Saw Adaptation yesterday. This is an amazing movie. Multi-layered and turned in on itself, like a deck of cards made out of curled wood shavings, even the title is multivalent, referring both to the process of adapting a book to the screen, and adaptation in the Darwinian sense.
The movie tells the story of Charlie Kaufman’s efforts to adapt the book The Orchid Thief to the screen. Many of the characters in the movie are real-life people, behaving (we imagine) pretty much as they do in real life. Some are real-life people, but behaving (we imagine) very differently than they do in real life. And at least one major character, Donald Kaufman (Charlie’s identical twin brother, both played by Nicholas Cage) is completely fictional. It’s hard to know where reality ends and invention begins.
Although the movie winds up throwing off the Orchid Thief entirely, it manages to depict a fair amount of it, plus a fair amount of its writing by Susan Orlean, but ultimately of course is about the screenplay writing by Charlie Kaufman, who is the major character (who is obsessed with Susan Orlean, who is infatuated with John Laroche, the real-life figure at the center of Orchid Thief). And while Charlie is intensely absorbed with himself, hateful of himself, and paralyzed by both of these, Donald is all the things Charlie isn’t: oblivious, carefree, shallow, extroverted, forward-moving, but capable of occasional flashes of insight.
Donald is following his brother’s example by becoming a screenwriter, but follows a seminar’s recipe for genre writing and forges ahead, unreflectively (“My genre’s thriller. What’s yours?”). Charlie’s progress on the screenplay is thwarted by the lack of action in the story — while trying to carry over the book’s fascination with the wonder of flowers, he finds it’s hard to make a movie about flowers. He tries to re-focus it on Susan Orlean, but fails in that he is too awkward to even introduce himself to her. He becomes practically unglued when his brother’s screenplay (which was finished halfway through the film) gets an enthusiastic reception, and it is roughly at this point that the movie veers way out into left field, leaving behind Charlie’s constant inward obsessing for something else. As if Donald had hijacked Charlie’s typewriter. The movie shifts into high gear, clips along, and crashes to a halt. Charlie takes control of his typewriter back. Time lapse showing the wonder of flowers. The end.
In reality, Charlie Kaufman was the scriptwriter for Being John Malkovich (the shooting of which figures in Adaptation), and while the central conceit of BJM is whackier, the involuting and evoluting structure of Adaptation winds up being just as much fun, and perhaps more of a neat trick, intellectually speaking.