Adaptation (2002), Cert 15.

Director - Spike Jonze.

Writers - Charlie Kaufman & Donald Kaufman.

Starring - Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, John Cusak, Catherine Keener, Spike Jonze & Brian Cox.


Premise - On the set of 'Being John Malkovich' screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) watches his words become film, he is then asked to leave the set because he is in the eye line, welcome to Charlie's world. For his next project he is offered to adapt the novel 'The Orchid Thief', a book about Florida orchid hunter, John Laroche (Chris Cooper) written by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). As it turns out the book is practically unfilmable and Charlie’s attempts to adapt it into a screenplay lead to large bouts of writers block, not helped by his twin brother Donald (Nicolas Cage, again) whom is writing his own screenplay, albeit a by the numbers Hollywood thriller. Will Charlie finish the screenplay and, more importantly, will it make any sense?

Adaptation is about the most original film I have seen since ‘Being John Malkovich’, its very essence is unlike anything I have ever seen on film. In order to explain the film I will have to fill in a little back story. After ‘Being John Malkovich’ was made, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman was given a book called ‘The Orchid Thief’ to adapt as his next project. The book is about Florida orchid hunter John Laroche and is written by New Yorker reporter Susan Orlean. Charlie found the book to be near unfilmable and suffered massive writers block during the process. Sound familiar? It should do, because Charlie couldn’t adapt the book and instead wrote a screenplay about himself adapting the book and that has now been made into the film Adaptation.

It’s a bitch of a concept to get your head around and it makes for one hell of a movie watching experience. Once you realize that what you are watching is what Charlie is creating, you realize that there are no boundaries. Anything can happen, if Charlie can think it up then, it could well happen in the next scene. This comes into play more and more as the film moves on, in-fact in the last 20 minutes all bets are off. Charlie is struggling to finish the script and he turns (reluctantly) to his brother for help, the film then takes on the form of a formulaic Hollywood thriller, much as his brother would write. It’s ludicrous, but engrossing at the same time.

As clever as the idea is, the film isn’t just about it’s somewhat gimmicky premise, there is real heart to the film. The film also explores themes like passion and adapting. Every character in the film has a passion, whether it’s Laroche’s fauna or Orlean’s need to let loose or Charlie’s principles. The film deals with everybody’s passion and shows how they adapt to keep their passions. Kaufman’s script allows the movies gimmick to tell the characters story, flitting backwards and forwards through time between the present day and three years earlier to the time when the book was written. The script is credited to Charlie and Donald Kaufman, but Donald Kaufman doesn’t exist, except in Charlie Kaufman’s head. Don’t think about that too much though as you will just give yourself a headache……….

It’s when you sit down and consider that ultimately you are watching a story that actually happened, that these characters actually exist somewhere, that the power of some of the scenes really hits home. In particular the tale of how Laroche lost his front teeth, the story itself is heartbreaking, but Jonze’s visuals give it extra punch that makes it almost unbearable. Jonze has once again hooked up with screen writer Kaufman and we can only hope they continue to work together as when they do they create magic. Jonze’s work on Adaptation is not as flashy as Malkovich, or some of his music videos, but it is perfect for the story that is being told.

Nicolas Cage takes on dual roles in this film, that you think different actors inhabit the roles is testament to Cages outstanding acting ability. Charlie is timid, nervous, paranoid, fat and balding. He is a highly neurotic fellow from the Woody Allen mould; he thinks about things to much and ends up getting himself into messes because of this. Charlie is hopeless around women and never says the right things. He has a woman who is interested in him, but he blows it because of his neurosis. Donald is the complete opposite of Charlie in every way; he’s confident, brash, outgoing and has a skin like a rhino. Nothing phases him and he is a huge hit with women. Cage plays both characters brilliantly and thanks to some outstanding FX work he plays off himself excellently. There is some really good interaction between him and, erm him and you never see the joins. 

Meryl Streep is great here and turns the preconception of herself on its head with a character that is quite unlike anything she has played before. Orlean is a high society writer from the New York dinner party scene who craves anything that can take her from her mundane life. To this end she finds John Laroche. Chris Cooper is out of this world as Laroche, whom provides much of the films comedy through some biting one liners. His character isn’t solely comic relief as his story is a tragic one and Cooper gives the role some real depth. Cooper is probably most famous for playing hard asses in the past and Laroche is a change of pace for him, one that works mind you and should see him in the running for a Best Supporting Actor gong come March.

Elsewhere you have cameos from the main cast of ‘Being John Malkovich’ as well as a hilarious turn by Brian Cox as a screen writing guru whom trains Donald in the ways of the script. He spouts out the dos and don’ts of screenwriting as the movie we are watching ignores every single one of them. I greatly enjoyed Cara Seymour as Amelia, Charlie’s love interest and also Ron Livingston as Charlie’s (and later Donald’s) agent.

Ultimately Adaptation is going to be a love it or loathe it affair. Some people may have a hard time seeing past the clever premise and simply dismiss the film as Jonze and Kaufman playing a huge practical joke on the world. Whilst this may be true to a certain extent the film is for me, more than its cleverness and is a fine study of passion in life. Of course the films comedy comes mostly from the clever digs at the movie industry and if you have any sort of knowledge of the movie business then you will find much to enjoy here. If on the other hand this all sounds a bit too clever and cliquey then you would be better giving it a miss. Personally I loved the film and if you think it might be your cup of tea I urge you to give it a watch, you won’t be sorry. The only question is should Kaufman be nominated for best original or adapted screenplay……….?



See Adaptation if you enjoyed - Being John Malkovich, The Player.

Poster Quote - Being Charlie Kaufman.