Charlie Kaufman and the Art of Adaptation

Adapting a novel into a film is a sensitive and hazardous process, especially if the novel already has garnered a following of avid readers. When adapting an already existing work the screenwriter may have the leisure of not having to come up with everything from scratch, but must also endure the added stress of wanting to do the source material justice and not fail the expectations of possibly millions of fans. In this article I will not be looking at adaptation through the lenses directed at massive international best-sellers such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, but will instead focus on a movie which more than any other facilitates a discussion around adaptation: Charlie Kaufman’s aptly titled Adaptation (2002), directed by Spike Jonze and starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Tilda Swinton and Chris Cooper.

The screenplay for Adaptation is based on the novel The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. The Orchid Thief was commissioned due to an article Susan Orlean wrote for The New Yorker about the orchid thief John Laroche, on trial for stealing rare and endangered orchids from the Floridian swamplands. Random House approached Orlean with the query of whether she would want to turn her article into a novel and Orlean was up to the challenge. Once she started to ponder how best to capture the inspiration she derived from the avid orchid collecting she came in contact with while researching her article, however, she realized it was going to be much more difficult than she had anticipated. The result is a novel lacking a red thread and a clear narrative in the traditional sense.

In part The Orchid Thief tells the story of a meeting between two people, in part it is a meditation on life and, for long passages, it becomes a factual text on the history of the orchid and on how the adoration of this plant, over the past two centuries, has been cultivated into an obsession within a community of devoted collectors. As the basis for a film this tangle of perspectives, with the addition of an absolute explosion of orchid centered information, would seem nigh on impossible to comb out into anything that resembles a functioning plot.

Kaufman makes the rather ingenious choice to write a movie about how one attempts to adapt a book that appears to be impossible to adapt, at least if said adaptation is to stay faithful to the source material. He makes himself into the main character, and mixes reality with fiction in a way that might have proven dizzying in its eccentricity, if not carried off with such a set plot core that is never allowed to spin out of control.

The main character Charlie offers the viewer a front row seat to a writer’s neurotic self-doubt, and in a refined way Kaufman finds a parallel between humans and the flowers, so vital to the novel, which his main character so desperately wants to honour in his screenplay. This lovely bit of insight into the process of adaptation, not to mention the screenwriting process itself, in combination with the storytelling perspective used makes this film into something truly out of the ordinary.


Book and Film: The Similarities

The Orchid Thief is a novel that is mainly concerned with the subject of orchids and the community of enthusiasts whose lives are entirely dedicated to the fascinating flower. The novel offers up an excess of information and history, which becomes a reflection on human behaviour and the lengths we go to in order to obtain what we desire.

The novel is written from a first person perspective as the journalist Susan Orlean based it on her own experience of researching her article for The New Yorker, and the impact it had on her life. Her relationship – or lack thereof – with the enigmatic John Laroche is designated to the backseat of the novel, but if one was to take stock of anything in the narrative when trying to turn book into film, this somewhat tentative friendship would be it. There is a tension between them as they are from completely different worlds and appear at first glance to be each others’ opposite, but Laroche is the reason Orlean uncovers or own joy of discovering, which makes her aware of something missing from her life that is hard for her to define. Kaufman picks up on this in the novel and makes it a neatly planted aspect of their subplot throughout Adaptation, the undercurrent of it being there in their first meeting at Laroche’s trial, in his quirky – but insightful – character and how it is becoming ever more apparent that Orlean is dissatisfied with her life.

The krux of the importance of the orchid as a major focus of the novel, and how the rather plotless weight of this will be handled in the film, is also established early on when Charlie, in the opening sequence, states to his producer that the book is about flowers and that is what he wants his screenplay to be about. Thus the flower is immediately made integral to the progression of the plot as it is part of the main character’s main goal.


Charlie and Donald: Indie versus Blockbuster

Charlie is quickly established as a man tormented by low self-esteem, self-loathing and an overbearing insecurity when it comes to women. He is also a dedicated artist who, because of his lack of confidence, has gotten stuck in the writing process and somewhere along the way has lost his voice. He knows what he wants his screenplay to say – but he doesn’t know how he’s going to make it say it. His lack of confidence, in this regard, can be traced to his strong opinions on what the writing process should be, which is organic and without relying on doctrine such as those suggested by screenwriting guru Robert McKee.

Charlie stresses that there are no guidelines and rules one should follow when one is striving to create something original, which is exactly what he feels under pressure to put out after his first screenplay Being John Malkovich has received acclaim by the audience and critics alike.

Charlie’s twin brother Donald, on the other hand, decides to become a screenwriter mostly on a whim. Spiritually and mentally he is Charlie’s opposite in every regard and, naturally, devours McKee’s screenwriting opus Story and sets to following McKee’s listed “principals” to the letter. His screenplay is therefore a commercial beast enslaved by the conventions of its genre. Charlie is abhorred, but gives sarcastic and tired advice whenever Donald seeks it – advice that show how Charlie, in spite of his averse, has an understanding of how a more commercially viable screenplay is structured. When Donald later sells his finished product one wonders if it might not even be thanks to Charlie’s unwilling guidance that he does so.

Charlie’s and Donald’s contrasting points of view can be interpreted as a representation of the discussion that has been held in relation to literature versus film ever since the movie first saw the light of day. Adaptation is, in and of itself, a reflection on adaptation as a process and highlights the difficulty a screenwriter is faced with when taking on the task of transforming a literary work into a visual one.

In his essay Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest, film theorist and critic André Bazin writes:

“[…] faithfulness to a form, literary or otherwise, is illusory: what matters is the equivalence of meaning of the forms.”

Bazin wishes to underline that what matters in the discussion around adaptation is not whether the contents is exactly the same: the words on the page precisely translated into an image on the screen; but rather that the meaning of the content is aptly interpreted: the girl feels lonely as she’s lost in thought walking home.

What the screenwriter and filmmaker strives for is to take the thoughts and emotions of the character, described through paragraphs in a book, and effectively promote the same emotion and evoke the same reaction with the viewer as was established in the reader by using well-chosen and edited together images. Where the differences of the medium come into play is the distilling of paragraphs into one strong image. The girl in the film might not “feel lonely as she’s lost in thought walking home”, but may instead be shown sitting in a park, alone on a bench, watching two children her own age playing and laughing together. This does not change the meaning of the content, but the content takes a new form since its message – the girl is lonely – needs a stronger visual image to be properly represented to the audience.

Charlie and Donald are a representation of the artistic versus the commercial, the original versus the conformed; but Adaptation doesn’t take sides, instead the progression of the plot becomes a pointed finger at the established core of critics saying that the commercial cannot also be artistic and that conformity cannot be the basis of originality.

Creating the Narrative Thread

In his quest to infuse his screenplay with the essence of The Orchid Thief, Charlie’s adaptation (and ultimately Kaufman’s own) becomes an original work, its own interpretation of the book where he manages to hit at the heart of the story – Orlean and Laroche – and take their relationship to a level it never reached in real life. Could it have? Was there attraction hidden beneath Orlean’s fascination with Laroche? Most probably not, but in the book it is the possibility of it that makes the passages dedicated to them into such an interesting read.

As already mentioned, Charlie begins his journey completely determined to keep his focus on the flowers. A film about flowers has never been done before, he insists, and it is something he is passionate about. In the opening dialogue with his producer he states:

“Okay. But, I’m saying, it’s like, I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases, you know… or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end, you know? I mean… The book isn’t like that, and life isn’t like that, you know, it just isn’t. And… I feel very strongly about this.”

But the more it dawns on him that he can’t seem to find the right way into the screenplay he so desperately wants to write, he slowly, but surely, begins to pay attention to Donald’s repetitive praise of McKee and his “principals”.

When Donald actually sells his script, Charlie gives in and goes to a screenwriting seminar hosted by McKee. When McKee says that one’s protagonist must have an expressed goal in order to exist, Charlie poses the question of how one, as a screenwriter, should approach ones idea if it is based on the main character not evolving, not learning any major lessons or going through any changes whatsoever – more like how it is in the real world. As a reply he gets this outburst from McKee:

“Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ’s sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life! And why the fuck are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don’t have any use for it! I don’t have any bloody use for it!”

This lecture shakes Charlie to his very core and he grabs McKee at the end of the seminar, asking to speak with him, stating that McKee’s words hit home with him probably a little harder than was intended as they weren’t simply attacking his choices as a storyteller, but his choices in life where he is stuck longing for a relationship, but cursed with a terrible sense of timing, causing him to miss or misinterpret every chance he gets.

Furthermore, McKee’s agitated outburst at Charlie’s question can also be seen as Kaufman’s way of expressing what he finds to be the most important part of a filmic narrative: a strong protagonist who faces a row of obstacles and are put through tough choices to reach a fixed goal. Charlie’s fixed goal is to write his screenplay. Through meeting McKee he gets the much needed answer to how he can reach this goal, but, of course, it is far from everything he is set to learn during his journey. And he has had a rather subtle helper right there with him every step of the way.

Donald as Doppelgänger

A doppelgänger is, in the more classic and folkloric use of the word, usually an evil creature who comes to turn its counterpart’s life upside down. However, in literature it can also act as a mirror image of what the main character needs to evolve into in order to become a whole person.

Donald is outgoing, optimistic and open to new experiences. He takes the day as it comes with the attitude that everything will work itself out for the best. He writes his screenplay, he gets himself a girlfriend and in doing all this he is an example of the mentality Charlie needs to possess if he wants to solve all of the problems he’s facing, the internal as well as the external.

After meeting McKee – where McKee tells Charlie ”Your characters must go through a change, and the change must come from them” – the plot takes a new turn as Charlie now actually starts to evolve toward a change.

Charlie’s involvement with Orlean, a person whom he has up until now been too intimidated to even speak to, also moves forward, much thanks to Donald, who is convinced there is something more to her relationship with Laroche than she is willing to admit. Donald’s conviction leads to the brothers following Orlean to Florida where they discover she is visiting Laroche. To Charlie’s horror, and Donald’s triumph, they discover that Laroche has been making a powerful drug by exploiting the flowers he claims to love, as well as being involved in an affair with Orlean, who knows about the drug scheme.

Charlie’s protestations to his producer in the quote from the opening sequence now becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as everything he didn’t want as a part of his screenplay and has been avoiding like the plague is introduced into the plot of his own story: drugs, sex, car chases and characters going through life-altering experiences in order to grow and change. Of course, the character growing and changing is him.

As the brothers escape a murderous Orlean and an equally dangerous Laroche, Charlie and Donald end up in an accident where Donald dies – another part of the conventions around the use of a doppelgänger as they are typically and symbolically sacrificed once they have served their purpose and helped their counterpart to awareness of their weaknesses and how to counterweight them.


Book and Film: The Differences

Charlie’s story obviously is not the same as the story of Susan Orlean. Charlie’s evolution as main character cannot be traced back to Orlean’s novel since there is no Charlie Kaufman present in those pages, but the theme of self-discovery is very much there. It is evident that the process of writing the book changed how Orlean perceived herself and she found herself wanting, more than anything, to be someone who passionately wants to care about something passionately, the way the collectors care about their orchids. In reality she doesn’t even know where to start. Charlie goes through a similar journey because even though he feels he knows what he wants, he cannot make it a reality without learning the lessons of finishing the screenplay to Adaptation.

The orchids, which Charlie so decidedly want to be a part of his story, are visually planted in his story through a sequence where Charlie brings the girl he’s secretly in love with – Amelia – to an orchid show. In voice over we hear Charlie name the flowers in Latin, a commentary which then flows into his longing observations of the women around him, who all seem so rare and precious and out of his reach. The film shows the external conflict for Charlie being the pressure to finish his script, while his internal conflict is his failure in love. The flowers, which in the novel express Orlean’s thirst for a true passion, in the film become symbolic of Charlie’s hidden feelings for Amelia.

My point with these examples is that, even though the screenplay diverts from the novel on almost every detail, it still captures the spirit of what Orlean wishes to communicate. The themes of the book are reflected throughout the script, and though Kaufman was more or less forced to invent his own red thread, the screenplay still shows respect for the source material, especially through Charlie’s unwillingness to allow the orchids to be forgotten or hidden away. The necessity for Kaufman to build his own story in order to capture the story of The Orchid Thief should not make his adaptation worth less, but instead his work should be judged on its own merits, rather than by comparing it to the original.

Film theorist Dudley Andrew writes in his article Adaptation:

“Adaptations claiming fidelity bear the original as a signified, when those inspired by or derived from an earlier text stand in a relation of referring to the original.”

The film Adaptation is, when looked at from Andrew’s point of view, a work of fiction inspired by an original. But is an adaptation not an original in and of itself when transferred from one medium to another?


In Conclusion

Regarding the critical discussion surrounding adaption I find it interesting that it hardly ever seems to be mentioned how practically every movie starts out as text on paper. A screenplay may not be prose, but it resembles poetry with its short, to-the-point sentences designed to hold the interest and create strong images in the mind of the reader. Why is this fact never considered in these debates? That all film is essentially an adaptation of a text.

As far as a great adaptation goes, I can only surmise that my personal experience when feeling let down by an adaptation of a written work I’ve loved has had to do with the parts they chose to skip or change for, to my mind, no good reason. They have taken away from, or completely changed, the feeling I was left with after being touched by the novel, and when that happens it usually won’t help watching the film a second time.

The debate of what is acceptable, appropriate or agreeable when it comes to adaptation will continue, though I am rather of the opinion that it’s hopeless. I choose to side with Bazin, who proclaims that literature and film are two separate mediums, in spite of their similarities, and they will always use different means to impart their stories. As such there is no point in trying to prove which medium tells a story in the most convincing way, what matters is that the story ”wows them in the end”.

This post is featured on, edited by James Curnow.

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Filed under English, Essays, Reviews and Analysis

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