Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, 2002

  1. Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief is a deep look at a fascinating character, John Laroche, and also at Orlean’s own desire to understand where his deep passions come from. She draws parallels to Laroche’s home in Florida, examining her own time spent there on vacations in childhood, describing Florida itself as a sort of bizarre hothouse that grows strange beings who may not thrive – or survive – anywhere else. Ultimately Orlean’s work begins to drill down into the relationship between these two states: thriving and surviving. Laroche is fascinated by mutation; Orlean brings this up while addressing his own “mutation” – mutability, changeability, his own changing passions that arrive fully-formed and all-encompassing, and depart just as fully when he is done with them. What makes John Laroche survive, and what makes him thrive? What makes any of us do so?
  2. Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, from Charlie (and Donald!) Kaufman’s script, wants to ask some very big questions: where do art and passions come from? What do we gain by adaptation (film and personal)? How much are we influenced by the ideas and input of others? How, after all, does art survive…and how does it thrive? It doesn’t really answer a single one of those questions, but it certainly has a powerful conversation-starting potential. From the striking, almost uncomfortable beginning, Jonze’s visual and Kaufman’s  verbal cues let the audience know that this is no ordinary movie. For several minutes at the beginning, there is simply a black screen (echoes of Tristram Shandy), with nervous stream-of-consciousness voiceover from a character we soon learn is “Charlie Kaufman,” played by Nicholas Cage, who both is and is not the actual author of the film. The questions start early in this film, such as “What is even happening?” Yet the rapid pace and inventive camera work and plot structure reward questioning, even as the questions pile up too quickly to answer, leaving the audience caught up in the experience of asking.
  3. The black screen at the beginning of Adaptation is not the only thing the movie has in common with Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. Both films take an “unfilmable” book and distill the spirit of it without attempting a direct transfer from book to film. In his New Yorker review, David Denby writes, “‘Let it exist!’ Charlie shouts, in celebration of the book’s special tone.” The tone, the meandering thought-paths, the characters…these are the most endearing, enduring parts of Orlean’s book. To adapt tone, Kaufman and Jonze do near-alchemical work to create their own frenzied, close-examined, often absurd tone for the film. Critical response to this film varies widely on whether they succeeded; the transparency of the effort (the struggles behind literary adaptation) is notable regardless. Ultimately the film, especially focusing on the relationship between Charlie and Donald Kaufman, is memorable in the way Orlean’s work is memorable: as a meditation on the difference between surviving and thriving.
  4. “regarding: Adaptation” susanorlean.com Ongoing/2002-2003
    This portion of Susan Orlean’s website is managed by Jason Kottke, who designed Orlean’s main website as well. It is a treasure trove of reactions (Kottke’s and, sometimes, Orlean’s) to news about the film version.

    “Spike Jonze, Nicholas Cage, and Charlie Kaufman” AVClub.com, Dec. 4, 2002
    This interview with director, star, and writer is illuminating towards the creative process behind getting the film made, with some interesting words towards getting it promoted, as well.

    Adaptation and the Art of Survival” journal.media-culture.org.au, May 2007
    Sergio Rizzo’s analysis of Adaptation takes a fascinating look at the current studio “environment” and how the Darwinian definition of evolution and adaptation play into the ultimate ends of the film, making the argument that ultimately it is only Charlie Kaufman himself who truly thrives in this environment. Interesting parallels to the current film distribution technology environment when paired with observations about marketing in the AV Club interview listed above, as well.

    “Why a Remake of Slaughterhouse-Five Could Be Worthwhile” TheMovieNetwork.com, Aug. 11, 2014
    My inclusion of this article is mainly wishful thinking: the latest news I can find on this project is that Kaufman has “written a draft” of an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and that Guillermo del Toro is very interested in directing Kaufman’s script. The article has some notable things to say about the difficulty of literary adaptation, but mainly this is here for wish-fulfillment purposes!

  5. Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation takes Susan Orlean’s key examination in The Orchid Thief – what does it mean to thrive? – and applies it to the act of creating art as personified by Charlie Kaufman himself. In the film, Chris Cooper as John Laroche says, “Adaptation’s a profound process. It means you figure out how to thrive in the world” to Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean. Orlean tries to dig down to the root of Laroche’s passions with an eye to understanding her own, and Kaufman parallels her search by digging down to Orlean’s passions (somewhat literally, in the explosive “Hollywood ending” of the film) with an eye to understanding his own. By the end of the film, with Donald Kaufman and John Laroche both dead and Susan Orlean more or less ruined/forgotten/abandoned, Charlie Kaufman’s tale of “thriving” holds himself up as the survivor, the thriver, the one who wins through the harrowing adaptation process itself. The fact of the existence of the movie, the thing we the audience are watching, Kaufman’s creative act is validated and upheld: Orlean’s book still survives. His film survives. His act of adaptation – and Adaptation – personifies how the creation of art is one way humanity can thrive.


4 thoughts on “Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, 2002

  1. I enjoyed reading your critical analysis section. I liked how you pointed out how “the desire to thrive” is a central element of the story. I think that that point definitely makes it clear that one of the stories being told would not work without the other. The two stories run in parallel, enhancing each other as they both tackle similar themes.


  2. You hit the nail on the head with the thriving versus surviving theme present in both the book and the film! I more than agree with you, and found your argument very interesting and strong–I particularly enjoyed what you said about how in the end, it’s Charlie who survives when Laroche and Donald both die! Charlie thrives and survives in the end with his film–true adaptation.


  3. I’ve been eagerly awaiting that Kaufman/del Toro Slaughterhouse Five. It’s one of my favorite books, and Kaufman and del Toro are respectively among my favorite screenwriters and directors. 10/10. Joseph Byrne. ENGL329B.


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