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, had a problem..."
This only begins to touch upon the postmodern head trip that is Adaptation.note , a 2002 film directed by Spike Jonze that 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.
The film follows neurotic intellectual Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) and his tortured quest to write a movie where nothing happens, "like in real life", conflicting with his free-spirited twin Donald (a fictional character also played by Nicolas Cage) who has written a trashy thriller full of car chases and murders — the exact kind of movie Charlie hates. Unfortunately for him, it's also increasingly the movie he's in after a meeting with screenwriting mentor Robert McKee (Brian Cox) inspires him to move the story steadily further away from reality. All of 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 and "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:
- 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 a fictionalized version of himself), along with John Cusack and Catherine Keener also as themselves dressed in their respective characters (Craig and Maxine). The sets and costumes were recreated to where it almost appears as if this film was actually shot during principal photography of Being John Malkovich.
- Chekhov's Gun The montage at the beginning showed two alligators in the swamp where LaRoche is stealing orchids with the natives. They would later show up in the climax to save Charlie and Donald from LaRoche.
- 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..
- Death by Adaptation: As of 2020, John is still alive and well. He certainly wasnt eaten by an alligator.
- Decon-Recon Switch: For movie clichés. Turns out even trying to make a script/film "about nothing" requires a Necessary Weasel. McKee's "The Reason You Suck" Speech at Donald even lampshades how Reality Is Unrealistic. Or? at least, thats one interpretation. Another is that the first two-thirds deconstruct movie cliches, and the third act merely spoofs them.
- Despair Event Horizon: By the end of the film Susan Orlean regrets everything she's done her entire life.
- Deus ex Machina: Discussed and defied. Charlie and Donald are saved from Orlean and LaRoche by alligators appearing and attacking LaRoche. However, this use is really 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.
- 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.
- Genre Shift: Charlie asks Donald for help writing the film's ending...
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Susan Orlean and John LaRoche are both real people and the movie does function as an adaptation of Orleans' book The Orchid Thief...up until about the 3rd act, where Orlean and LaRoche are "revealed" to have actually gone on to form a relationship, become drug addicts (and implied drug dealers), and then try and murder the Kaufman brothers to cover up the fact. Also presumably applies to the Native Americans who 3rd act LaRoche is shown to have caught also snorting the orchid drug. The real Susan Orlean apparently was shocked at the direction they wanted to take the script, but relented and now loves the movie.
- To a lesser extent, screenwriting "guru" Robert McKee is portrayed as an over-the-top, dictatorial egomaniac who shouts and swears at the people in his seminar, especially if they ask what he considers stupid questions, and viciously rips into any trope he considers to be tripe or cliche and the writers who write them (that part isn't necessarily fictional, mind). They had to get the real McKee's permission to put him in the script, of course, and he had no problems with the portrayal (in fact, he even suggested Brian Cox for the part) after seeing the movie, especially since Kaufman is if anything even harder on himself. He does think the movie simplified what he actually teaches, but also doesn't mind that as it suited the story.
- "How I Wrote This Article" Article: The movie is essentially one of these in movie form, following the general pattern of a creator having writer's block and deciding to write about their writer's block instead.
- Inner Monologue: Which disappears the moment Robert McKee says it's hackneyed. It then reappears at the end, when Charlie can't think of another way to express his character (Charlie)'s thoughts and decides to hell what McKee thinks.
- 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.
- The Killer in Me: Spoofed. Donald's hackneyed script "The Three" has the twist that the killer, the detective, and the victim are all the same person. Charlie complains that it makes no sense, but it's a smash hit anyway.
- 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, Robert 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.
- Love Martyr: Charlie tells Donald his girlfriend was unfaithful when he wasn't around. Donald responds that he knew, but he loved her, and could not change that just because she didn't act like she loved him.
- Lucky Charms Title: The unconventional period at the end of the title.
- Mind Screw: Seriously. Just think about it for a minute, especially considering that most of this story is true.
- Though this depends a lot on your definition of "truth." See Mind Screw.
- Mood Whiplash: The final act, very intentionally so.
- Multi-Gendered Split Personalities: An in-universe example, in which Donald's inane psychological thriller screenplay The Thr3e ends with the reveal that the cop protagonist, the killer he is chasing after and the female victim the cop falls in love with are all the same person. Donald chooses to cheerfully ignore all of the Fridge Logic and plot holes created by this plot twist.
- Never Smile at a Crocodile
- Opening Monologue: The film opens with a black screen and Donald talking about his loser life for 90 seconds.
- Polar Opposite Twins: Donald and Charlie Kaufman.
- Postmodernism: The movie is an adaptation of The Orchid Thief, a book about poaching flowers, but it is also about Charlie figuring out a way to make a film adaptation of The Orchid Thief that could appeal to mainstream audiences while staying true to the source material. At the end, Charlie finally figures out a good way to actually adapt the novel.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: Charlie approaches adapting the book in every way possible, going to far as to open the story with the beginning of the universe... and still getting nowhere. The movie itself is Charlie's answer to adapting a book that could not possibly make for a good movie (at least without an amazing level of Adaptation Decay). The irony is that the film is able to cover all important details of The Orchid Thief through Charlie's obsession with the lack of any narrative, only going off on completely original material towards the end.
- "Reason You Suck" Speech: Charlie asks Robert McKee for advice on a screenplay where nothing happens. McKee epically shoots him down:Charlie Kaufman: Sir, what if the writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens? Where people don't change, they don't have any epiphanies, they struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the real world.Robert McKee: The real world?Charlie Kaufman: Yes, sir.Robert McKee: The real fucking world. First of all, you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis you'll bore your audience to tears. Secondly, 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 somebody else. Every fucking day someone somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ 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!Charlie Kaufman:...Okay, thanks.
- Reality Is Unrealistic: The crux of the above speech from McKee is that wildly dramatic and seemingly unrealistic things happen in the real world every day, and that realism shouldnt have to be boring.
- Self-Insert Fic: A more professional example than most.
- 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. At least, how much it sucks is based on Charlie's opinion of the material as described by Donald. 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.
- Surprise Car Crash: Chris Cooper's character retells the story of how he lost his front teeth. The flashback shows him in the process of backing out of the driveway when his station wagon is hit by a truck. His mother and uncle in the backseat are instantly dead.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Charlie gives a brief one to Susan after Donald dies and alligators kill LaRoche.
- 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.