I have no idea who Charlie Kaufman is. I’m aware that he’s a screenwriter, that for a while he was known mostly as “the Being John Malkovich guy”, that he’s forayed into directing, and that he’s the esteemed subject of this Writer Series (one lucky guy). I’ve seen his movies, read his scripts, watched his interviews. I’ve done all of that all over again. I could zip over to Almighty Wikipedia and tell you his middle name and age and birthplace and favorite Dr. Seuss book (probably Hop on Pop), but the point is that when the only access point to a person is their art, it’s difficult to say you really know that person at all. In much the same way that a picture of a person is not, in fact, the real person, poring over an artist’s work hardly gives any insight at all to what kind of person they really are.
…that’s the easy answer, at least, and it’s one of many possible answers to the fantastic knit ball of questions that is Kaufman’s second collaboration with director Spike Jonze. The beautiful, prismlike nature of Adaptation. really can’t be overstated: dynamic and poignant, sensible and absurd, heartbreakingly sad and riotously funny. It respects and follows a certain structure while simultaneously succeeding in not giving a single shit about structure, consequently managing to start at the literal beginning of time and nonetheless distilling those billions of years into a single keystroke.
That keystroke is Kaufman’s, and it’s both Kaufman the writer and Kaufman the character that Adaptation. begs us to focus on. The movie follows Charlie (Nicolas Cage) and his twin brother Donald (Nicolas Cage) as the former attempts to adapt the book The Orchid Thief for the screen. He has a few issues, which include writer’s block but also being fat, bald, and pathetic (his words). He wants to be true to the book, adapting what he deems to be a true-to-life story without any Hollywoodized sessions of spoonfeeding — no contrived romance, no serial killer, no multiple personality twists, and certainly no third-act deus ex machina — but he’s having trouble making The Orchid Thief interesting enough for a film treatment. It’s about flowers. Flowers suck.
Donald, meanwhile, the less successful of the Kaufmans (so “brother of the Being John Malkovich guy”), is attending writing seminars and working on his serial killer/multiple personality script The 3, packing it to the brim with just about every thriller cliché you care to name. The mere thought of The 3 drives Charlie nuts — it follows the rules, and Charlie knows that the worst thing a writer can possibly do is follow the rules. It’s a death sentence, at least in Charlie’s estimation, to be relegated to airport literature and a preordained genre. It also gets on Charlie’s nerves that Donald is a fun guy to be around, partying with people that used to be friends with Charlie, getting laid, getting noticed. Charlie’s not fun to be around, and he usually ditches parties in order to go worry about flowers.
Charlie can either write — truly write, not just follow the rules — or he can live life to the fullest like his twin. He can’t do both. There’s just not enough time, which is a sentiment that any writer can identify with: every moment spent writing may seem a missed moment in the real world, and vice versa. Kaufman stands in a long line of writers who’ve wrestled with the same obstacles. Kafka longed to be locked in a basement and have food left for him. Ozick, who might as well have been describing Kaufman writing himself into his Orchid Thief screenplay, once wrote “art is selfish”. Salinger, Pynchon, McCarthy, DeLillo, and a thousand other literary types absconded from society in order to fulfill their responsibility to their writing, and while Kaufman didn’t approach that extreme in Adaptation. his plight still explored the same ideas. Can you call that living? Don’t you need living in order to have something to write about?
Charlie fumbles around with this (and his fatness, baldness, patheticness) until Donald eventually convinces him to attend a creative writing seminar:
“Adaptation is a profound process,” says Chris Cooper’s John Laroche as he barrels down the highway in his rusted cargo van, “it means you figure out how to thrive in the world”. He’s talking about flowers, but he’s also talking about people. The Being John Malkovich guy found that process at the intersection of writing and living, and his character found an ending to his script and a beginning to a new life. Can we equate the character Charlie and the writer Kaufman? Maybe not. But if we dare assume anything about Kaufman based on Adaptation., it’s that he sees the value both in living life and inventing it.