"Adaptation" and the perils of adaptation

While Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze made their massively self-indulgent metamovie, other filmmakers have been doing the hard work of shaping books into films.

Published December 16, 2002 9:00PM (EST)

In Spike Jonze's film "Adaptation," screenwriter Charlie Kaufman writes himself -- or, rather, a version of himself -- into his own screenplay. The movie's Charlie Kaufman, like the real Charlie Kaufman, has been trying to write a movie treatment of Susan Orlean's book, "The Orchid Thief," and has found himself stymied at every turn. He deems the book unadaptable, too oblique to be shaped into a motion picture. So the movie's Charlie Kaufman writes himself into the drama of Orlean's story as a way of ruminating on the sorry lot of writers and their flailing, pathetic, ostensibly moving attempts to capture anything real and true.

Brilliant! Original! Genre-busting! "Adaptation" is a movie whose blurbology is written into its DNA, even as it proves to us, over and over again, how winkingly aware it is that every aspect of the movie business, from the ministrations of ass-kissing development execs to the false approbation of critics' blurbs, is meaningless. But there's one very meaningful blurb that could be applied to "Adaptation," one that wouldn't help sell it to audiences (wouldn't want that, would we, Messrs. Kaufman and Jonze?) but that would chop straight to the core of what "Adaptation" is, and what it's proud of being.


But you won't see that in any newspaper ad.

"Adaptation," with its gee-whillikers approach to the bloody hard work of making art, may pretend to be unassuming, but it's fully cognizant of the power it dangles over its audience. Self-referential to the extreme, it's the most meta of meta-movies. You might call it meta-macho. If you're not meta enough to see how meta "Adaptation" is, then you clearly haven't spent enough time, as Kaufman and Jonze have, examining the unexaminable. (You're probably the type of person who still uses the word "postmodern.")

And if you're so meta that you're completely unimpressed with how meta it is, then you're only reinforcing the movie's point: You've become so meta-consumed by metaculture that you're no longer able to take pleasure in art, to laugh at your own foibles, to appreciate true brilliance (that is, the brilliance of Kaufman and Jones). Meanwhile, "Adaptation" is a movie that eats itself whole and leaves the audience with nothing, and we're supposed to go home happily, clutching our little souvenir naughts as if they actually added up to something.

But just for kicks, let's do something adamantly un-meta and put "Adaptation" in context -- specifically, in the context of the unusually large number of fine, or at least interesting, movies that have been adapted from books, short stories or plays this year. That list includes (but isn't limited to) the Weitz brothers' "About a Boy," Neil LaBute's "Possession," Lynne Ramsay's "Morvern Callar," Steven Shainberg's "Secretary," Phillip Noyce's "The Quiet American," Clare Peploe's "Triumph of Love," Michael Apted's "Enigma," Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and Steven Soderbergh's "Solaris."

There's also a secondary list of movie adaptations that don't work -- "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," for example -- but that at the very least show an awareness on the filmmaker's part of what it means to turn words into movies. In a year when so many filmmakers struggled, successfully or otherwise, with what it means to translate a book to film, Kaufman and Jonze took the easy way out, choosing instead to make a cheap in-joke that pretends in only the most cursory way to wrestle with the notion of what it means to infuse a movie with beauty and meaning.

"Adaptation" wheedles the audience into its confidence, urging us to congratulate ourselves for being hip enough to get the message. The movie's Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) wrings his hands over the kind of movie he doesn't want to write: One with a character arc, with car chases, with gratuitous or, it seems, any other kind of sex. (There's sex in "Adaptation," but it's not particularly sexy -- in this movie as well as their first, "Being John Malkovich," Jonze and Kaufman don't bother with sex much at all. They're like frat boys who just want to get it over with.)

The movie's Charlie Kaufman is frumpy, balding and awkward, with a propensity for beating off, though when it comes to the movies he writes, he sure is principled. Yet he's not challenging the audience to understand him, but to pat itself on the back for grasping how he can't possibly harness his talents in the service of that harsh, tarted-up mistress we call Hollywood. We commend him for not being a whore, for refusing to play the game.

Although the movie's Charlie Kaufman isn't the real Charlie Kaufman, he's obviously being used as a mouthpiece for something the real Kaufman struggles with. But for all his self-involved hand-wringing, has the real Kaufman actually told a story that we care about, one that serves its characters above all? Or has he told one that is simply designed to flatter us? The refusal of Kaufman (the real one or the meta one) to bow to stupid Hollywood standards is both a kind of withdrawal and an avowal of superiority. The unspoken message seems to be: "Leave it to hacks like David Lean and John Huston to actually do the work of bringing books to the screen." Jonze and Kaufman are too good for it, and "Adaptation" is their assertion that the most interesting movie they could possibly make is one that's all about them.

Plenty of people have written passionately about the impossibility of bringing books to the screen, because it is, pure and simple, an impossibility. If we set out to judge an adaptation by how closely it approximates the visions that an author has already coaxed to life in our own imaginations, we're bound to be disappointed: Filmmakers aren't, and shouldn't have to be, mind-readers.

So it's easier, and more useful, to talk about the ways in which a movie adaptation is spiritually faithful to its source material. As the critic Robin Wood has said, himself apologizing for stating such a simple truth, "Literature is literature. Film is film." He goes on to say that there is no such thing as a faithful adaptation, since "the greatness of [great literature] resides in the writer's grasp of the potentialities of language" -- subtleties that can't be reproduced in film.

But Wood doesn't elevate literature above film, or vice versa. "The notion of the faithful adaptation is equally insulting to film," he writes. "It implies that film is the inferior art, and should be content (or even proud) to reproduce precisely what it can never hope to reproduce: the movement of the author's words on paper. The filmmaker has every right to take what s/he wants from a novel (be it Mickey Spillane or Tolstoy), and make of it whatever suits her or his interests."

"Adaptation" exercises those rights to the breaking point. Kaufman has decided he's the most interesting thing about Orlean's book, and he proceeds accordingly. While the movie's Charlie Kaufman pretends to be enthralled by Orlean's story, and even compassionately curious about her as a person, her story ends up melting away by the end of the movie, subsumed by his own neuroses.

The character of Orlean (as opposed to the real person Orlean), played by Meryl Streep, is a journalist who suddenly realizes she doesn't feel passionately about anything; she has written a book, "The Orchid Thief," about John LaRoche (Chris Cooper), a rare-orchid enthusiast in Florida who has gotten himself in trouble with the law for poaching rare specimens from the local swampland. But he loves these flowers; his intent is to protect them more than to profit from them. Kaufman doesn't know what to make of LaRoche's story as it has been told in Orlean's book. He's further frustrated by the fact that his layabout twin brother, Donald, has just sold a flashy screenplay that revels in all the elements (sex, car chases) Charlie has refused to use himself.

Donald is Charlie's invention, of course, a way for him to acknowledge that he does have baser instincts without having to take responsibility for them. By the movie's end, Charlie has become Donald as well, a kind of superscreenwriter for the new millennium -- principled, but with a knack for what will sell. He's going to do just fine for himself.

But what about us? "Adaptation" doesn't offer us a real story, just a bloated thesis. The movie doesn't reach out to anything or anyone; it's most interested in its own pinched vision. The movie's Band-Aid subtheme -- the thing that gives its title a double meaning -- is that human beings must adapt in order to grow. Life changes us a bit day by day, and we need to recognize those changes and act accordingly.

What a lofty and resonant idea! It may also be one of the greatest ass-saving constructs in the history of movies -- a faux-grand concept that dazzles people enough to keep them from catching on to how completely self-indulgent "Adaptation" is.

If taking the time and care to adapt a movie into a script is such torture, then why have so many people pulled it off so well just in the past year, with barely a complaint? Strangely enough, one of the recent movies that made me angriest about "Adaptation" was one I didn't even like: Stephen Daldry's "The Hours" is an adaptation of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that connects the lives of two women (one in the present day and one in the 1950s) with that of Virginia Woolf, and also with one of her best-loved books, "Mrs. Dalloway." Cunningham's novel is a complex interlacing of motifs, structurally impressive but thematically dopey: It's all about women finding themselves, as Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway did, in the smallest, most fractional moments of their lives.

Many people have been struck by the novel's depth and beauty, but I couldn't help seeing it as a hyperintellectualized and artsified version of those old "Calgon, take me away!" ads -- a well-intentioned, sensitive scrutiny of how hard women's lives are, and what dangerously misunderstood creatures they can be, but one that fixates on the molecules of pain and suffering and joy that constitute those lives instead of actually developing characters.

But say what you want about it: In movie terms, "The Hours" would seem to be a wholly unadaptable book. Daldry's film version -- the script is by David Hare -- takes itself very seriously, to the point that Daldry loads every moment with equal weight. Since everything is weighed equally, "The Hours" has no real rhythm -- it's loaded with more stones than poor Virginia's pockets when she wades into that river at the end of her life. The camera will shift from an actress's face to the sight of an egg being cracked against a bowl, accompanied by a sharp smacking sound. Over and over again, a camera movement or a sound will demand our attention: We are commanded to note the importance of that breaking egg! In "The Hours," eggs are broken in the late teens, the early '50s, and the year 2000 -- a symbol of the fragility of women's lives dashed against the constraints of society, I suppose.

"The Hours" has its problems as a piece of filmmaking. But it's impossible to ignore the obvious care Daldry and Hare took in shaping this most unruly book into a picture whose seemingly wayward narratives interlock into a seamless story. (In fact, Daldry and Hare may have improved on the structure of Cunningham's book; a fellow critic who didn't much care for the movie nonetheless admitted that its careful construction made him more critical of the novel.)

An even more stunning example of translating a strange and subtle book to film is Lynne Ramsay's soon-to-be-released movie version of Scottish novelist Alan Warner's "Morvern Callar." In "Morvern Callar," a young Scottish woman (played by the astonishing Samantha Morton) deals with her boyfriend's suicide by not dealing with it. Morton goes about her business -- going to her dull job at the supermarket, going out to dance clubs with her best friend -- as if her boyfriend's lifeless body weren't cluttering up her flat.

Everything Morvern feels is suggested, not spelled out. Warner's book is bizarre and wonderful; there's a vaguely hopeful fierceness to it, but mostly it's a hymn to the strange process of riding out grief and melancholy. Ramsay's movie (she and Liana Dognini adapted the book) is equally elliptical and suggestive -- it doesn't so much tell a story as lay out the shifting colors of mood beneath that story. It's one of the most beautiful examples of a novel turned into film I've seen in years.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The only people who really know what it's like to adapt a book into a movie are the people who have done it. But I imagine it takes a measure of self-effacement: Your mission is to use your instincts and your intellect to decide what should stay, what should go and how it all should be reshaped and dramatized, but you must all the while put yourself in the service of the work at hand. Done right, it's a peculiar sort of master craftsmanship: You're using someone else's raw materials to create something that is mostly them, but will of course also be a little bit you.

There are plenty of people who disliked Neil LaBute's version of A.S. Byatt's "Possession," claiming (among other things) that it destroyed the essence of the book by making one of its lead characters American instead of English, and that it sliced out major chunks of Byatt's artistry -- for one thing, the heaps of poetry. The poetry in Byatt's novel is pitch-perfect, the ultimate mimicry of Victorian-era verse. It's astonishingly clever at first, but before long comes off as mostly a stunt.

Of course, including poetry in movies is extremely difficult, since it usually demands that a filmmaker use the dreaded voice-over. But even beyond that, LaBute's "Possession" represents a range of choices on the filmmaker's part (he co-adapted the book, along with David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones), some of them personal and some of them purely cinematic. Roland Michell, the character who was changed from English to American for the movie (played by Aaron Eckhart), is a better character for the movie because of it.

Making Roland an American intensifies the dynamic between him and the passionate but restrained British professor played by Gwyneth Paltrow. As Byatt wrote Roland, he was passive to the point of being recessive. (Byatt herself told LaBute that, as she'd written him, Roland wouldn't work as a movie character; he'd be too much of a drip.) Roland, as LaBute has reimagined him, still has some of those low-key characteristics -- he is a relatively quiet, polite American, after all, and like Roland, he's a genuinely passionate academic.

But we know that, deep down at least, he has an American's innate brashness (brash as far as the English are concerned, that is). His staunchly American qualities give Paltrow's character, who is sometimes a bit scary in her resoluteness, more to stand up to; they heighten the challenge. She and Roland are foreign to one another in more ways than one, but they connect across that chasm.

Even though movies are never a replacement for the written word, there are times when a film version of a book is sharper than the book itself. Nick Hornby's "About a Boy" was highly entertaining, but it also seemed a bit shambling and aimless. The screenplay adaptation (by Paul and Chris Weitz and Peter Hedges) gave the story more drive and momentum. There are cases, too, when an adaptation is a different creature altogether. Erin Cressida Wilson's screenplay for "Secretary" took a very short and very pointed story by Mary Gaitskill, about a young woman who discovers she has a predilection for being spanked, and elongated it in some places and rounded it out in others. "Secretary" the movie is a sexual fairytale about love between misfits; Gaitskill's story is darker and less expansive, but startlingly direct. Director Steven Shainberg took some liberties with the tone of the story, but he understood Gaitskill's essential notion that there are certain kinds of understanding between people that can't be spelled out or neatly corralled.

It's doubtful that the process of turning a movie into a book is ever easy: If you mapped the screenwriter's psychic trail from beginning to end, it would most likely be a bloody one, dotted with huge crimson splotches where seemingly essential scenes or wonderful exchanges that just didn't fit had to be excised ruthlessly. And then there are the ghosts of the books that were adapted badly: Think of Arthur Schnitzler's "Dreamnovel" howling across the plains, misunderstood and forlorn, having been botched by Stanley Kubrick in "Eyes Wide Shut."

So where does that leave Susan Orlean's "Adaptation" -- a book that obviously means something to Orlean and to the many people who read and enjoyed it? In interviews Orlean has claimed to be happy with the movie. And the reality is, she sold the book and accepted that it was out of her hands. But I still wonder what, in her heart of hearts, she thinks of what Kaufman has done with her book. I didn't write "The Orchid Thief" -- heck, I didn't even read the whole thing -- and even I feel somewhat protective of it. What does it mean when a book's essence becomes subsumed by a screenwriter who thinks his insecurities are more interesting than anything another writer has come up with?

And what should we make of a screenwriter who thinks so much about the process of making something that he only drains himself of the energy to actually make it? Jean-Luc Godard's "Contempt" -- itself an adaptation of an Alberto Moravia novel -- begins with a credit sequence in which, in voiceover, Godard introduces his actors, his cinematographer, his screenwriter and, last and most humbly, himself. Occurring even before the movie has begun, it's one of the movie's most touching moments -- touching because it reminds us that a human being made this movie. It's a careful arrangement of choices, a nonmathematical formula of thought and feeling that he hopes against hope will add up to something.

On the face of it, it may seem as if Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze are doing something in "Adaptation" that's similar to that credit sequence -- breaking down that barrier between the people who've made a movie and the people who sit in the audience watching it. But they're essentially throwing up a different kind of barrier between filmmakers and audiences. They're using their smug gimmickry to distance us from our deepest emotions rather than lead us straight into battle with them. Kaufman the beleaguered screenwriter is the star of the show, and its hero. He wants every civilian out there to know that writing, like war, is hell. He should tell it to the Marines. Or maybe he should just tell it to Susan Orlean.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek

Related Topics ------------------------------------------