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Film: Adaptation
Yes, the screenplay for this film is co-credited to a fictional character in the movie. A good warning for what is about to come...

Charlie: I've written myself into my screenplay.
Donald: That's kind of weird, huh?

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, fresh off the success of Being John Malkovich, had a problem. He'd been hired to adapt the Susan Orlean book The Orchid Thief, about her experiences with rare flower hunter John Laroche, into a film, only to find out it had no real story and was mostly about flowers. Going out of his mind with writer's block, he eventually went off the deep end and wrote a screenplay beginning with:

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, fresh off the success of Being John Malkovich, has a problem...

This only begins to touch upon the postmodern head trip that is Adaptation. This film functions both as a surprisingly effective film version of Orlean's book, with Meryl Streep as Orlean and Chris Cooper as Laroche (for which he won the 2002 Best Supporting Actor Oscar), retaining as much as possible the botanical and historical treatises on orchids; and as a layered deconstruction of the creative process, with neurotic intellectual Charlie (Nicolas Cage) and his tortured quest to write a movie where nothing happens, "like in real life", conflicting with his free-spirited twin Donald (oh yeah, Charlie Kaufman gave himself a twin brother also played by Nicolas Cage) who has written a trashy thriller full of car chases and murders - the exact kind of movie Charlie hates. But it's also increasingly the movie he's in after a meeting with screenwriting mentor Robert McKee inspires him to move the story steadily further away from reality.

All this plays against the raging existential crisis running incessantly through Charlie's mind. The theme of "adaptation" gains a triple meaning throughout the film, referring not only to Charlie's attempt to adapt Orleans' novel, but also to the evolutionary marvel of orchids, and also to Charlie's own attempt to evolve, to "learn how to live in the world".

This article is about the movie titled Adaptation. For adaptation-related tropes, see Derivative Works.


This movie provides examples of:

  • Acting for Two: Nicolas Cage plays Charlie and his twin brother Donald.
  • Adaptation Decay: Charlie's inability to adapt Orlean's story. The movie is unique in being about its own adaptation decay..
  • Auto Cannibalism: The modus operandi of the Serial Killer in Donald's script, The Three. He also dies from this as the villain and the leading lady are the same person.
  • The Cameo: John Malkovich appears as himself on the set of Being John Malkovich (Kaufman's previous movie where Malkovich played himself), along with several other cast members.
  • Creator Breakdown: Charlie goes through this, ultimately writing himself into the story.
  • Credits Gag: "Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman." The film is dedicated to Donald's memory as well. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, so Donald is possibly the only fictional character to receive any real-life awards nomination. (Donald's "picture" on the Oscarcast was a picture of Charlie reversed.)
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Charlie, rather frequently. We're even lucky enough to see what he's thinking..
  • Decon-Recon Switch: For movie clichés.
  • Defictionalization: There exists a movie called Thr3e that has a remarkably similar premise to Donald Kaufman's (fictional) script "The Three". (There's no chase scene with a horse and a motorcycle, though.) Amazingly enough, though, its similarity was entirely coincidental.
    • It's not all that surprising when you think of how bland and cliche Donald's story was, which the film was entirely aware of. Of course there would be several psychological thrillers using the same or very similar concept without the writers even having heard of Adaptation.
    • Identity has an extremely similar twist to The Three, with the added bonus that it has multiple serial killers, multiple cops, and multiple damsels in distress all running concurrently and on different levels of reality.
  • Despair Event Horizon: By the end of the film Susan Orlean regrets everything she's done her entire life.
  • Deus ex Machina: Charlie and Donald are saved from Orlean and Laroche by alligators appearing and attacking Laroche.
    • Also a late hung Chekhov's Gun as just before the third act where everything gets weird Charlie is told by screenwriting guru Robert McKee that Deus ex Machina is lazy writing.
      • The montage at the beginning showed two alligators in the swamp where Laroche is stealing orchids with the natives which could be taken as a Chekhov's Gun.
  • Fanservice: It's surprisingly abundant. There is a lot of toplessness (some of it coming from Meryl Streep of all people)
  • Fantastic Drug: Susan and Laroche are apparently hooked on a drug made from the Ghost Orchids.
  • Flip Flop of God: God in this case being Charlie, who says he'll never pack his screenplays with sex, drugs and violence...but just look at the third act of the film.
  • Genius Ditz: La Roche.
  • Genre Shift: Charlie asks Donald for help writing the film's ending...
  • Indecisive Deconstruction: The movie is this on purpose. First, it explicitly states all the tropes it's not going to use, and in the second half it gleefully goes all out in using them. Not for the art, but as a commentary about Executive Meddling.
  • Inner Monologue: Which disappears the moment Robert McKee says it's hackneyed.
  • Kavorka Man: Ron Livingston's character is an agent who isn't above using his job to score aspiring actresses. In conversation with Charlie he frequently breaks off in mid-sentence to mutter "Ooh, I fucked you in the ass!" at women passing in the background.
    • Donald is another example.
  • Lampshade Hanging: "And God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That's flaccid, sloppy writing."
    • It must be noted that in real life, Robery McKee says he allows voice over "despite what Charlie Kaufman tells you" as long as it does more than simply describe what's happening on the screen.
    • Charlie questions the logistics of Donald's script, asking "How could you have somebody held prisoner in a basement and... and working at a police station at the same time?", and Donald responds "trick photography": This is of course in a scene where two characters played by the same actor interact with each other.
  • Lovable Rogue: Laroche. The fictional version of him, at least. The real one actually organized that poaching operation to draw the authorities' attention to the legal loophole.
  • Meta Fiction
  • Mind Screw: Seriously. Just think about it for a minute, especially considering that most of this story is true.
  • Mood Whiplash: The final act, very intentionally so.
  • Never Smile at a Crocodile
  • Polar Opposite Twins: Donald and Charlie Kaufman
  • Postmodernism
  • Self-Insert Fic: Done professionally
  • Shadow Archetype: Donald functions as Charlie's Jungian Shadow, representing everything that he rejects about himself/his profession or doesn't want to become. And, true to Jung's idea, Charlie only grows as a person when he accepts that there are good things about Donald and learns from them after Donald's death.
  • Shaggy Dog Story: The Orchid Thief.
  • Split Personality: In The Three, the detective, killer and hostage all turn out to be the same person. However that's supposed to work.
  • Stylistic Suck: Donald's cliched thriller. Also, the entire final act; Charlie finally allows Donald to assist with the Orchid Thief script he's writing, thereby altering their own reality in the process.
  • Talking to Himself: Nicolas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman.
  • Title Drop: In Laroche's speech about evolution
  • Writers Suck: Kaufman's self deprecation is the major theme of this film, and this self-loathing persists until The Climax. At the same time, however, Kaufman (the real writer) uses his Author Avatar to capture the triumph and joy of the creative process, and the qualities that separate a talented writer from a hack like Donald.

About SchmidtFilms of 2000 - 2004 The Adventures of Pluto Nash
Ace in the HoleRoger Ebert Great Movies ListThe Adventures of Robin Hood

alternative title(s): Adaptation
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