Fact vs. Fiction in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation

A writer’s take on Adaptation

To fully appreciate Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation (2002), consider the most crucial element of discerning fact from fiction: Donald Kaufman, though holding a screenwriting credit, is a fictional character.  Donald’s creation stands as Charlie Kaufman’s masterstroke.  It enhances our understanding of the film’s multi layered complexity.

Before getting to Donald, let’s envision the real-life Kaufman’s dilemma.

Picture him reading Susan Orlean’s 282 page dissertation on Orchid culture, “The Orchid Thief.”  John Laroche, the book’s namesake (and only protagonist) only inhabits the first and last chapters of the book, which sandwich Orlean’s bulky catalogues of other Orchid poachers, land swindlers, Florida landscapes, and Seminole Indian culture.  A pure discovery of artsy journalism, yes, but a Hollywood movie, well, that would require outside material.

Kaufman had to realize this after his first read-through.  So we wonder, to what extent did Charlie struggle choosing to write himself and Donald as characters in the script?  To be sure, he holds staying true to Orlean’s vision a chief priority.  In the opening dinner scene with Valerie, Kaufman also establishes his drive of originality and utter contempt for the usual Hollywood swill.  Creating Donald allows Charlie Kaufman to accomplish all of the above while upholding his artistry.

Donald represents Charlie’s foil.  He wants to become a screenwriter, but as a job solution, being unemployed and shacked up with his brother.  Donald pursues Hollywood convention such as serial killers with multiple personality disorder.  Charlie’s hilarious suggestion of “the deconstructionist” (a literature professor/serial killer), Donald takes seriously.  Donald borders on goofily complacent, while Charlie constantly hardens, serious and grave.

Physically speaking, Donald suffers from a back problem while Charlie bemoans his leg.  Donald often lies down back-to the-floor while Charlie stands or sits.  Not until the NY hotel room scenes do Charlie and Donald actually begin standing together at the same time.  Most notably among the many contrasts, Donald unashamedly celebrates himself while Charlie drowns in self loathing.  Overcoming that brings Charlie’s major character arc, the “profound life lesson” he previously thought himself above learning.  Thus Donald becomes the medium for Charlie’s script to flourish.

The yang to this equation, Charlie writing himself into the script, became a matter of slandering his own name as sexually frustrated and pathetic, a perfect setup for a character arc.  Kaufman has been married for several years prior to the film, which shows his distance to film Charlie; perhaps Adaptation privies the audience to the real Kaufman’s big life lesson of his bygone youth.  Adaptation’s brazen authorial overtones surely point toward the internalization of that struggle.  This past “journey into the unknown” leads inevitably to the interior being, as seen with Kaufman’s male protagonists in Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine.

Foils in hand, Charlie finds the story worth telling: a story of true adaptation.  Donald’s script does adapt, or evolve, into something finished that Marty (C’s agent) praises, two points of failing for Charlie, effectively bringing about his mental collapse, perseverance, and then salvation.  Donald’s death, though painful, becomes cathartic in the end for Charlie, our reluctant protagonist.  Charlie’s journey unites the film’s zigzagging structure, bouncing between Orlean, LaRoche, and Kaufman, amounting to a deeply satisfying examination of passion and change.

Donald’s representation of the typical Hollywood writer/movie also lets Charlie off the hook for writing a Hollywood ending, one so purposefully bad the examples are nearly endless.  In effect Charlie can blame Donald and save his reputation.  His character acknowledges this directly; before going to meet Orlean, Charlie warns Donald, “I have a reputation to maintain.”  Further along, Orlean decides on a whim to kill Charlie in order to save hers.  The ending plot sequence becomes so typically Hollywood that no serious writer wants credit for it.

The examples of Donald taking over pile up.  Charlie’s breakdown forces submission unto Robert McKee, Donald’s hero.  Donald investigates LaRoche’s porn site to find some conveniently raunchy material, a naked Orlean.  While spying from a hallway window (one of the many random, improbable locations), Donald prods Charlie, saying that Orlean is “up to something…isn’t she?” asking, or rather telling Charlie to pursue this sensational new angle to the story.  Charlie owns the “morally reprehensible” quality yet submits to Donald.

Adaptation’s satire shines in the closing sequence’s absurdity.  Charlie and Donald easily follow Orlean from New York to getting picked up outside the Miami airport, no problem. Charlie has accepted the ridiculous plot by now, by spying into LaRoche’s windows.  Later on, Charlie and Donald fall asleep inside the swamp, and emerge unscathed in the morning; a drowsy LaRoche startles and accidentally shoots Donald.  To resolve this plot development, LaRoche conveniently gets chewed up by a gator.

Adaptation’s technical crews worked well to maintain Donald’s writer-ly ineptitude.  Hackneyed suspense music blooms throughout the closing sequence.  Cuts come abrupt and sloppy (as my girlfriend, a video editor, pointed out).  Inside the swamp, the camera wobbles and shakes excessively, obviously trying too hard for a feeling of disorientation.

All told, Kaufman achieves mastery here, making his script immune to criticism because it satirizes itself to begin with.  Kaufman sets this up in the dinner scene with Valerie.  Everything bad that the film later becomes Charlie specifically lists in a nervous sweat; most notably foreshadowed is the idea of turning the Orchids into poppies and making the movie about drug running.

Does Adaptation have any artistic faults?  Voice-over narration critics will flag the film’s dependence upon the shorthand.  In response, Kaufman owns the usage, opening by bombarding the audience with a diatribe of self-deprecating remarks and superficial desires, all this over black while the credits roll minutely at the bottom of the screen. The last scene also reaffirms his reliance on Voice-over, and his character shines filled with hope.  Other sensitive viewers will object to certain graphic images, but others would counter by claiming this to be an accurate portrayal of a man.

In a brilliant fashion, Kaufman found originality by creating Donald.  Never mind the loaded solipsism (again, acknowledged) of Kaufman inserting himself into his screenplay.  “The author as character in their own work” has been done before (The Razor’s Edge, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Hours among others) yet Kaufman’s originality lies in the function of Donald, a lovable character for a Hollywood audience, enabling a rich satire of tinsel-town’s trite sensationalism.  Because of this, Adaptation is a gem that resonates with an audience much more diverse than writers who know about writer’s block.

What might we make of Kaufman’s deeper intentions?  Surely the author represents some hybrid version of his Charlie and Donald characters, and Adaptation voices that struggle between different parts of himself.  Perhaps he resents the Hollywood “industry” aspect of the people with whom he becomes intertwined.  Maybe getting booted off the Malkovich set one day set him thinking.  He could have written Donald and Charlie out of pure desperation and stumbled upon the common thread he had sought.  In any case, Adaptation will endure because of Charlie K’s clever choices that bring flowers and people together.

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