Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Adaptation is kind of like a wonderful mixture of a Woody Allen movie and a Philip Roth novel. We're invited to laugh at the neurosis of an inadequate man, but at the same time the film plays with form, identity and the very nature of writing – there's a lot of stuff going on in the film, but Jonze and Kaufman walk the tightrope perfectly.

Right from the opening voice-over I knew I was going to enjoy the movie, but it wasn't until the final third that I knew I was going to love it. This realisation came when Donald Kaufman, the mainstream, Hollywood alter-ego of Charlie, reads Susan Orlean's (Meryl Streep) computer screen from a great distance via a pair of binoculars. He reads the flight that she's taking and even interprets a phone call she makes, telling his brother: 'That was no parent phone call, my friend.' Suddenly your mind is cast back to the opening scene when Charlie tells a Hollywood producer about his plans for his screen adaptation of Susan Orlean's book. He says he doesn't want to make it into a drug movie, or a love story, or have car chases, or have the characters learn profound life lessons. But when Donald starts spouting his clichéd dialogue you finally realise that all these things are going to come true. And they're going to come true because Charlie has finally given up. He can't finish the script. So after Charlie's thoughtful, neurotic beginning, you get Donald's Hollywood ending, one where the characters snort drugs, have sex, fall in love, crash cars and suddenly get eaten by alligators. Which poses the question – is it possible to avoid the pitfalls of traditional storytelling?

Adaptation certainly has great fun illustrating how difficult it is to overcome the familiar crutches. Right from the beginning you have producers giving their two cents and then you even have sex-obsessed agents sharing their views. How are you supposed to write a simple story about flowers when you have to compete with this? And then Charlie also has his twin brother to worry about, a man who attends screen writing classes and who writes a ridiculous script that has Charlie's sex-obsessed agent foaming at the mouth over. People just don't appreciate originality or anything that strays from the norm.

But I think it says something about the film when this relationship is treated with great affection. It would be pretty easy to have Donald be the subject of intellectual ridicule, but instead he's treated with gentle exasperation. And it's also interesting that even in the terribly hackneyed scenes at the end that the film achieves a certain pathos. Indeed, the clichéd character revelations that take place in the swamp, while knowingly silly, also highlight the benefits of this type of storytelling. Yes, we know that it's hardly the time be getting touchy feely – they're in a swamp being chased by people with guns for god's sake – but we still can't help but react. And even the 'Don't go to sleep' scene works.

Another element of the film that is rather sweet is Charlie's desire to stay true to the novel he's adapting. All the time he tries his hardest to translate the novel to the screen, but he just can't make it work. And I love the scene where he talks to Susan's picture. It's a wonderfully gentle, heartfelt scene and I like the subtle way that Susan's picture changes to complement the dialogue Charlie hears in his head – he's so desperate not to disappoint her.

Other pleasures are a little more obvious. A fantastic bit of comedy occurs when Charlie imagines his producer (the gorgeous Tilda Swinton) reading his script and telling him he's a genius before having sex with him. Surely that's got to be every writer's fantasy – to have a beautiful woman compliment your work and nail you.

Another big laugh comes in the screen writing seminar Charlie attends. I just love the self-righteous indignation of Brian Cox's character, the way he screams with fury at the prospect of someone attempting to write a script where people don't change and nothing much happens. It's brilliant in the way that it mocks those people who say films have to stick to certain rules (no voice-over? What would Apocalypse Now be without it?) while both thumbing its nose at those conventions and adhering to them. Something else that cracked me up was Donald's description of an action scene in the thriller he's writing. He's describing it and you're laughing at the stupidity ('It's like technology versus horse') but then you realise it's exactly the same as the chase in True Lies. And if you're like me, you'll shamefully admit that you actually enjoyed that dumb scene.

But although there are plenty of belly laughs in the film (is it just me or is that Malkovich speech at the beginning bloody hilarious? I have no idea whether it's scripted or not – I kind of hope it isn't – but either way it's a rib-tickler), you also have quite a tender little story at its heart about a woman trying to find some sort of meaning in her life. By chasing this orchid she's trying to find that elusive happiness that we all seek – we all think that if we could have this one thing (and the thing is different for everyone) that we'd be content. But the truth is that reality and fantasy are very different – it's the chase, the adventure that makes life worthwhile. Of course, Charlie (and Donald) realise that this particular journey isn't enough to fill a movie, but it does help give it a wonderful flavour. And it also helps link the real Susan and Charlie together – neither really got what they wanted, but you feel the journey's made them wiser.

You Might Also Like


  1. Right, I remember really disliking this film...yep, just checked my netflix rating - I gave it 1 star. Yikes. But your review of it is lovely enough that I'm going to give it another chance :o)

  2. Yeah, definitely give it another chance. I think it's one of the best films of recent years.