To abuse a term popular among evolutionary biologists, “elegant simplicity” is well-deserved by director Spike Jonze’s wildly inventive dark comedy Adaptation (2002). The second in a series of four free screenings in the Penn Humanities Forum on adaptations in sciences and humanities, this film contemplates the process of its own creation, as well as its ability to adapt and survive in a constantly transforming industry.
In narrative, Adaptation lives up to simplicity. Finding his creative presence ignored on the set of Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) accepts an offer to write a screenplay for Susan Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) The Orchid Thief, a book about a rebellious horticulturalist named John LaRoche (Chris Cooper). The self-loathing perfectionist Charlie develops a maddening case of writer’s block. His mooching brother Donald (also played by Nicolas Cage) decides that he too wants to write screenplays, and borrows money for a master-class screenwriting seminar: one that promises cheap, in-and-out solutions to shaky plot development. Donald pulls his life together and writes a successful script, while his genius brother falls well behind his deadline. After breaking a taboo by referencing himself in the failing draft, Charlie desperately needs assistance.
Creating a film from a book of literature is a story simple enough to follow; however, Jonze’s execution evolves it into a creature of the exact opposite nature. Written as a semi-autobiographical tale of Charlie Kaufman–the actual writer responsible for films such as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind–the story comes from a screenwriter who writes himself into a screenplay, about his fictionalized self who writes himself into a screenplay, as he becomes frustrated over writing a film adaptation of a book. The Orchid Thief, by the way, is an extended version of Susan’s famous short article on the same subject. Charlie must figure out how to convert her adaptation into a visual experience, whereas Jonze must connect all of this action into what we see on the screen. What results is an obsessive, chaotic, and undeniably elegant complexity of a film that calls attention to both cinema’s dependence on adaptation and its ability to break away from it.
Introduced and discussed by Timothy Corrigan, a professor of English and Cinema Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Adaptation will screen at the International House on Wednesday, February 29th. Cinedelphia recently spoke with Professor Corrigan about the history of cinematic adaptation from literature, as well as this relationship’s affect on film culture.
CINEDELPHIA: Knowing that you’re a professor of literature, I’m interested in why you chose Adaptation, besides its name and the nature of its story, for the panel.
TIMOTHY CORRIGAN: Adaptations have been around since 1895, but they’ve been around in many different forms. There are adaptations of operas and video games, recently. The practice of adaptation has become, in many ways, a model and metaphor for so much that goes on in contemporary culture; in politics, music, social relationships. What I like about this film is that it opens up the topic of what an adaptation means, looks at the many directions it can go, and shows the kinds of lunacies it can generate. For me, the film becomes about adaptation in a larger cultural sense. It’s comedic and parodic, but big.
C: I think it’s interesting that it plays with the definition of adaptation as we would immediately think of it, in its Darwinian sense. Nature permeates the story entirely, and the two frequently become entwined. The film suggests that you can’t break the two definitions of adaptations apart.
TC: That’s in many ways what I mean about the film being big. It moves around the topic of adaptation, in many different directions, including those it moves in today. Beginning with the Darwinian notion of adaptation as a notion of progress, the film takes this topic and refocuses it on the textual drama: can Charlie adapt the story of The Orchid Thieves to the movies, which is already fraught with problems because normally adaptation is about adapting narratives or drama. So, here’s a new crisis that’s a textual one: how do you adapt a nonfiction work? Among other things, adaptation moves across the issue of relationships: how do you adapt to different relationships? In this, that old issue of fidelity comes up in a playfully serious way. And then it moves to an industrial level about the way in which adaptation in the movie industry is also a business issue: will he be able to get this story made into a Hollywood film? With this, you have those great scenes with his agent and his resistance to making a Hollywood film. I like the way that it begins in the most rudimentary way with adaptation as an evolutionary term, and then stretches it into adaptation as the textual, industrial, and emotional. But it manages to hold together.
C: I kept an eye on the technological and industrial aspects of adaptation, especially through Charlie’s brother Donald, who flies through the industry’s standards to success. I was thinking about the film’s conversation there, whether it is absolutely opposed to Hollywood’s adaptive structure, or if it tries mediating art film and Hollywood.
TC: I think that’s part of the great comedy of it, because you have Donald and Charlie who are two opposites. Charlie is holding on to and maintaining the art film tradition. He believes that one has to be faithful to an authentic experience, whereas Donald says this is a business, an industry. We have to follow the formulas. That’s the strange relationship between these brothers: one represents authenticity in art, and the other occupies a superficial world of formulas and economics. But in the end, Charlie gives up. After that crazy climatic sequence, he ends up saying this notion of authentic experience has to be adapted. And he gives up and creates the Hollywood film, which ironically is what Adaptation is. I think it’s constantly moving you in different directions, and suggesting the malleability of everything.
C: Charlie to me is an interesting contradiction, and this starts with the very idea of Nicolas Cage appearing on screen as both Charlie and Donald. It’s like a testament to the ability of cinema to adapt technologically, to even be able to produce that image. Charlie himself is a reference to film, not only with his doubled presence, but also as he switches from the creator of film into its spectator later. The climax that occurs happens when he watches action instead of writing it.
TC: And of course, it begins with Charlie in this meta-cinematic moment on the set of Being John Malkovich. It really folds in the real person Charlie Kaufman into this fictionalized version of his world. In the end, I think all of his anxiety over preserving integrity and authenticity goes out the window, because he just has to adapt to survive. In a way it becomes a Darwinian plot in the end, too. Not about just surviving physically, which is of course why so much action takes place in a swamp, which is bizarrely appropriate. He needs to survive as a screenwriter, he needs to give it up and adapt.
C: Having much of the film set in nature, in the most primordial and primitive environment of survival, had me thinking about the relationship LaRoche makes between insects and orchids. He says they never actually know they have an intimate relationship, but depend on each other entirely for survival.
TC: I had never thought about that, but it’s absolutely right, and it certainly says something about the adaptation that continues to feed the film industry.
C: And the way this film is made speaks to the technological nature, like how it plays with the voiceover as a tool of both novels and movies, or its treatment of time, through which we can collapse all of human evolution into a visual reenactment.
TC: It plays with the whole materiality that describes adaptations. It’s not simply some sort of abstract textual adaptation. It’s about putting words into images: what happens when one does that? It transforms its meaning; that’s part of the adaptation process. It says new technologies will transform previous material into another reality. It’s a film that I think wonderfully and constantly highlights the material process of adaptation as a technological process, but also always as a physical process. Adaptation is not just about how we get the story from book to screen. It becomes about drugs, getting addicted to material things; flowers; sex, even crocodiles living in swamps. But then this physical and technological drama of adaptation makes the film such a comedy. Even in the dramatic parts, there’s something bizarrely comic about it.
C: The ending is entirely unexpected. It comes when he makes a shift from a creator into a film spectator, and then everything is completely exaggerated.
TC: It becomes the Hollywood film that he said he was never going to make. And that almost becomes animated itself, which is simply another kind of material, technological, physical and bizarre form of adaptation.
Adaptation will screen on Wednesday, February 29th at 7:00pm at the International House. Admission is free and open to the public.
Upcoming screenings from the Penn Humanities Forum at the International House:
WED March 21, 7:00 PM
Le Million (1931)
Dir. Rene Clair, France, 81 min, digital
Intro and discussion with Carolyn Abbate, Music, University of Pennsylvania.
WED March 28, 7:00 PM
Films by Ken Jacobs
Intro and discussion with Charles Bernstein, English, University of Pennsylvania, and Ken Jacobs, Filmmaker.