Adaptation. is credited on page and screen to Charlie Kaufman and his fictional brother Donald Kaufman, whom Kaufman created for the purpose of the meta film (but both are credited for the screenplay). Originally based on Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, Kaufman inserted self-referential events into the narrative to explain how such an adaptation came to exist. Considerably the most interesting film adaptation, Adaptation. does feature elements from The Orchid Thief, but mostly tells the story of Kaufman attempting and failing to write the adaptation; said book is partially adapted in parallel with the main story of Kaufman’s process – Orlean’s non-fiction account was worked into a narrative by Kaufman, who presents it as having happened to the featured fictional version of Orlean, whom his own fictitious version meets to discuss the adaptation. Orlean and John Laroche, who Orlean featured in The Orchid Thief, were presented in Adaptation. as having a continued relationship after publication, which Orlean denied as having happened.
While Orlean was writing The Orchid Thief, Kaufman had already been attached to adapting it as a screenplay. Kaufman then developed writer’s block, finding its non-fictional format non-adaptable, and instead wrote a screenplay in-which a fictional version of himself if trying to adapt its own inspiration. By September 1999, Kaufman had written two drafts and submitted the third by November 2000. Kaufman said
The emotions that Charlie is going through are real and they reflect what I was going through when I was trying to write the script. Of course there are specific things that have been exaggerated or changed for cinematic purposes. Part of the experience of watching this movie is the experience of seeing that Donald Kaufman is credited as the co-screenwriter. It’s part of the movie, it’s part of the story.
The idea of how to write the film didn’t come to me until quite late. It was the only idea I had, I liked it, and I knew there was no way it would be approved if I pitched it. So I just wrote it and never told the people I was writing it for. I only told Spike Jonze, as we were making Being John Malkovich and he saw how frustrated I was.
Had he said I was crazy, I don’t know what I would have done. I really thought I was ending my career by turning that in!
Adaptation. then generated interested within the industry, prompting Kaufman to make revisions. The finished film also works as a commentary on the industry, with Donald suddenly deciding to write screenplays and succeeding immediately with his first draft of a psychological mystery thriller about a cop who’s looking for a serial killer created from his own, second personality. Donald’s spontaneous skill was acquired from Robert McKee‘s story lecture, which Charlie rejects due to it conflicting with his method in adapting The Orchid Thief. Industry buzz about Internet Game Network’s Scott Brake said
What’s great about Adaptation. is that, in large part, Kaufman is parodying his reputation as a writer of weird and off-beat material by writing the most weird and off-beat script imaginable. However, in the interest of giving you a sense of what this script is like, I am going to describe one very funny sequence. Charlie is being pressured by his agent, execs and everyone else to finish the script, and he reluctantly takes his brother’s advice and attends Robert McKee‘s screenwriting [sic] seminar. For those of you who don’t know, Robert McKee is pretty much the top “how to write a screenplay” seminar guy out there right now (he wrote a fascinating book on the subject called Story[: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting [sic]] that distilled his seminar material into book form).
Charlie goes to the seminar and sits there, as McKee describes exactly what not to do when writing a screenplay: Every one of which being something Charlie has used in both The Orchid Thief script he’s trying to write and the Adaptation. script that the reader is reading. It’s a complicated moment – funny, sad, and full of ambivalence about the Artistic versus the Commercial – and the screenplay pulls it off beautifully. It’s staggering, but the whole script manages to function on the level of that one scene. Admittedly, all of the stuff I’ve been praising about this script could, when looked at another way, seem as bad as it is good.
Does every script have to be this nutso [sic]; can’t the guy just tell a coherent story? I’m being facetious here, but the script is a real tightrope act, and it’s easy to imagine another reader finding the script (or the film that will surely be made from it) to be self-indulgent and empty (exactly what I, personally, found Being John Malkovich to be). A script like Adaptation. seems to be sort of like a Rorschach test. As he says on the script’s first page: “I am old. I am fat. I am bald. My toenails have turned strange. I am repulsive.”
Ain’t it Cool’s Drew “Moriarty” McWeeny held similar sentiments:
Adaptation[.] is not a good script. It’s not even a great script. It’s one of those rare reads that elevates the art of screenwriting [sic]. And as all this unfolds, we see Charlie Kaufman writing the script that we’re watching, discussing the decisions he’s making as he makes them.
Nicolas Cage is attached to star as Kaufman in the film, and the news floors me every time I flip through the script. The great thing about this script is that it doesn’t just give Cage one great role to play. On the script’s title page, it actually reads “ADAPTATION by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman“. Donald is an aspiring screenwriter, a faithful devotee of famed screenwriting [sic] guru Robert McKee, and he is staying with his more successful brother while he writes his serial killer thriller.
It’s Kaufman’s writing about love and the desire for love and the way attraction blossoms that gives the film a deep constant sadness that Being John Malkovich just began to hint at. And all of this is wrapped around a dissection of the very idea of structure in screenplays, the notion of the three-act model. By using the teachings of Robert McKee as the subject of scorn through most of the script, Kaufman mocks the sort of development speak that drives writers crazy. Charlie is changed by the encounter, not just as a writer, but as a person.
There are times when I build warnings into these script reviews, possible pitfalls to avoid, but there’s nothing that I would be able to tell Jonze, Kaufman, or their talented cast that they don’t already know. This is that rare script that doesn’t just promise to be a good film. This is one of those liberating experiences that is going to change the way a lot of people think about the art of writing for the screen.
Adaptation. was released 6 December 2002. The screenplay’s now available to read from Internet Movie Database.