In his 2002 “meta” biopic Adaptation, based loosely on the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman suggests the impossibility of faithful adaptation while presenting a possible alternative. The film follows Kaufman’s real-life struggles with adapting Orlean’s book, a creative nonfiction account of an eccentric orchid poacher. The film alternates between scenes of a neurotic Kaufman and his failures in writing a screenplay adaptation of The Orchid Thief and scenes taken directly from Orelan’s account. Eventually, in a twist that satirizes the conventions and tensions of the Hollywood movie, these narrative strains become messily entwined.
At its heart, Adaptation is a commentary on the process of remediation. Kaufman struggles to reconcile The Orchid Thief with the strictures and conventions of the boilerplate Hollywood narrative arc, repeatedly stressing how he wants to remain faithful to the spirit of the book by avoiding silver screen tropes such as a love story or action sequences:
Charlie Kaufman: I’m saying, it’s like, 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, you know.
However, these conventions prove inescapable. Charlie’s (fictional) twin brother, happier and less tortured by artistic impetus, serves as an advocate for Hollywood clichés, ultimately talking Charlie into including him in the project. In a recursive, “meta” stroke, once Donald has begun writing alongside Charlie, the film is transformed from a quirky art film to a hackneyed thriller replete with sordid affairs, chase sequences, and grisly murder.
The contrast between Charlie and Donald’s approaches to screenwriting suggest the impossibility of going against the conventions of the “destination” genre during the process of remediation. Linda Hutcheon observes that “linear realist novels, it would appear, are more easily adapted for the screen than experimental ones” (15), and Kaufman’s film acknowledges the difficulty of strictly faithful adaptations of unconventional works such as Beckett’s Endgame or Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. At the same time, the film presents a way forward, presenting as a model an “unfaithful” form of adaptation that might be considered more artistically genuine.
Kaufman’s approach to The Orchid Thief seems to imply that unconventional works require unconventional adaptations. Perceiving the discrepancy between the fitful narrative present in Orlean’s account and the demands of a big-budget Hollywood film, he purposely divides Adaptations into distinct sections: a darkly funny, “artistic” beginning reminiscent of Being John Malkovich and the conventional Hollywood thriller that concludes the film. Kaufman gestures overtly to this dichotomy—in one sequence, screenwriting guru Robert McKee gives advice to the Charlie Kaufman character: “I’ll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit. Find an ending, but don’t cheat, and don’t you dare bring in a deus ex machina. Your characters must change, and the change must come from them. Do that, and you’ll be fine.” Naturally enough, all of McKee’s prohibitions are broken in the film’s conclusion: in a deus ex machina, Kaufman is saved from certain death by a “swamp creature,” and Kaufman ignores McKee’s injunction never to use voiceovers. Yet this last act, in all its preposterous, satirical glory, shows both the impossibility of creating an unconventional Hollywood adaptation and one possible method of pulling it off. Although Adaptations has been accused of self-indulgence by some critics, its looping, recursive narrative ultimately allows it to address the themes of Orlean’s book, the conventions of the Hollywood blockbuster, and the tensions inherent in the fraught process of remediation.