English Title: Adaptation

Country of Origin: USA

Director: Spike Jonze

Producer(s): Edward Saxon, Vincent Landay, Jonathan Demme

Screenplay: Donald Kaufman, Charlie Kaufman

Cinematographer: Lance Acord

Art Director: Peter Andrus

Editor: Eric Zumbrunnen

Runtime: 110 minutes

Language: English

Starring/Cast: Tilda Swinton, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Nicholas Cage

Year: 2002

Volume: American - Independent

Charlie Kaufman is an anxiety-riddled screenwriter living with his twin brother Donald in Los Angeles. Accepting a commission to adapt Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, Charlie hopes to honour the work – based around a maverick Florida orchid hunter named John Laroche. Meanwhile, Donald – much to Charlie’s annoyance – starts work on a script of his own: a serial-killer story called The 3. As Charlie ploughs further into The Orchid Thief, we are introduced to ‘scenes’ from the book as New Yorker journalist Orlean (Meryl Streep) meets with Laroche and their relationship develops. Struggling with the adaptation, Charlie suddenly hits on the idea of including himself at the heart of the screenplay. Unable to find a way of ending the script, he decides to go to New York to meet with Orlean, but is too afraid to make contact. Calling upon Donald, who poses as Charlie to meet with Orlean, the twins follow her to Florida, where its becomes clear that – some three years after her book was published – she is still embroiled in an affair with Laroche. After they are discovered spying upon the couple at Laroche’s swamp-bound hideaway, a chase ensues that leaves both Donald and Laroche dead. Charlie returns to Los Angeles, finally able to finish his screenplay.

Spike Jonze’s second collaboration with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman begins on the set of their first film, Being John Malkovich (1999). Real-life crewmembers, including cinematographer Lance Acord, can be glimpsed as Malkovich instructs the crew to be brisk in their tasks. In the background is a neurotic-looking Kaufman – only it is not the real screenwriter but a wig-wearing Nicolas Cage. So begins one of the most brilliant films about writing a film. Like the Ouroboros, the symbolic snake that eats its own tail, which Charlie invokes when he hears about a plot-point in Donald’s script, Adaptation is a head-spinning work of self-reflexivity. Begun after the real-life Kaufman struggled to adapt Orlean’s non-fiction work, he solved the dilemma by dramatizing these difficulties – via an onscreen alter ego – and splicing them with extracts from the book. Invariably, in the film, Charlie reaches the same conclusion: that he can only crack Orlean’s work by including himself.


It means that the plot of Adaptation is actually the script ultimately written by Charlie.  Various events on screen – such as Charlie dictating into his recorder – are echoed as Charlie plots out his screenplay, one he hopes not to sully by using conventional Hollywood staples. ‘I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases or characters learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other,’ he says. The irony is that he is unable to end his screenplay – essentially the third act of Adaptation itself – any other way. As we see, a sex scene between Orlean and Laroche is followed by a shoot-out in the swamp, when Charlie is discovered spying on them, and a subsequent car-chase. Meanwhile, Charlie learns: ‘You are what you love, not what loves you.’ It is in these moments that Adaptation transcends its structural tricks. From Charlie and Donald’s tender final exchanges to Charlie’s love confession to Amelia, the girl he has mooned over for most of the film, the conclusion falls in line with another sage piece of advice given to Charlie: ‘Your characters must change but the change must come from them.’


As this hints, evolution (or adaptation, if you prefer) is the central theme of the film. From the bravura ‘evolutionary scale’ sequence at the outset to a flashback to Charles Darwin later on, Kaufman never lets us forget that in order to survive, we must adapt. Laroche, who even carries Darwin tapes in his van, has switched his attentions from tropical fish to orchids to the Internet in his time. By the end, Charlie has learnt to adapt, too – both in life and on the page. ‘I like this’, he concludes. ‘This is good.’  That the film does not feel, as Charlie puts it, ‘self-indulgent’, ‘narcissistic’ and ‘solipsistic’, is due in part to the performances. Cage’s bravura twin-turn draws sympathy for both the neurotic Charlie and over-confident Donald; the Oscar-winning Cooper vibrantly pays tribute to Laroche, while Streep – particularly when high on orchid extract – is delicious to watch. That we have got this far without mentioning Jonze is testament to how to graciously he allows the complex rhythms of Kaufman’s script to play out without ever intruding.

Author of this review: James Mottram