Who Do I Turn (in)to for Help?

Multiple Identity as Adaptation in Adaptation

How to Cite

Bartlett, L. A. (2007). Who Do I Turn (in)to for Help? Multiple Identity as Adaptation in Adaptation. M/C Journal, 10(2). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2627
Vol. 10 No. 2 (2007): 'adapt'
Published 2007-05-01

Many theories address the material adaptations that organisms—including humans—make to their environments, and many address the adaptation of art to different forms. The film Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002) by Charlie Kaufman, ostensibly an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, addresses both kinds of adaptation, but also suggests how humans might psychically adapt to their emotional and mental environments, namely by doubling or multiplying their identities to create companions and helpmates who can help them cope with emotional and mental stresses. To expose some of Kaufman’s adaptive moves, I will draw on Wolfgang Iser’s literary anthropology, aimed at exploring “what literature may tell us about our anthropological makeup,” particularly “the human need for make-believe even when it is known to be what it is” (vii). Iser’s theory considers the use of imagination, particularly in the realm of fiction, as a way to “meet certain anthropological needs,” as a tool for human adaptation to social or cultural needs (264). Because of Iser’s emphasis on the importance of both the writer’s and reader’s roles, both may use performances of reading and writing to remake themselves in ways that allow them to function more effectively. Kaufman certainly does in his role as adapter: a type of reader who also writes. Kaufman uses imagination to adapt to his situation, just as humans have always needed their imaginations to adapt to their environments, a need as strong as biological adaptation, considering their psychic needs.

Kaufman’s script addresses the major difficulty of how to match a book like The Orchid Thief with expectations for a Hollywood film, including a plot, dynamic characters, and a hook that drives the story. His film persona laments the lack of an overarching, coherent narrative, the relatively small portion of the book where the fascinating title character John LaRoche appears, and, in his conversation with the writing guru Robert McKee, the lack of any change in the people in the book, mainly Orlean and LaRoche. Seemingly promising parts of the book, like the court case, end in a few anti-climactic paragraphs about dropped charges and no-contest pleas, as LaRoche’s grand plan is judicially out-maneuvered. Interspersed with these lamentations are all the false starts and dead ends of Charlie’s composition, represented here in two ways: through watching Charlie type or speak his ideas, and through glimpses of these ideas actualized in film. These abortive attempts set up our expectations for his eventual solution, while showing us the films that never were and capturing some of The Orchid Thief’s non-narrative brilliance. Kaufman manages this, however, by creating the metanarrative of the screenplay’s composition, into which he writes the story of Orlean’s composition of her book. In other words, Kaufman adapts to the problem of adapting the book to a screenplay by thematizing adaptation itself, a concept that fits well with the book’s discussion of adaptation in the biological world.

The contrast between Kaufman’s feverish, agonized composition process and Orlean’s placid, cool work creates a dramatic tension in the story, and Kaufman takes revenge on this fantasy of Orlean’s unflappable persona by forcing that persona to unravel more and more as the script progresses. Of course, neither in her book nor in her real life, it should be pointed out, does Orlean suffer from unbearable loneliness, fall in love with LaRoche, use drugs, or turn homicidal. Kaufman, combining selections from the extratextual world, from Orlean’s text, and from his imagination, doubles the real world and the world of the screenplay, distorting them both in the process, but also creating something new.

When a new text combines parts of other texts, this doubling multiplies because of the complexity of the relationships involved, since the contexts of all these texts shift when put in new relations to one another. Iser remarks on how the selection of texts and their resulting recontextualization operates on other texts through the reader’s performance, namely by triggering a multiplication of voices, when all of the texts come together and are affected by each other in the recipient’s consciousness (Iser, 237-8). This explanation yields insight into how the performativity of the fictionalizing act and the act of representation merge, through the author’s selection and the recipient’s imagination, when all these different texts are finally placed in a medium where they can interact. The selections and combinations of Kaufman’s script come to fruition in the viewer’s mind, creating a potential for new ideas, new meaning: in other words, intellectual evolution, an adaptation specific to human beings. Iser emphasizes that representation does not merely mirror the existing, but instead creates something new (236). This power of imagination means that we can use make-believe to imagine ourselves in different ways in order to live successfully. This imagining brings together the performances of readers and writers not only to create something new but to cope with the world. For Iser, the creating is the coping, and it tells us something about human nature and how it adapts.

Adaptation and The Orchid Thief both refer to Darwin’s The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects and The Origin of Species, outlining his theories of evolution, based on species’ adaptation to their environments. The film invokes Darwin’s words, ideas, and likeness several times: the sequence of film showing the evolution of life, Charlie’s description of this scene for his screenplay, LaRoche and Orlean’s conversation about Darwin, a shot of Darwin’s writings on tape in LaRoche’s van, an imagined scene of Darwin writing the words we hear in narration, a shot of a book of Darwin’s writing in Charlie’s room, and numerous mentions of adaptation and mutation throughout the film in dialogue. The selection of this particular idea, magnified in the film through all of these references, provides a framework for the viewer to understand Kaufman’s choices and the rationalization behind them. Not only do orchids evolve—through mutation—to adapt to their environments, but so do people and ideas, just like the character Charlie Kaufman and his fictional screenplay, as well as the real Charlie Kaufman and his real screenplay.

When the elements selected from these extratextual sources are brought together in the text, they “mutually inscribe themselves into one another. Every word becomes dialogic, and every semantic field is doubled by another” (Iser, 238). When combined like this, each element is present in every other one, even if it is literally absent. Sometimes the awareness of what is not present is greater than at others; sometimes, “the present serv[es] only to spotlight the absent” (Iser, 238). Combination doubles meaning by creating an absence for every presence, so that everything said is twofold, the said and the not-said. This doubling is compounded by the text’s self-disclosed fictionality so that what is missing from the text is always already present there as well (Iser, 239). Charlie’s script brings together the elements of writing and Hollywood with the text of Orlean’s book, and his inclusion of these elements creates additional possibilities for the film, many of which are realized through elements that are absent from the book but made present in the film. For example, the romance in the film, which is not present and is even denied in Orlean’s text, only actualizes possibilities already extant in potential in the reader’s mind: for example, Orlean’s rebuttal of any attraction between her and LaRoche (in an interview published in post-film versions of the book and incorporated in the screenplay) introduces the idea to the reader/viewer even if it had not already occurred spontaneously, and this denied possibility explodes in the movie’s latter half, irresistibly demanding exploration, if only because Hollywood films demand romance. In the film, what is absent, yet always present, is a true adaptation of Orlean’s book into a film. It is the subject of the film, and thus always present in one way, but what results is not really an adaptation of the book in the more usual sense.

Fictionality enacts one other doubling through the “text’s disclosure of itself as fiction” (Iser, 238). This disclosure happens through two means: “The attitude to be imposed on the reader, and … what the text is meant to represent” (Iser, 238). Including a representation of the writing process—mind you, not the actual writing process—exposes the fictionalizing act, which imposes an attitude on the viewer of taking what is seen as play, as “make-believe”; this is not to say that the play is not purposeful, but it is difficult to lose sight of the film as staged due to the recursiveness of hearing something being composed that we have already seen staged on the screen. Other examples include references to other films, using musical scenes to break tension, and lore about Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) being partly written by twins. These pointers move the viewer to adopt different attitudes to the represented world, and as the tropes are warped here—a musical scene becomes a poignant connection between Charlie and Donald, rather than a beach-blanket, road-trip romp—the viewer gains a different perspective on movie-making. Thus, the viewer is mutated by Adaptation too, becoming, through the process of watching, the kind of audience Kaufman desires. Iser addresses the results of “self-disclosed fictionality” on the recipient of such a fictionalizing act (238-9). As applied to film, if viewers are freed from having to take the film as real, the different attitude to reality the film imposes can be more easily accepted. Thus, new attitudes can be accepted in play, learned through performances of reading or viewing. These attitudes may (although do not necessarily) remain with viewers beyond the represented world’s boundaries, marking a permanent evolution. This possibility of change is important to the disclosure of what the text is meant to represent, which is adaptation, in all its many senses.

The writer can, through the fictionalizing act, produce a text; but the text’s recipient must complete the performance of representation through bringing what is represented to fruition through imagination, as Iser explains. Things are made present through imagination that have no reality outside of the text, are made to exist as if they are real in the reader’s imagination. Thus, through the whole process of representation, the fictionalizing act and the reader’s performance, what is not accessible in the extratextual world can be held in the mind, which is the making of make-believe (Iser, 243). Even then, the inaccessible may not be achieved, but only approached through these means: “Aesthetic semblance … neither transcends a given reality nor mediates between idea and manifestation; it is an indication that the inaccessible can only be approached by being staged” (Iser, 243). However, inaccessibility does not reduce the desire for what we cannot possess, as Orlean repeatedly witnesses; we can try to get what we desire, but ultimately it must be inaccessible because we cannot hold onto it at all. The staging of something inaccessible may not be the same as having it, but the manner of staging can also reveal something about what is sought—in this case, passion for Orlean, and perfect adaptation to one’s environment for Kaufman.

The inaccessible is often figured as a blank in literature and film; solidifying it into form robs it of its power because the actual can never be the same as that pure potential—think of Orlean’s astonished and disappointed line in the film when she finally sees the ghost orchid: “It’s a flower.” Fear of disappointment prevents her from attempting to see the orchid in the real world, as she explains in her book; she would rather leave the possibility of any fulfillment she might receive in its perfect state of imagination. Even a pure reproduction is impossible, since representation ever creates something new. Film adaptation, of course, falls into this category; that Kaufman’s film does not equal Orlean’s book is obvious to anyone who has experienced both, but Kaufman’s script increases the audience’s awareness of this non-equation of film adaptations to their primary texts, as well as the possibility of the adaptation creating something new.

Because of the performative quality of the reader’s role, actualizing the potential of a text, making it tangible through his or her imagination, we must cast Charlie Kaufman’s writing as a performance of reading as well. Iser posits a triadic relationship of the real, the fictional, and the imaginary, in place of the traditional dyad of the real and the fictional. The imaginary is the blank space and formless material made concrete through the fictionalizing act. In Orlean’s book, Florida is the imaginary; she writes, “Florida was to Americans what America had always been to the rest of the world—a fresh, free, unspoiled start. Florida is a wet, warm, tropical place, essentially featureless, and infinitely transformable. … Its essential character can be repeatedly reimagined” (123). For the character Kaufman, the screenplay is the imaginary; it is “infinitely transformable,” and can be “repeatedly reimagined”. Through the unformed potential of the screenplay that he imagines, he can do anything, access anything, even the inaccessible. He can use the screenplay to create fifty movies in one, to create a documentary and a Hollywood action film, a romance, a thriller. He can also use this space of infinite possibility to solve the problem of writing the real screenplay, by writing himself a new self and a partner in the form of a twin brother.

Brian McHale explains that the dominant mode of postmodernist fiction is ontological. While McHale’s concern is primarily with questions about the modes of being of the worlds constructed by postmodernist fiction, the construction of new worlds often coincides with attempts by ontologically confused characters to understand themselves and their places in the world—sometimes they solve these problems by creating new worlds to suit (McHale, 9-10). Dick Higgins’s provocative question, quoted by McHale, “Which of my selves is to do [‘what is to be done’]?” highlights the quandary of characters in postmodernist fiction and, we might add, in postmodernist films (McHale, 10). The priority becomes determining the quality of one’s own being, or, given the problem of a certain kind of external reality, determining which self can best adapt to the new world.

Kaufman creates multiple ontological layers to approach one of his problems, namely how to adapt a plotless book with no character development into a film. The film’s worlds multiply as he writes the screenplay before our eyes—often after an event that Charlie’s dictations echo—then erases, rewrites, and erases and rewrites, over and over again. I extend McHale’s thesis, however, in that, along with creating new worlds within the text to solve their ontological problems, characters create new selves to solve the problem of who to be in order to live meaningfully. To solve his multitude of problems, Kaufman creates not only a representation of himself in his screenplay (and one might argue, many representations), but also a twin brother who can help him do what he cannot. Kaufman creates at least two other selves to do what needs to be done in the real world and in the film’s world: that is, solving the intractable problem of making a movie out of this book, and for both himself and the character of Susan Orlean, connecting to other people. Kaufman does include a glimpse of the book that is true to its character, but he can’t make a movie out of just this, and a perfect reproduction of the book is impossible anyway—it is inaccessible, which is part of what causes Charlie such agonies. The theme of adaptation introduced by the subject of orchids ultimately provides a way to transform the book into a movie. Consequently, Charlie adapts to the problem in his environment, this unwritten screenplay, by multiplying himself. The character Robert McKee (a real name coincidentally significant in true Dickensian style) presents Charlie with the key to solving the twin problems of the screenplay and his own life; McKee tells Charlie that if characters don’t change there is no story; Charlie is skeptical, at first, at there being people in the world who actually do things, but McKee convinces him it is true. So Charlie, with Donald’s help, changes the characters from The Orchid Thief who do not change, or at least whom we don’t see change because of Orlean’s presentation of them. LaRoche as represented by Orlean does not change; the objects of his passion change, but not his relationship to them.

Orlean herself refuses to change, to accept connections to other living things—she gives away the gifts of orchids from the orchid people she interviews. She articulates her lack of connection in an interview after the book’s publication. Kaufman includes this statement in the film, when Donald interviews her while pretending to be Charlie. This statement exposes her detachment, and we certainly do not wonder any more at her dispassionateness, although she says she wishes she had a passion. She claims her passion is for her subjects, but it is hard to believe that when we hear her comments about the relationships of reporters with their subjects. Ultimately, the book is disappointing because the one person present throughout never changes—refuses change, in fact, even when given the opportunity to connect with extraordinary people who might help her to change. For example, she reports, but does not explore, the implications of LaRoche’s change of passion from orchids to computers after his family tragedy; he says, and Kaufman emphasizes this in the film, that he loves computers because they can’t die, unlike the living things he cherished before. He has psychically adapted himself to this painful reality, and even if Orlean doesn’t learn from him, Kaufman does.

Unlike Orlean, Charlie succeeds in breaking through his inability to connect with other people; he writes himself as a character who changes, who grows. Donald catalyzes this change, first by introducing Charlie to McKee’s ideas and holding onto them despite Charlie’s scoffing, so that he eventually sways Charlie with his conviction (and his success); and then, in the swamp, when he explains to Charlie that he owns his love and attachments to other people, and their judgments of him cannot make him let them go or spoil them for him. This revelation provides the final impetus for Charlie’s transformation, and he is able to connect to, and ultimately to integrate himself with, Donald, allowing him to continue after Donald is killed. Such integration commonly appears in stories of doubling, and the integrated double must then leave the story somehow. Donald’s effect on the screenplay, then, is the creation of a narrative arc and of characters who change, for better or for worse.

Donald invents the relationship between Orlean and LaRoche and their illicit activities. Because of Donald, the movie also metamorphoses into the typical Hollywood film, with drugs, sex, violence, car chases, and a guy getting the girl in the end. But it is also through Donald that the action moves outside of Charlie’s head and that his solitude changes into action in the world involving other people. Thus, the process that brings the movie to that point makes it impossible for us to see it the same way as before, and it lends a significance to the ending that such a “Hollywood” copout wouldn’t otherwise have, just like the reprise of the musical number “Happy Together” in the swamp, this time a demonstration of Charlie’s affection for his brother. In order to excuse this “copout” and the complete departure from The Orchid Thief, Charlie must write himself into the screenplay, to picture his agonizing for us so we will sympathize with his choices, and he must write a double, Donald, who can make these changes, not a copout, but significant evolution. Kaufman changes himself psychically and emotionally in order to do what needs to be done: to create something that can survive through its novelty, to create a self that can survive through adaptation.

Author Biography

Lexey A. Bartlett