Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2001) is a film about the process of writing itself, among many other things. The film centers on a pair of twin screenwriters, Charlie (Nicholas Cage) and Donald Kaufman (also Nicholas Cage), and the former’s struggle to adapt a nonfiction book into a screenplay. The trick that the film pulls is that Donald is a completely fictional character. Charlie, whom actually wrote the screenplay for the film, is portrayed as a desperate and uncomfortable loser who only ever had one idea and is now realizing the limits of his talents. Donald, on the other hand, writes a hit with his first screenplay and becomes the toast of the town while his brother falls into further despair and misery. But Donald does not exist outside of the world of the film, and so his presence becomes a point of fascination. Alongside this curiosity are the ways in which Adaptation is constantly reflecting upon itself as it details the process of its own creation. Though the film itself is a testament to the fact that Charlie will ultimately be successful in writing a screenplay, it does not ever let on exactly what this success will be. As the film progresses it becomes increasingly apparent that what the audience is witnessing is a process of which Charlie has little to no control over. He is at the same time a character and the chief orchestrator of his own tale, and this is the complex concept that the film explores to its fullest. Adaptation is deftly aware of itself and because of this it can capably examine its own conventions and become an overall reflection of its medium.
Donald is not so much the twin of Charlie as he is his antonym. Whereas Charlie may struggle in every aspect of his life, romantically, professionally, throughout the film, Donald excels and exceeds his brother in all of these areas. The juxtaposition of these two prompts the audience to question whom the film should actually be about, as it becomes seemingly apparent that it is only Donald whom will actually accomplish anything in the film. Charlie is portrayed for most of the film as nothing more than an unattractive and uninspired writer that fantasizes about sex with every woman in his life, professionally or not. These fantasies are part of a larger issue plaguing Charlie as he intensely thinks about doing everything but does not act on any of these imagined actions. Meanwhile, Donald accomplishes everything that he sets out to do while also being a social human being, something his brother cannot do. Given the fact that Donald does not exist outside the film he becomes what Charlie, in the film, wishes he were.
While Charlie struggles to put anything on the page, Donald achieves everything with ease. His first and only screenplay is a hit and he successfully flirts and starts a relationship with a woman, Caroline (Maggie Gyllenhaal), while also exuding an overall sense of confidence and hope that escapes Charlie. Charlie is envious of this to be sure, but it is not provocation enough for him to seek to change his own life for the better. It is only after intense prodding by his brother, and his realization of his brother’s success, that he seeks to improve himself by way of attending a screenwriting seminar put on by Robert McKee (Brian Cox). All of Charlie’s behaviors in relation to his brother highlight his own faults and eventually build to his own realization about the different ways by which he and his brother behave and react according to the world. While Charlie may only act as he thinks about what others will think of him, Donald simply acts without any concern of how the world around him will react. He is not oblivious, as Charlie initially believes; he instead simply does not care. “You are what you love,” Donald tells his brother, “not what loves you.”
But the relationship between the brothers is only one part of the larger reflection that is Adaptation. While Donald many provide a counter to Charlie, the film itself is very concerned with its own structure and what it will become. Each time Charlie goes on a voice-recorder tangent about how the film he is writing will begin the audience realizes it has already seen this beginning, placed unceremoniously prior in the film. In the same way, as Adaptation eventually becomes about a drug-related crime spree it is remembered that this was precisely what Charlie stated that he did not want the film to be in his initial meeting with Valerie Thomas (Tilda Swinton). He wanted the film to be about flowers, to be simple, and to ultimately be true to itself. But the truth of the matter is that Charlie is not even true to himself. He is constantly trying to exude a persona that is not actually his while at the same time demeaning himself. As the film progresses, so does Charlie’s despair and his realization about his lack of understanding about the source material that he is attempting to adapt. The Orchid Thief is far from simple; Charlie knows this much, but what he does not recognize are the deeper human subtexts within it. It takes Donald to pick up on the inconsistencies that Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) has placed into her text and deduce that something is happening beneath the surface. Charlie cannot pick up on these hints as his perception of reality is based solely around how he feels the world perceives him, and not based on how the world can be perceived separate of a person’s own persona.
Much as how Susan initially misunderstands and jumps to conclusions about John Laroche (Chris Cooper) and his orchid-stealing activities, Charlie himself harbors deep misunderstandings of her. Never interacting with her in person until he is caught spying on her, Susan is everything to Charlie in the sense that he idolizes her. Because he cannot understand her and her motivations, and also because he knows this on some level, Charlie places Susan in the position of being something that is not human. He sees her as an inspiration, but he is not truly inspired by her as he does not understand what she is saying; not even enough that he can put words on a page. Eventually, Charlie’s self-obsession comes full-circle as he begins to place himself in his own screenplay. He recognizes the mistake that this action may be, but at the same time he cannot perceive the world in any other way. For Charlie, the world begins with his own perception of himself, and the opposite is true for Donald.
The characters within Adaptation all come to a sort of self-realization at some point. Susan comes to the realization that she envies Laroche and his passion and this eventually leads to her relationship with him. In the same way, Charlie eventually realizes that his brother has the better outlook and approach to life and that his success is a product of it. Passion is something that both Susan and Charlie initially lack and this affects both of their respective worldviews. But Susan’s passions ultimately lead to her own destruction while Charlie only finds his own once Donald dies. Following this tragedy, and the general chaos that is the Florida portion of third act of the film, Charlie finds his voice both on the page and in real life. For once, he is able to act in a way that is beneficial to him and those around him.
Adaptation examines the workings of those and the world around them in the case that they have misperceived their surroundings. Charlie does not understand The Orchid Thief or Susan just as Susan does not understand Laroche. Donald and Laroche, on the other hand, both understand their respective worlds and all that this means for them. In many ways, they are much more alive than their respective counterparts. It is only after both of these figures die that their respective partners find their respective full understanding of the world. As Susan wishes “…to be new again” Charlie finally understands how to understand the world around him. But unlike Susan, Charlie does not exit the film after his moment of realization and instead he is shown in his most positive human interaction of the entire film as he tells his former girlfriend Amelia (Cara Seymour) that he loves her. As the film concludes, Charlie has come to an understanding of himself and therefore he can understand the world around him.
It is telling that Charlie only comes to his understanding after something actually happens to him in the film. As Robert McKee tells his students, they have to have something happen in their stories or there is not any point in writing these stories. The film freely breaks McKee’s rules as it pleases, such as in relation to voice-over, but at the same time it holds what he has to say in high regard. In the end, something does eventually happen in the film, Susan and Laroche try to kill Charlie and Donald, and as a result Charlie ultimately changes as a person. The final act, bizarre as it is when compared to the rest of the film, makes the film so to speak as it is the only thing that provokes Charlie to evolve. This trait of Adaptation following its own meta rules is only one example of the film being aware of itself, but it speaks to the large trend of the film. Ultimately, characters evolve as events happen, just as McKee said they should and would, and overall respect for him is only gained as he earns it in Charlie’s eyes. Adaptation deconstructs all of its characters in this way, as they are subjected to Charlie’s misunderstanding view before being revealed for what they are to everyone but Charlie. This same tactic is used to deconstruct the film’s own processes, as well as the basic story processes of films overall. Charlie may not understand the world, but he is an effective lens through which the workings of the film can be explained.