Narcissistic Adaptation

Culture | Adaptation, starring Nicholas Cage and Meryl Streep, strikes a chord with movie reviewers

Issue: "State of the Union 2003," Jan. 25, 2003

It's easy to see why critics rave over films like Adaptation-and it's primarily because that list is short. There aren't many films like Adaptation. The Hollywood product is typically produced in such a generic, prepackaged manner that even the casual viewer becomes well-versed in its conventions. Now, imagine life as a professional critic, spending the bulk of your time sitting in a darkened theater watching movies, ever more predictable, most mediocre at best. You would look for that which is radically different or new to break the monotony.

Adaptation (rated R for bad language, sexuality, brief nudity, some drug use, and violent images) certainly fits this criterion, and has been largely heralded as a result. Real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman was hired to adapt real-life author Susan Orlean's book, The Orchid Thief, into a film. The Orchid Thief is a nonfiction novel about obsessive, eccentric orchid collector John Laroche, originally published in The New Yorker, then expanded into a full-length book. Rather than adapt this book about flowers straightforwardly, which, admittedly, would have been a challenge, Mr. Kaufman instead writes himself into the script. So the film's focus shifts, from Ms. Orlean writing about Mr. Laroche, to Mr. Kaufman struggling to write about Ms. Orlean writing about Mr. Laroche.

And that's just the start. Mr. Kaufman, played in the film by Nicholas Cage, also creates an alter ego for himself, in the form of a twin brother named Donald (also played by Mr. Cage). While Charlie's artistic integrity forces him to battle inner demons every step of the way, Donald's obliviousness grants him almost instant success in Charlie's chosen profession. As the film progresses, the story of Ms. Orlean (Meryl Streep) and Mr. Laroche (the always outstanding Chris Cooper), originally told in flashbacks, becomes intertwined with Charlie's own story. Mr. Kaufman deftly intersperses thought-provoking, sometimes profound, insights on the creative process-and life in general- along the way.

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This is all very clever, very postmodern. Mr. Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, his collaborator on this and on 1999's Being John Malkovich, are both talented storytellers. If distinctiveness and flair were the sole measures of success, then this film would certainly qualify as a classic-what a refreshment for those deadened by formula! But, like much of the art of postmodernism, the film has a hard time standing on its own. The degree to which the story works, and dazzles the audience, depends on the degree to which the audience is familiar with facts outside the film: that Charlie Kaufman, et al., exist in the real world, and that this story bears some resemblance to the truth, but is not itself wholly true. Without at least some of this knowledge, the film is much less impressive; it seems much less "artful" once the puzzle is untwined. In other words, it helps to be a film critic. The film is ingenious, yes-but perhaps not quite as ingenious as its creators think. On top of that, it's more than a little narcissistic. (This is a charge that Mr. Kaufman tries to avoid by addressing it head-on: He levels it against himself during the course of the film.)

A warning: Viewers might not guess this from the source material, but Adaptation is often lewd, violent, and sexually explicit, increasingly so during the frenzied final third of the film.


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