Retro Film Review: Adaptation

In my film class, we have been tasked to pitch an existing movie in sixty seconds. Basically, just tell the class why you love this movie. One of my favorite films turned out to be one of the most challenging to describe, Adaptation. It wasn’t until I stood in front of the class, knees shaking and the flight or fight impulse activated, did I realize that I would have such a hard time convincing the class this movie’s structure in a minute.

How do you adapt a book that can’t be adapted? I can imagine Charlie Kaufman asking himself this question in real life when he was handed The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. Well, the end result was a movie about the adaptation of the book with all of the classic, stereotypical Hollywood themes throughout. 

This film seems to be a perfect case of Hollywood jumping the gun with optioning a successful book without a clue as to how to adapt or translate the material to the screen. Charlie Kaufman is played by Nicolas Cage who is just coming off his success with Being John Malkovich and under pressure from his agent and his producer to write his next big script. After reading and re-reading the book written by The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean, he is at an impasse. There is no narrative; no story.

Donald, Charlie’s brother also played by Cage, takes inspiration from Charlie and wants to write a screenplay himself inadvertently becoming Charlie’s counterpart and alternate personality. Slowly, things progress with Charlie as he and Donald investigate further into Susan’s life. Things become uncovered during this little investigation that lead to drugs, sex, and car chases–all default Hollywood thriller ploys.

What makes the film so well-written is that it shows the audience the writing of itself. There is a scene where Charlie has succumbed to going to a writing workshop for inspiration under the direction of Robert McKee of Story fame. In this scene, there is a voice over of Charlie beating himself up and berating his poor decision to attend–but in that moment McKee interrupts his thoughts with, “And god help you if you use voice over in your work, my friends.” It tells the viewer that you are watching a film about a film.

Everything Charlie writes into his screenplay winds up on the screen before you. You don’t realize it immediately as it is woven throughout the film, but everything he says, writes, is told becomes a reality in front of your eyes.

One portion of the film shows Charlie describing the origin of life and how people came to be. Earlier in the film, there are images of dinosaurs and a meteor destroying the earth just as described. However, how things are edited, the shots of the dinosaurs come much earlier not letting the viewer in on the secret quite yet.

Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper join Cage in this cast, and they are both extraordinary with Cooper taking home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He plays John Laroche, an orchid poacher arrested in Florida and put on trial–the original inspiration for the book. The two of them become entangled in an affair that reveals the real reason Laroche wants to poach these orchids: a rare drug that mirrors the effects of cocaine (which was all fictional additions to the story care of Kaufman).

When the real Susan Orlean first read the screenplay for the adaptation of her book, she was mortified and said it would ruin her career. She eventually came around to it realizing how well done it was, and now loves the film according to an interview she gave for GQ magazine in 2012.

This is one of the better films made about Hollywood. Other examples of good films are The Player and Swimming with Sharks, but they don’t really go into the writing of a film–and what fascinating characters the writers have to be in order to create a world from a piece of paper.

I recommend this film highly to anyone who gets the irony of Hollywood and enjoys it when it makes fun of itself. Adaptation did take home Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Chris Cooper and was nominated for three other categories including Best Supporting Actress (Streep), Best Actor (Cage) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Kaufman). But Charlie Kaufman (the real one) did take home the Best Adapted Screenplay BAFTA award.

5 out of 5 stars

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