Posted by: ckckred | August 29, 2012

Adaptation: Another Great Charlie Kaufman Film

Second in my Charlie Kaufman marathon is a film about the making of itself

Adaptation is as great as Charlie Kaufman’s last collaboration with director Spike Jonze Being John Malkovich, being just as imaginative and even more peculiar.  The film leaves you pondering at the end, wondering about the story and the characters in it.  Adaptation is an extension of Kaufman’s brilliance and one of the best films to come out this millennium.

The film is about itself… sort of.  The beginning of the movie takes place during the filming of Being John Malkovich where we see Charlie Kaufman (not played by the actual Kaufman but by Nicholas Cage), who is lonely and gloomy.  He isn’t even recognized on the set.  Charlie is asked to adapt The Orchid Thief, a real life book based on an article in The New Yorker, into a film.  The real problem is that The Orchid Thief is really only flowers with a description of what author Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) was doing down in Florida.  Charlie states this is an impossible task to adapt, and tries to figure out a way to do so.

Charlie has a twin brother named Donald (also played by Nicholas Cage), who is working on a script for a grade B thriller about a cop and a woman who are actually the same person due to multiple personality disorder.  There actually is no real Donald Kaufman, even though he’s credited for the screenplay as well as Charlie, but his character is vital to the film’s success.  As first I believed Donald is added for comic relief but really is a contrast to Charlie.  Where Charlie is sad Donald is giddy.  When Charlie is too nervous to talk to women Donald flirts with any woman he sees.

The other side of the story is about the novel itself.  Susan goes down to the Florida Everglades to write an article on John Laroche (Chris Cooper, who won an Oscar for his role), a man who will do anything to get orchids.  Since orchids are protected by the national parks in Florida, Laroche uses Native Americans to pick the flowers, stating that since it was their ancestral lands they have a right to pick them.

Adaptation is what I like to call a dramedy: a drama with bits of comedy in it.  There’s a lot of humor added to the movie (my favorite scene is where Charlie explains to Donald that there can’t be two characters playing the same role), but its overall a character study.  Both Charlie and Susan aren’t too different from John Cusack’s sad sack character Craig Schwartz from Being John Malkovich.  Like Craig, Charlie is lonely and looking for hope.  And Susan falls in love with Laroche when she’s still married, just like the plot from Being John Malkovich.

Though Nicholas Cage has starred in many bad films through the last decade, I do believe he actually is a very good actor who can be great if he’s given the right material.  In Adaptation he’s at his absolute best and gives a terrific performance as both Charlie and Donald Kaufman.  It may seem like a bad joke to have an actor play two different roles in the same film, it can work if you have the right actor doing it (Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove is a good example).  Nicholas Cage helps us understand the characters of Charlie and Donald and also supplies much of the film’s humor.

And even though I think Meryl Streep is overrated by many, her performance as Orlean is very good.  But it’s Chris Cooper who really steals the show as Laroche. Much of the film’s humor comes from him as he discusses how he keeps changing hobbies.  But we also learn more about him as we discover he feels responsible for the death of his mother.

The script, like Charlie Kaufman’s other works, is top-notch.  Unlike Being John MalkovichAdaptation isn’t made up of multiple ideas but just on actual reality.  I don’t know how much of Adaption was actually true (I stayed until the end of the credits where it said “based on true events but some characters and parts are fictitious”). The idea of the story sounds a bit lazy, but watching the movie shows you how much detail and effort went into making the script.

Spike Jonze successfully translates Kaufman’s script to the screen.  I always feel that Jonze is often ignored as a director, as he used to make music videos before.  Without Jonze at the camera I can’t really imagine what this film would have been like.

Adaptation is one of the most imaginative and innovative films ever made.  It’s completely engaging and really makes you think and care for the characters.  It probably isn’t in everyone’s taste, but is rewarding if you do love it.



  1. Nice review. I have to ask: did you like Being John Malkovich or Adaptation better?

    • Hmmmm, this is a tough one. I might lean towards Being John Malkovich since it was a little more enjoyable, but I may change my mind. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Great review. I watched this film for the first time back in February and really enjoyed it. Someone who hasn’t seen the film probably knows Nicolas Cage for his poor acting and terribly chosen projects would just jump to the conclusion that Spike Jonze only cast him because at the time, Cage was his cousin-in-law (that was about a year or so before he filed for divorce from Sofia Coppola), but clearly that’s not the case. His dual role is great. I also loved Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper in their roles. In Kaufman’s screenplay, however, what I loved most about the film was how wonderfully dramatic irony was used and just how wonderful the writing was, albeit confusing in some idealistic senses. I was absolutely shocked to discover that Donald Kaufman actually does not exist. Not only was he (his character) credited as co-writer alongside Charlie Kaufman, his character was so grandiosely and intensely devised–just about as much as the actual Charlie Kaufman, for that matter–that he’s just about as convincing to reality as Citizen Kane was.

    Here’s the rest of my thoughts:

    • Thanks. I actually think Nicholas Cage is a great actor, or at least once was anyway. He’s been in plenty of great films, like the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona and Leaving Las Vegas, but has sadly wasted his career making forgettable junk. I absolutely loved his dual role as both Charlie and Donald Kaufman (I learned before that Donald is fictitious, but I wouldn’t have guessed either), and his use in the film. The scene where Charlie breaks down that a character cannot play two different role made me laugh really, really hard.

      I knew that Spike Jonze was Francis Coppola’s former son-in-law after reading an article explaining how Charlie Kaufman sent his script of Being John Malkovich to Coppola who gave it to Jonze. Jonze is a fantastic and pretty underrated director in my opinion, and I heard he’s working on a new film with Kaufman.

      I’ve never been a Meryl Streep fan, but I did enjoy her in the film. Chris Cooper though stole the show and gave a terrific performance.

      Charlie Kaufman films tend to focus on gloomy characters and use humor to emphasize drama. Kaufman is my favorite screenwriter working right now, and I love his work. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Fantastic film! It’s great to see you highlighting Chris Cooper here as well, that man is so often overlooked and yet is a pretty awesome actor.
    Nice review 🙂

    • Thanks! Chris Cooper was great here. He deservingly won an Oscar for his work. Charlie Kaufman is such a great screenwriter.

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