Although authors in general have pretty interesting lives, the physical act of writing is not particularly cinematic. Numerous filmmakers have tried to put writing on screen, but more often than not their efforts resemble po-faced versions of Monty Python's writing sketch, in which Michael Palin commentates on Thomas Hardy beginning his latest novel to a soundtrack of hysterical football supporters.
Adaptation is among the more successful attempts to put pen to paper on the silver screen. The reputation that Charlie Kaufman has accrued over the last decade leads us to expect the very best, and his screenplay is refreshingly loopy and intelligent. But it is not an unqualified success, being neither as tolerably quirky as Being John Malkovich nor as accessible in terms of characters as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The first hurdle which Adaptation has to overcome is the dangers associated with being self-reflexive. There is a very thin line between being self-aware and self-obsessed, and the more one points out how much what we are seeing is a construct, the greater the risk of a film becoming more of an academic discussion than an exercise in drama.
There have been writers who have sought to deliberately exploit this alienating effect. Bertolt Brecht wrote plays whose characters constantly remind the audience that what they are seeing isn't real, so that they would ask deeper questions about the world around them. In a similar way, Kaufman wants to demonstrate the relationship between art and reality while giving the audience some form of artifice to pull them through. In wanting us to both unpick every line and enjoy the story in itself, he succeeds wholeheartedly on the first part and partially on the second.
Adaptation is really two films running side by side. One is about a screenwriter struggling to adapt The Orchid Thief, and the other is about Charlie Kaufman struggling to be Charlie Kaufman, who also happens to be adapting The Orchid Thief. The film mixes personal insight into Kaufman's condition with more general ideas and comments about writing. It's hard to tell whether the Charlie Kaufman on screen is Kaufman himself, or a subtly exaggerated version as in Being John Malkovich. But in the end there is enough in the way of drama to prevent us expending all our energies on such restrictive lines of inquiry.
With this double-barrelled structure in place, Adaptation can begin to explore a number of themes, all of which use writing as a metaphor for modern life. The first of these is the classic conflict between creativity and commercial success, something which has been previously explored in films like Barton Fink. But where the Coen Brothers explored this in a contrast between John Turturro's character and the industry oddballs surrounding him, Kaufman and Spike Jonze try something a lot more introspective.
Using seamless split-screen shooting, Jonze has Nicolas Cage playing both Charlie Kaufman and his fictional brother Donald. Charlie is the creative genius who believes in his principles and pushing the envelope of his art form - and who as a result is neurotic, depressed and exhausted. Donald, on the other hand, is a hack writer who is content to play the industry game and wants to be happy above everything else.
The conventional thing to do would be to wage war between the brothers with Charlie coming out on top in a definitive triumph of art over money. It's a corner that Kaufman is entitled to fight, but he knows that being a screenwriter is not that straightforward - and he knows that we know it too. Instead of being constantly at loggerheads, Charlie and Donald begin to take on each other's traits, from Donald using Charlie's facetious suggestion in his script to Charlie attending a Robert McKee seminar.
The point that Kaufman is trying to make is not simply the need to balance artistic purity with a sense of realism, but about how obsessing with one's art can lead one to lose sight of what really matters - the audience and happiness respectively. Charlie receives a drubbing from McKee for claiming that there can be no inspiration in ordinary life: in pursuing purity he has lost sight of whom he is serving as an artist. Donald is the device through which Charlie learns to adapt to the needs of the book, the needs of his audience and thereby to the needs in life in general.
Within this there is an existential comment about our perception and creation of personal realities. When asked by his agent what the problem with the book is, Charlie blurts out that it has no story, to which his agent calmly responds: "Make one up." In the absence of a defined progression from A to B in our lives - or at least, one that we can plainly perceive - we invent metanarratives and motivations for ourselves, if nothing else so that we don't have to spend all our time staring at a blank page.
Adaptation also refers to evolution, which plays out in great detail in one of Charlie's early drafts. There is a discussion as to whether such change is mandatory, and if it is, then whether the need to show anyone is also mandatory. Meryl Streep's character begins as a clearly-drawn journalist, but as the film moves on we see the various changes which have occurred and how she has attempted to conceal these adaptations. There is a comparison with her character in Plenty, insofar as both women have their lives changed by chance encounters with men and spent the remainder of their lives becoming slowly disillusioned by a world which does not accept their new ideals.
Some of you may have noticed that, in this review so far, I have devoted very little time to the director. That is less an indictment of Jonze's abilities than a reflection of the film's nature. Adaptation is a film in which the screenplay is the main player; it governs and determines everything, and Jonze's direction is appropriately understated to facilitate this. One could almost argue that Adaptation is the 8 1/2 of screenwriters, challenging both the auteur theory in which the director is king and audience perceptions that films are driven or dominated by actors.
But Jonze's stand-offish approach also hints at the flaws with Adaptation. Despite the best efforts of both writer and director, whole sections do feel academic, with too much voiceover and too little drama. There is an argument that this is deliberate on the part of Kaufman to show how we dramatize so much of our lives, writing ourselves into clichés and conventions. But this jars with the film's message that this is an inevitable process which should be accepted, and as the later work of Woody Allen shows, neurosis and self-hate are not enough on their own to pull us into a story.
On top of this, most of the characters are in one way or another very irritating. Nicolas Cage is very good as both Charlie and Donald, but you end up wanting to strangle the former for being so pathetic - particularly when he goes all the way to New York, stands in a lift with Meryl Streep and doesn't have the guts to speak to her. Streep starts off well, but eventually she becomes too showy and her breakdown seems overdone.
Then there is the group of New York intellectuals whose company Streep keeps; the dinner party sequence veers so close to the work of Noah Baumbach that had it gone on any longer, you would lose all patience with her character. The best performance by a mile is Chris Cooper, who genuinely inhabits John Laroche. You can almost smell the manky clothing and un-brushed teeth, and his rambling swathes of dialogue are both insightful and broadly comedic.
Adaptation is another intelligent effort from Kaufman which is partially hamstrung by its character construction and Jonze's unwillingness to be more commanding with his camera. The ideas which the film raises are fascinating, and even Kaufman at his weakest is more insightful and engaging than half the screenwriters working in Hollywood today. But ironically for a film about writing, it would have benefited most from a director willing to put his foot down and create something a little less didactic.