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Charlie Kaufman Can’t Write His Own Story

Identity Crisis and Mortality in Adaptation

“To begin… To begin… How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. OK, so I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana nut. That’s a good muffin.”

All beginnings are difficult, and the beginning of the screenplay based on Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief proves to be no exception. We can relate to that, as Charlie Kaufman is about to start on a screenplay belonging to a genre that is both very complex and very susceptible to negative criticism: the film adaptation. And just as any writer ponders upon the question of originality every now and then, Kaufman asks himself: “Do I have an original thought in my head?” In the possibility—or rather the impossibility—to answer this very question lies the Janus face of the film adaptation: “Yes” would imply the inability to write a proper adaptation faithful to the source, while “no” would deny the possibility to write altogether. The realm of the film adaptation is sealed off to anyone that seeks to enter it.

And Charlie Kaufman is desperately seeking entrance, so much so that, after producing a couple of unusable beginnings for the script—all appearing in the final movie—he decides to create a character who is writing the script for the adaptation of The Orchid Thief. The screenwriter’s name is Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage in an Oscar-nominated performance). This makes the screenplay written by a character in Adaptation an account of the creation of Adaptation. Yeah, my brain hurts too.

This self­-referencing allows us to see Charlie Kaufman discuss the plan to adapt The Orchid Thief with film executive Valerie Thomas (Tilda Swinton) who commends him on his inventive Being John Malkovich script and wants to hear his thoughts on Orlean’s book. Sweaty and nervous in a casual business lunch with a woman he finds attractive, Charlie mutters his way through a speech about keeping faithful to Orlean’s text when Valerie suggests he should write in Orlean and Laroche falling in love. “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…I feel very strongly about this.” It has to be simply about flowers. Or more accurately, it has to be about orchids: their beauty, their magic, and their propagation, their evolution, the process of adapting themselves to their environment. She concedes to the writer’s confused vision, and Charlie returns home to sit in front of his typewriter.

Charlie played by Nicolas Cage looks through books for inspiration

We meet Charlie’s twin brother Donald (also played by Cage) who lives with him out of financial necessity. In an attempt to get his life back on track, Donald has decided to become a screenwriter too and tells Charlie he’s started attending a screenwriting class with Robert McKee. Charlie immediately starts lecturing his brother on the uselessness of such classes, saying that “those teachers are dangerous if your goal is to do something new. And a writer should always have that goal. Writing is a journey into the unknown.”

This journey is also a quest in that it takes effort to determine in which direction to go: John Laroche (as part of the scenes from the book that mainly appear in the movie as unusable beginnings of the screenplay) considers evolution “a profound process. It means you figure out how to thrive in the world.” Kaufman hasn’t quite made it through this quest yet: one of the first scenes shows a tormented Kaufman while a commentary voice asks: “Why am I here? What am I doing here?” And just as this question is followed by a very short history of the world. We see Hollywood some forty billion years earlier. We see the earth covered in what might be burning lava. Something happens, the world changes, water enters the scene. Animal life is introduced, plants, dinosaurs. But then: a meteor hits, ice age kicks in. When the ice recedes, the world changes again, we see animals dying, their corpses turning into nutritious soil. Then a monkey, picking food from the ground with his one hand and standing on his hind legs and his other hand. But he erects himself onto his legs and walks away. Cities are covering the earth. The final shot is a close up of a baby being born. That’s why Charlie Kaufman is here. Orlean replies to Laroche’s celebration of evolution:

“Yeah, but it’s easier for plants. I mean, they have no memory, you know, they just move on to whatever is next. But a person, you know… Adapting is almost shameful, it’s like running away.”

And adaptation is the issue here. Kaufman should not forget that his journey into the unknown, his departure from Hollywood genres is constrained by the novel he is adapting. And he doesn’t forget; indeed he says to Valerie Thomas that he wants to remain true to the novel’s typical New Yorker style and its subject matter simply being orchids. But coupled with the absolute originality he strives for, this is quite problematic, so much so that he develops a serious writer’s block. He complains about this to his lady friend Amelia, to his brother, and pretty much to anyone who wants—or doesn’t want—to hear about it. After thirteen weeks he still hasn’t written a thing.

As Charlie bemoans his screenplay’s non-progress, he reads passages from The Orchid Thief in awe of their beauty, even as he struggles to imagine how such passages will play on film. We see them visualised in Charlie’s head—or perhaps Kaufman’s—as Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) engages Laroche (Chris Cooper) for a New Yorker interview and finds this unlikely man with no front teeth and a massive ego somehow oddly charming. Using this clever device, Kaufman’s script injects whole segments of Orlean’s book into Adaptation., wherein Orlean streams her thoughts on the beauty of orchids and perplexities of Laroche. But Kaufman does not stop there; he transforms Orlean and Laroche into characters who twist and turn in ways that would make McKee (and Valerie) proud.

Valerie and Susan Orlean talk about her book to film adaptation over dinner in a restaurant

When talking to his agent Marty, he complains about the lack of structure and narrative in the novel and wonders why he ever assumed he could write this script: “I should have stuck with my own stuff.” When Kaufman concludes that the book has no story, his agent suggests that he make one up as Kaufman is, after all, the king of “crazy stories.” But Kaufman replies: “I didn’t wanna do that this time. It’s someone else’s material. I have a responsibility to Susan…”

Charlie Kaufman is haunted by his past, his background in the Hollywood movie industry. And if we dare to debate about whether Donald is really an aspect of Charlie’s personality, we might indeed interpret Donald in this way: as Charlie to the extent that he is known for at least one Hollywood hit which creates a responsibility to deliver another great screenplay. That would mean that saying Charlie is being haunted by his past as a successful screenwriter amounts to saying that Charlie is being haunted by his alter­ ego, Donald.

This being haunted by “the industry” is further reinforced during Charlie’s meeting with his agent Marty. When Charlie asks him if he could get him released from the assignment, Marty answers that giving ‘them’ nothing after three months would be a, let’s say, less-than-brilliant career move. The triptych, then, can be considered as picturing Kaufman wanting to do something new, something that has never been done before (evolution). But he is constrained, by both the novel he is adapting (adaptation) and the filmic genres in which he—to some extent—still has to write.

When Kaufman seems unable to deal with his writer’s block on his own, he—somewhat reluctantly—turns to others for help. The first person he wants to talk to is Susan Orlean, but he is too shy to introduce himself to her when he runs into her in New York. Back in his hotel room, he talks to his agent over the phone. Marty is quite convinced that Donald’s script could make a big hit, and suggests to Kaufman that Donald might be able to offer some help in structuring the screenplay.

Charlie cannot pluck up the courage to speak to Orlean when they are in an elevator together

Donald flies over to New York, and at that moment the script takes an unexpected turn—which, of course, is reflected in the movie we are watching. Donald meets Susan in Charlie’s place, doesn’t believe her sincerity, and starts spying on her as a result. He finally convinces Charlie that they should follow Orlean on her trip to Miami where she’ll meet Laroche. And now you have your conventional Hollywood story that Charlie was aspiring not to write.

In following Orlean, they find a woman bored with her routine New York City intellectual circle. Orlean finds an escape through Laroche, who sees her as needy but doesn’t hesitate when the opportunity arises to sleep with her. Of course, Kaufman has introduced an affair to juice up his story, just as he presents a hilarious notion that Laroche harvests a rare Ghost Orchid for its hallucinogenic properties, or Laroche’s sudden interest in the lucrative internet pornography business. Charlie gets caught by Orlean and Laroche. Orlean (believes she) remembers him as the screenwriter she met in New York and freaks out, as she fears that her career as a respected journalist will be over once her secret drug addiction comes out. She sees no other option than to get Kaufman out of the way and she and Laroche drive him out to the swamp to kill him. Donald, however, manages to prevent this at the last moment and the two brothers start running through the swamp, pursued by Orlean and Laroche.

Laroche and Orlean find some rare orchids

Now while Charlie may say that he should have stuck with his own ideas, the real question is whether he really still had that choice after reading the novel. Wasn’t he already haunted by wanting passion to be the central concern of his adaptation before he even started talking to Valerie Thomas? However this may be, the movie begins with one of Charlie’s monologues in which his utter indecisiveness goes hand in hand with his self­loathing due to precisely this aspect of his personality. And precisely this indecisiveness also plays a part in the third aspect of the film: the responsibility that he feels towards Susan and her “typical New Yorker style.” Charlie seems to forget that taking responsibility is an act. He cannot simply “remain true” to Orleans style—or her subject matter for that matter; he cannot decide to focus on certain aspects of the novel while leaving out others.

When we shift focus, then, to the theme of evolution and the relationship between Charlie and Donald: Shortly after the brief overview of the history of the world, when Kaufman comes home and we meet Donald, we see him lying on the ground. He declares that his back hurts. Then, when he tells Charlie about the writing class and Charlie starts lecturing Donald, we see him enter Charlie’s room crawling on hands and knees. The attentive viewer might see some reference to the apes erecting themselves in the previous scene, which perhaps shows that Donald can be interpreted in terms of an evolutionary figure. And after multiple occasions in which Charlie criticises Donald who replies with a humble “Oh, OK, sorry…” Donald starts talking about being original within your genre, but instead of belittling his brother Charlie simply mumbles: “You and I share the same DNA…”

The ‘ape­-like’ Donald becomes Charlie’s equal: he’s evolved. And we have already seen that Donald’s development didn’t stop there. He delivers a winning screenplay and starts assisting his brother. Then, when the two brothers are hiding in the swamp, they start talking about when they were young. Charlie, still feeling that his brother is and always has been oblivious, recounts a high school episode in which Donald spoke to a pretty girl and walked away smiling when the girl started making fun of him. Charlie still supposes that Donald had no idea, but as a matter of fact, he did; he just didn’t care: “You are what you love. Not what loves you.” Charlie starts crying, not knowing how to thank his brother. In other words: the student has surpassed the teacher. Charlie doesn’t have to lecture Donald on life anymore; it’s the other way around.

Charlie and Donald Kaufman in a hotel room

This, in turn, sheds an interesting light on the third act. The process of adaptation again plays its role in this second chapter, but it differs significantly from its functioning in the first—which featured a troubled writer unable to organise his material and master his thoughts. The writer, as a subject aspiring for control and mastery, has disappeared. We see a fragmented self; a ‘Kaufman’ not unambiguously dividable into ‘Charlie’ and a ‘Donald’. This fragmented self does not have one but multiple agents who, to make matters even worse, can barely be considered in control as they are being haunted through both the swamp and the adaptation process.

The ending of the movie, seen in this light, is mesmerising. There is a chase, a sudden car crash in which Donald dies, and a tender moment when Charlie sings “So Happy Together” to his fading brother. This is, of course, intentionally blatant manipulation of the audience, and Kaufman’s tongue-in-cheek way of “wowing” us in the end. These final scenes commit all of those artistic crimes both Kaufman and Charlie were so determined to avoid, even if in this context they do not feel like conventions, but rather Kaufman illustrating how absurd such conventions are.

Laroche is taken down by a crocodile. Susan is crushed by his loss, which allows Charlie to escape. The last scene of the movie shows Charlie Kaufman driving out of a parking lot filled with hope because he knows how to end his script—which should feature Charlie Kaufman driving out of a parking lot filled with hope because he knows how to end his script. But where does the hope come from? He just lost what, in the reality of the movie, appeared to be his brother, and he is filled with hope? I would think that such a tragic loss would rob the world of its meaning, at least for a considerable amount of time. But Charlie is filled with hope.

Is this hope brought about precisely by the death of his brother? Or by Susan ceasing the chase? Or both? Did Charlie perhaps regain control? Did the death of his brother restore a sense of subjectivity, of mastery? But then what did he master? Has he finally found the Holy Grail? Is it genuinely becoming clear to him how he has to finish the movie? And if so, why should we assume that he will not get home and once again dismiss an insight he considered brilliant just a few minutes ago? If that was the case, would we not have seen this movie play out differently? As such a scenario would fundamentally alter the film due to its self­-referentiality. What are we to make of this in light of what we have seen so far?

Kaufman might have an ending for his script, but he does not have a script. The whole film is composed of false beginnings, ideas that Kaufman conjured up only to dismiss later on. He is not in charge of the film, and he has never been; the film befell him. The mastery that is supposedly restored by the death of his alter-ego is a mastery over nothing, and can therefore only be illusionary. He has never been able to stake out a position of his own at the expense of the ghosts that haunt him. On the contrary: what we see on screen is what it is precisely because of his failure to properly adapt the novel and to make a movie simply about flowers—or about having a passion for that matter, as his passion is to do a movie simply about flowers.

a ghost orchid

There is much to keep track of in Adaptation. Charlie and the process of writing a screenplay, Charlie’s failing personal life and interactions with Donald, sections from The Orchid Thief as read by Charlie and other passages read from Orlean’s perspective (as imagined and embellished by both Kaufman and Charlie), and visions of a potential film of The Orchid Thief conceived by Charlie.

All the while, we must be aware of Kaufman’s voice as he alternates between characters and points of view. As he does with Charlie, Kaufman’s frequent use of artistic characters see themselves clearly enough that, in their dissatisfaction, they create alternate and fantastic realities through their art. Kaufman created Charlie and Donald and their whimsical adventures in the third act; Charlie embraces those adventures in his own script after Donald’s death. In Being John Malkovich, Schwartz acts out his fantasies through his puppet theatre and by living in Malkovich’s head. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York recreates his entire life on a vast soundstage, accepting life’s lack of meaning only after it becomes an artistic creation. Still, Kaufman’s ongoing series of confessionals about the creative process—whether from the perspective of puppeteers or screenwriters or theatre directors or Darwinians—includes a combination of fiction and real life.

The title Adaptation, then, becomes an exceptionally loaded pun, referring to a) Kaufman’s process of reworking Orlean’s book into script form, b) the process of evolution to one’s surroundings that fascinates Orlean and Laroche, and c) a method through which Kaufman’s characters from Charlie to Orlean reshape their lives by putting themselves into something or someone else.

What remains so engaging about Adaptation. is how Kaufman incorporates the artistic ideals of both personalities, Charlie and Donald, into the overall film. And though Kaufman does use Donald’s Hollywood blueprints, they are used sardonically, if not facetiously, and never once does the film itself feel as though Kaufman has compromised his artistic integrity. As a result, Kaufman’s script comes from both identities, and so both Charlie Kaufman and his fictional brother Donald Kaufman received credit for the film’s screenplay. A product of fantasy, truth, reality, non-fiction, and sheer artistic bravado, this film is the resounding demonstration as to why Kaufman remains a singular auteur screenwriter whose inability to escape his own creative influence animates his work.


Written by Laura Stewart

Laura is the Assistant Editor-In-Chief, a Writer and Assistant to the Webmaster at 25YL. She has been part of the team since May 2017 when she began writing about her favourite TV show of all time: Twin Peaks. She currently oversees the Film, Music and Gaming Departments. 25YL is her passion project and is constantly delighted at how big and beautiful it has grown.

Laura lives by the sea in Gower, Wales, with her husband and very special little boy.

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