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An Adaptation of Post-Modernism


I cannot do this. I am in over my head. I look at my notes and they are just a bunch of unrelated fragments, scribbles on a sheet of paper. How do I analyze a movie I do not understand? How do I use theory to explain a movie that offers no explanation? Why did I put this off? This is way past due. My entire college career could ride on this paper and I have no idea how to write it. I thought I was taking the easy way out. I love this movie. I have watched it a thousand times. It should be a cinch to write. How do I write a paper about a movie about writing a movie about flowers? I am not sure the idea even makes sense. I cannot do this. I am in over my head.

I am hungry. Maybe I should get something to eat. No, I should write something first, then reward myself with a snack. I am tired. Maybe I will take a nap. No, I can do this. I just have to start writing and it will all come to me. I have to start with the theme. What is the theme of this movie? I need a thesis. This is impossible. How do I boil down a movie this complicated into one all-encompassing statement? I cannot do it. It would be cliché. It would be an insult to Kaufman. He said so himself, “Anybody who says he’s got ‘the answer’ is going to attract desperate people” (Kaufman 19).

Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman, is a film about life. It is a film about flowers. It is a film about life as told by flowers. It is a film about how life cannot be boiled down into one all-encompassing, clichéd metaphor, but at the same time it can. Life is change. Life is adaptation. Life is all of these things at the same time, and that is what makes life beautiful.

Adaptation is a post-modern film that shows through ironic interfacing that every individual is essentially the same person, made different only through adaptation. We are all humans. Kaufman shows this through three different relationships: the relationship between Charlie and Donald Kaufman, the relationship between Susan Orlean and John Laroche, and the relationship between the viewer and the movie itself. Kaufman shows how each of these relationships is essentially the same and in turn, that each part of each relationship relies on the other. Just as each orchid has its specific eccentricities, every human is eccentric, and these eccentricities are what ensure our survival.

Thomas Schatz proposes that Woody Allen’s film, Annie Hall, “immediately establishes [a] self-referential stance” that cues the spectator “to read the narrative as something other than a sequential development toward some transcendent truth” (Schatz 183). Jonze uses the same principle in Adaptation. The film opens with a blank screen, accompanied by the voice of Charlie Kaufman, the writer of the film, played by Nicholas Cage whose identity is revealed immediately following the voice-over. This immediately cues the viewer to the fact that this is no ordinary film and that perhaps they should question the work of a “fat”, “bald”, “stupid” man (Kaufman 1). This voice-over subverts any narrative structure that follows, constantly reminding the viewer that he or she is not only watching a film, but the very film written by the protagonist, compelling him or her towards a more active viewing of the piece.

I need a break. I think it is time for a snack.

This “ironic interfacing of author/narrator/character” not only serves to “subvert the film/reality distinction” (Schatz 185), but also provides the link to the “various points of access” in this film that manipulate the “the traditional chronology of exposition-complication-resolution” (Schatz 181). These “various points of access” are comprised of the various relationships portrayed in the film, specifically the relationship between Charlie and Donald and the relationship between Susan and John. These characters make up what Barthes calls a “galaxy of signifiers” (qtd. in Schatz 181) that are the key to interpreting the meaning of both the “various points of access” and the “ironic interfacing of author/narrator/character.”

At the core of these “various points of access” is the relationship between the characters of Susan Orlean and John Laroche. Orlean is a writer for The New Yorker who sets out to write an article about John Laroche, a man recently put on trial for poaching orchids in a National Preserve. She arrives at the trial and begins her case study, seeing Laroche as nothing more than a subject worthy of examination. She looks down on him and his way of life and uses his eccentricity to create an exotic character that will engage her readers.
As she follows him in his constant quest for the next exotic orchid, their relationship changes. Her article gets published and she decides to make it into a book. As she looks for more material for her book, she becomes fascinated by this man and his passion for orchids. “Orlean looks at Laroche, then deeply into various flowers: a dizzying array of colors and shapes. She remains detached and scribbles on her pad: ‘Is this guy more alive than I am?’” (Kaufman 44).

Laroche is extremely passionate about the orchids. He talks about them as if they are human, but more than that, he talks as if they are part of some great key to the universe.

So [the insect’s] attracted to the flower, like a lover. Think about it. The insect has no choice but to make love to that flower. The flower insists. And this attraction, this passion, is so much larger than either of them. Neither understands the significance of this interaction. But because of it, the world lives (Kaufman 43).

For Laroche, the orchid is the key to the universe, his universe. It is what drives him, what keeps him going, what he wakes up for each morning. Because of it, he lives.

This fascination soon leads Susan to obsession. She cannot bring herself to be as passionate as John is of the orchid. She soon finds she is not passionate about anything. This haunts her. “I suppose I do have one unembarrassed passion […] I want to know how it feels to care about something passionately” (Kaufman 45). Her study of Laroche intensifies. She asks him to show her the ghost orchid. They get lost. She never sees it. “Life seemed to be filled with things that were just like the ghost orchid – wonderful to imagine and easy to fall in love with but a little fantastic and fleeting and out of reach” (Kaufman 60).

The relationship between Susan and John is paralleled in many ways by the relationship between Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Their relationship provides another point of access from which the viewer can derive the meaning of the “galaxy of signifiers.” These two characters supplement Susan and John’s characters, along with each small part of their individual subplot, to provide a central meaning for the film and a reason for the post-modern adaptation of Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief.

Charlie and Donald are identical twin brothers. They look exactly alike and are even played by the same actor, Nicholas Cage. Their personalities, however, could not be more different. Charlie is an introvert. He has trouble talking to attractive women and even meeting new people. He reads a lot and thrives on originality. Donald, on the other hand, is an extrovert. He has no trouble talking to anyone and has had many girlfriends. He rarely reads and does whatever pleases him, regardless of originality.

Charlie loathes Donald. He sees him as a parasite, leeching off of him and the rest of the world. Donald is a lesser being, one incapable of understanding the complicated world of the screenwriter. Charlie becomes annoyed as Donald follows him around, imitating everything he does. Donald decides to become a screenwriter, just like Charlie, but not just any screenwriter, a product of Robert McKee’s screenwriting seminar. “McKee is a former Fulbright scholar. Are you a former Fulbright scholar, Charles? […] Kaufman looks over at Donald’s repulsive girth” (Kaufman 20).

As Donald becomes more and more a part of his world, Charlie’s vindication soon becomes fascination. Donald gets along with everyone and everyone gets along with him. Soon after he starts tagging along with Charlie, he begins dating a makeup artist from the set of Charlie’s first movie, Being John Malkovich. Donald interacts with everyone on set, while Charlie just watches from the sidelines. Donald has a passion for life, and this fascinates him. It is a reluctant fascination, but a fascination nonetheless.

Donald finishes his script and asks Charlie to give it to his agent. The agent loves it. He says he can sell it for lots of money. Meanwhile, Charlie has yet to submit so much as a draft of his script. His fascination quickly turns to jealous obsession. He must finish his screenplay. He must prove he is the better screenwriter. He goes to New York to talk to Orlean and sees her on the elevator. He stands in silence, unable to bring himself to speak to her. He has failed. “Kaufman reads what he has written. He’s frustrated, hysterical. He paces, yanks the sheets from the bed, tries to tear them, swings them wildly, knocking over a bedside lamp and shattering the bulb” (Kaufman 81).

There is another relationship that parallels these two relationships that is not necessarily a part of the film. This relationship is a result of the self-reflexivity inherent in Kaufman’s screenplay. This relationship is between the viewer and the film itself. As the viewer becomes increasingly aware that the film he or she is watching is the same film that Nicholas Cage’s character is writing, he or she develops a relationship with the film similar to both the relationship Charlie develops with Donald and the one Susan develops with John.

Many viewers of this film do not understand it. It is complex, it contains flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, and it in no way follows the typical narrative form. As a result, many viewers dismiss it completely, saying that it makes no sense whatsoever, or that it is weird just for the sake of being weird. They do not understand it, so they hate it. It is a film that is inferior to the Oscar grandeur of movies such as Gladiator or Lord of the Rings. To them, it is nothing more than the ramblings of some fat, bald screenwriter who writes strange scripts.

I am a film major. I consider myself somewhat more educated in the ways of filmmaking than the average viewer. As a result, when I first saw this film, it fascinated me. Being aware of a few of the signifiers in the “galaxy of signifiers,” I knew that there was some deeper meaning to this film that I could not wrap my head around. I watched the film over and over again, trying desperately to understand everything that was going on. Finally, I decided to make it the subject of a formal analysis.

My fascination soon turned to obsession. I knew that passion was one of the central themes of this film, but I could not figure out what that meant. What was it about this passion that was worthy of an article, a book, and even a film? I watched it again and again. I found the original screenplay on the internet and read it, hoping for some answer that was left out of the movie. I found nothing. I brainstormed, I scribbled on paper, and I paced around the apartment. Nothing came to me. I failed.

The movie ends with Charlie finally giving up and calling Donald for help with the screenplay. Donald comes to New York and decides that the script cannot be finished unless Charlie meets Susan. They then embark on a journey to discover the truth behind Susan Orlean. Meanwhile, Susan is embarking on a journey of her own. She is seeking the truth behind John Laroche. She gives up on studying him and why he is so passionate about orchids and decides to just talk to him. She falls in love with him and his eccentricities.
With the help of Donald, Charlie discovers Susan’s secret relationship. He gains the courage to spy on Orlean and Laroche and gets caught in the process. John and Susan take him to the swamp to kill him so their secret will not get out. Donald saves him. As they sit behind a log, waiting for their would-be assassins to give up the hunt, Charlie finally talks to Donald. Charlie finally puts aside all his jealousy and hatred and admits he admires Donald. “I admire you, Donald, y’know? I spend my whole life paralyzed worrying about what people think of me and you – you’re just oblivious” (Kaufman 120). The brothers then make a run for it, only to end up in a car accident where Donald is flung from the car and dies. Susan and John then chase Charlie back into the swamp where John is eaten by an alligator.

This film is essentially about one relationship. At the core of it all is an orchid. This orchid must pollinate to survive. In order to pollinate, it changes, evolves, and adapts to its surroundings, resulting in many eccentric species of orchid. John Laroche becomes passionate about these eccentric species and studies them, adapting as he discovers the secret to their survival. His passion attracts Susan Orlean, who writes a book about it and begins to study him, adapting as she discovers how he can have so much passion. This book attracts Charlie Kaufman, who has been asked to adapt it into a screenplay. He sees the same passion in his brother, Donald, and as he gets to know Donald, he too changes. The central relationship through all of this is that of a scholar to his or her subject.

Eventually, each of the subjects dies off. The original orchid dies, as do the eccentric orchids. John dies, as does Donald. The scholars have all finally learned all they can from their subjects and have adapted their lives using what they learned. In the end, Charlie and Donald’s movies become one just as Susan and John’s lives become one. These two subplots also merge, ending the series of flashbacks. The film itself has adapted. Learning that each relationship is the same, the barriers are killed off one by one. In the original screenplay, even Susan dies, shooting herself with Laroche’s rifle (Kaufman 126). Eventually, all that is left is Charlie Kaufman, the author of the film, who now knows how to finish his film. He no longer needs Donald. Donald never existed anyway.

“How do I use theory to explain a movie that offers no explanation?” (Stay 1). These are the words of a Neanderthal. They are the words of a primitive man who has much to learn. Adaptation is a movie about theory. Because of its self-reflexivity, Adaptation constantly reminds the viewer that it is not only a movie, but a movie about creating the very movie he or she is watching. As Orlean creates a book about Laroche, she adapts. As Kaufman creates a screenplay about Orlean’s book, he adapts. Through the use of ironic interfacing of Kaufman the author, Kaufman the narrator, and Kaufman the character, the viewer is asked to create his or her own ideas about what this all means. Through the various points of access provided by the different relationships portrayed in the film, clues are given to help the viewer construct these ideas.

It does not matter what the movie is. It does not matter what the movie is about. Adaptation makes the case that the viewer should always be looking for meaning. The viewer should always be adapting according to the ideas he or she derives. Essentially, all movies are the same. They are all a look into the life of someone else. It does not matter if the movie is a cliché thriller. It does not matter if the movie is an intellectual brain bender. What matters is that the viewer takes the time to ask what is valuable about each of these lives portrayed and adapts his or her life accordingly. Kaufman writes, “I think [writing] can touch people. Like if it expresses how it is to be lonely, that helps other people feel not so lonely, maybe” (Kaufman 125).

Even the most uneducated, inexperienced viewer can find meaning in this film if he or she takes the time to understand it. What this film asks is that we all be active viewers. It asks that we not dismiss a film simply because we do not understand it, just as people should not dismiss other people simply because they do not understand them. If the orchid gave up on insect pollination just because it did not understand the insect, there would not be so many beautiful, different types of orchids. If viewers gave up on watching films just because they did not understand the films, there would not be so many beautiful, different types of films.

I know how to end this analysis. It ends with me writing about how I know how to end my analysis. Adaptation is about life. Life is change. Life is adaptation. In the end, we are all the same person. It does not matter what we look like. It does not matter what kind of job we have. What matters is that we are always changing. What matters is that we are always learning. What matters is that we are always adapting.

Just as Kaufman states, “Anybody who says he’s got ‘the answer’ is going to attract desperate people” (Kaufman 19). There is no one answer to life. There is no one answer to anything. Why not spend your life finding all the answers you can. Take the time to get to know other people. Take the time to understand them. Take the time to live.

I fear I am starting to ramble, but is that not what this film is about? These people ramble on and on until they find meaning among their ramblings and publish them in the hope that someone else will also find meaning and form their own ramblings. Now I am really rambling. What is worse is that I have written myself into my own analysis. My High School English teacher would frown on that. She said to never use the personal voice in a formal essay. How could I do this without using the personal voice? Maybe I could make up a twin brother and write about him. Never mind, this feels right.

As the movie ends, the credits roll and I watch as my subject dwindles into nothingness. Just as the last credit rolls by, a final clue, a final piece of advice is offered on the screen,

We’re all one thing, Lieutenant. That’s what I’ve come to realize. Like cells in a body. ‘Cept we can’t see the body. The way fish can’t see the ocean. And so we envy each other. Hurt each other. Hate each other. How silly is that? A heart cell hating a lung cell. – Cassie from THE THREE (Kaufman 129).

These are words from Donald’s script, a script that does not exist, but that does not matter. Donald’s script is Charlie’s script. Donald is Charlie. Charlie is the viewer. I am Charlie. I am the viewer. I am done. I arise from my computer filled for the first time with hope. I like this. This is good.

Works Cited

Kaufman, Charlie and Donald. Adaptation. Nov. 2000. 14 June 2005.

Schatz, Thomas. “Annie Hall and the Issue of Modernism.” Literature/Film Quarterly X
(1982): 180-187.

Stay, Luke. “An Adaptation of Post-Modernism.” TMA 391 Final Papers June 2005: 1-