Adaptation first published by Daily Info
At one point in Adaptation, orchid hunter John Laroche (Chris Cooper) explains to New York Times journalist Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) how each type of orchid has a symbiotic relationship with its own specially adapted insect – its ‘double’ or ‘soulmate’. “Neither”, says Laroche, “will ever know the significance of their lovemaking”; and yet, despite their differences, he explains, together they create an exquisite, precious flower.
A special kind of relationship also blooms when the urbanised, middle class Orlean and the rootless, toothless Laroche are brought together, and the result is her best-selling book The Orchid Thief. Which is where Charlie Kaufman’s problems start.
Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay for Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999), one of the most inventive and ingenious films in years, about a man who discovers a portal into John Malkovich’s head. In Adaptation, Kaufman has teamed up with Jonze again, this time writing a sceenplay which is about Kaufman trying to write a screenplay adaptation of Orlean’s book.
In this vertiginous masterpiece of self-reference, Nicolas Cage gives brilliant performances as both Charlie Kaufman and his own ‘double’, an (invented) twin brother called Donald. Where Charlie is introspective, pretentious and neurotic, stuck very much in his own (rather than John Malkovich’s) head, Donald is outgoing, straightforward and unselfconscious, with unabashedly plebeian tastes; so when Charlie struggles with severe writer’s block (Barton Fink style), his gormless brother is called in to help him find just what there is in the story of Orlean, Laroche and flowers that will make for a good film. Donald transforms Charlie’s drama-free script into a full-blown Hollywood movie, complete with sex, guns, chase sequences, killer alligators and drugs, and enables Charlie to include the all-important development of character. The result of this odd coupling is of course Adaptation itself.
For allowing their characters to be fictionalised and adapted in such an unflattering manner, both the real Susan Orlean and the real Charlie Kaufman deserve an award (previously won by John Malkovich, who puts in a cameo here). Kaufman’s knowing script is hilarious, largely at his own expense, and reflects endlessly upon itself and the creative process involved in its own genesis and evolution. And it cleverly forestalls all criticism of itself, by having characters express their abhorrence of, e.g., voiceovers, the trope of multiple personality disorder, and the deus ex machina, even though all of these devices are featured prominently in the film.
Dizzyingly funny, this is perhaps the closest that a film has ever come to being its own meta-commentary. Follow Orlean and Laroche, Charlie and Donald into the primordial Miami swamp, and you will find that what emerges from this hothouse union is a perfect hybrid, as unique and weird as a rare orchid. It is also, ironically enough for an adaptation, a true original.
© Anton Bitel