Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Unit 7: Narrative - Review - Spike Jonze's Adaptation

Figure 1. Adaptation Poster Art

Director Jonze's "Adaptation" is an argument between high art and low art films, yes we are following the eccentric/nervous Charlie Kaufman (Cage) and his care free brother through an investigation into a plot-less book about flowers. The trick lies at the true roots when the film starts writing itself, one almost expects Cage to leave his role as Charlie and climb off the set of Adaptation before the credits roll telling us we were watching a film within a film all along.

•Directed by: Spike Jonze
•Written by: Susan Orlean, Charlie Kaufman & Donald Kaufman
•Cast: Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman / Donald Kaufman, Tilda Swinton as Valerie Thomas, Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean, Chris Cooper as John Laroche, Jay Tavare as Matthew Osceola, Litefoot as Russell (as G. Paul Davis) & Roger Willie as Randy
•Genre: Drama & Comedy
•Duration: 114 Minutes (aprox)

Figure 2. "Who's gonna play me?” - (Laroche, Adaptation)

The film opens to the set of a popular film at the time "Being John Malkovich" (also directed by Jonze & Written by Kaufman) we are then placed with our lead for the duration, the nervous Charlie Kaufman (Cage) who happens to be a writer on the set of "Being John Malkovich". Not too long down the line Charlie is tasked by his agent to produce a working screenplay titled "The Orchid Thief" already adapted from a newspaper article and eventually adapted to a book. The only problem for poor Charlie is... the book is completely plot-less, which drives Charlie to consider other avenues to finish the story. Jough Dempsey of Cinema review observes:
“Given the onerous task of having to produce a screenplay from the material, Kaufman found a way out: he put himself in his own screenplay, making the film less an adaptation of the book than it is a story about adapting an unfilmable book into a screenplay.” (Dempsey: 2004)
This is where the film adapts further shifting into a writers true nightmares including writers block and human passions. We are no longer experiencing the adaptation of a book to the big screen we are watching the film before it has been released, each page is being written before our eyes as Charlie begins to add himself to the screenplay. The only thing that is probably more ingenious is that the characters are named after their real life counterparts, one dares ask if these are identical portrayals of off screen personalities.

Figure 3. "I’m a walking cliché” - (Kaufman, Adaptation)

Every tandem leap in the narrative always falls back to Kaufman in private isolation trying to draw more narrated gold from the top of his head using any source of motivation. As the book is read we are taken deeper into a story about flowers only to return to Charlie having just read the chapter we watched causing him to recycle old ideas and bring out others shifting the narrative retroactively. Roger Ebert of observes:
“He relates his agony in voiceover, and anyone who has ever tried to write will understand his system of rewards and punishments: Should he wait until he has written a page to eat the muffin, or ....” (Ebert: 2002)
It is hard to know where the story truly stops because as it ends for one character we are thrown to another only to discover that chapters of the book are missing, we are then placed in what we think is reality. The truth is the whole film is looking at us and then back at itself and then back at the writer only for the audience to ask the question is this film an adaptation of this film? Which it could very well be... This film not only studies the personalities on and off screen but it studies what it is and what it is about, leaving an erratic Kaufman narrating what he thinks its about.

Figure 4. "Anyway, listen, I meant to ask you, I need a cool way to kill people” - (D. Kaufman, Adaptation)

Adaptation does not ignore the atypical cliché but in some instances expands upon it making everyone chuckle as obvious narrative devices are utilized mostly by Charlies naive brother Donald, who cannot read Charlie's sarcasm. The thing that one is compelled to take from this is that films are made based on blood lust and obvious attachments, the narrative has become like all narratives almost becoming a cliché itself. Of course this does not go to say that the viewer can have an opinion about Adaptation... Rob Gonsalves of observes:
Since the movie creates itself as it goes along, it makes perfect sense that it should destroy itself. By so doing -- in a climax that will disappoint many who hoped for something less conventional -- it effectively trounces everything Donald, McKee, and Hollywood stand for. It has been made without the slightest concern about whether you like it. (Gonsalves: 2006)
In a nut shell Adaptation was written in front of your eyes, you have no say in it because it doesn't care. Everything has been deconstructed for the viewer and then reconstructed. In short, Kaufman is laughing at us, the consumer, he is laughing at the industry he works in, he is laughing at the film and our interpretation of the film... it's all smoke and mirrors that alone is what makes it fantastic. It even pokes fun at murder before becoming about murder, contrasting obvious artificiality with on the spot controversy.

"It ends with Kaufman driving home, thinking he knows how to finish the script.” - (Kaufman, Adaptation)

When all is said and done Adaptation is just about what it is and who is viewing it. It reflects society and us as consumers of film culture. We are both the same person and yet we are not, this film is a film about a film and everyone who watches this film is involved in its birth, life and death with no say in any of it... Luke Stay of observes:
“These are words from Donald’s script, a script that does not exist, but that does not matter. Donald’s script is Charlie’s script. Donald is Charlie. Charlie is the viewer. I am Charlie. I am the viewer. I am done. I arise from my computer filled for the first time with hope. I like this. This is good.” (Stay, 2005)
Adaptation is explicably post modern, there is no definitive definition for what the writer is trying to say but there is a point to be understood. It demonstrates life within life and how examining life or a particular part of it can be distorted or boiled down into a cliché, while at the same time not being a cliché.
"We are life, life is change, life is adaptation..." (Stay, 2005)

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Adaptation Poster Art. (com) [Online image]. At:
(Accessed on: 03/10/12)

Figure 2. Who's gonna play me? (com) [Online image]. At: (Accessed on: 03/10/12)

Figure 3. I’m a walking cliché (com) [Online image]. At: (Accessed on: 03/10/12)

Figure 4. Anyway, listen, I meant to ask you, I need a cool way to kill people (com) [Online image]. At: (Accessed on: 03/10/12)

Figure 5. It ends with Kaufman driving home, thinking he knows how to finish the script (com) [Online image]. At: (Accessed on: 03/10/12)



Dempsey, Jough. (2005) Adaptation: Beyond Postmodern At: (Accessed on: 03/10/12)

Ebert, Roger. (2005) Adaptation Review At: (Accessed on: 03/10/12)

Gonsalves, Rob. (2005) Adaptation Review At: (Accessed on: 03/10/12)

Stay, Luke. (2005) An Adaptation of Post-Modernism At: (Accessed on: 03/10/11)

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