concerns, and envisages and expresses alternative ideas, even those opposed to postmodernism. Authorial agency, and indeed all individual human agency, is an ongoing process of adapting, however, as Mahatma Ghandi stated, “Adaptability is not imitation. It means power of resistance and assimilation”.

Author Biography

Michelle McMerrin