Adaptation: The Truth About Charlie

FROM THE CREATOR OF BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, COMES THE STORY ABOUT THE CREATOR OF BEING JOHN MALKOVICH

In 1994, Jonathan Demme bought the rights to journalist Susan Orlean’s book ”The Orchid Thief”, where she investigated the arrest of John Laroche who was dealing illegally in rare plants. Neither she nor Demme could have predicted what would happen when he asked Charlie Kaufman to turn it into a screenplay. Kaufman, who was the brilliant, absurd mind behind Being John Malkovich (1999), hit a creative wall and couldn’t figure out how to adapt this non-fiction book. Eventually, he figured the only way he could do it was to go completely nuts, incorporate himself in the story and make up a final act involving not only Orlean and Laroche but also himself and his fictional twin brother Donald!

Kaufman never told the people who hired him what he was up to, convinced that he’d get fired, but he did confide in Spike Jonze, who had directed Being John Malkovich. As it turned out, Adaptation. didn’t end Kaufman’s career, but must be considered a high point.

Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), in this version, is brilliant but full of self-loathing. Socially inept, the only thing he can focus on whenever he’s in a meeting with a studio representative is how fat, bald and sweaty he is. His twin brother Donald also wants to become a screenwriter; in awe of his brother, Donald visits the set of Being John Malkovich and has a lighthearted way with the cast and crew that Charlie can’t muster. Donald’s attempt at writing a thriller basically has everything that Charlie hates about Hollywood, but he still gives him (tepid) support. In the meantime, Charlie suffers from writer’s block. He doesn’t know how to approach ”The Orchid Thief”, but is still afraid of talking to Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) whom he’s attracted to from a distance…

Reflecting the themes of the book
When the real-life Orlean heard what Kaufman had come up with, she was horrified, thinking this will destroy her reputation… especially considering what he has her doing in the final act of the movie. When she finally saw the film she had no regrets and came to admire how well it reflects the themes of her book.

As we follow Kaufman’s struggles, flashbacks also take us back a few years to the time when Orlean approached the weirdly charismatic John Laroche (Chris Cooper) in Florida, who had hired a group of Seminoles as a way of getting around the law in his pursuit of rare orchids. As she got to know him better, she learned the tragedy in his past and developed a special relationship with this man who wasn’t easy to get along with. This part of the film is moving and Jonze handles the disparity between that and the offbeat humor of the Kaufmans’ screenwriting projects well. Obviously, the whole film goes off the tracks completely in the end when all the characters meet… but amazingly enough it works as a perfect symbol of the whole creative process that Kaufman’s been going through and how it risks consuming you altogether.

The story depicts passion and its motivations, be it writing or searching for that elusive flower in a Florida swamp. Funny and strange, the film dissolves the border between reality and fiction, but in a clever way that doesn’t limit this as a concern only for Kaufman.

The cast is a huge asset. This is one, no, two of Cage’s best performances ever as the neurotic Charlie and the wide-eyed, sociable Donald; their interaction is totally believable even though it’s fake, just like Donald. Streep and Cooper add gravitas to the film as the journalist and the orchid-hunter who open up to each other and then form a bond that threatens to destroy the man trying to portray them. 

Adaptation. 2002-U.S. 115 min. Color. Produced by Jonathan Demme, Vincent Landay, Edward Saxon. Directed by Spike Jonze. Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman. Book: Susan Orlean (”The Orchid Thief”). Music: Carter Burwell. Cast: Nicolas Cage (Charlie Kaufman/Donald Kaufman), Meryl Streep (Susan Orlean), Chris Cooper (John Laroche), Tilda Swinton, Cara Seymour, Brian Cox… Judy Greer, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ron Livingston, Stephen Tobolowsky. Cameos: John Malkovich, Catherine Keener, Curtis Hanson, John Cusack, David O. Russell.

Trivia: The screenplay was officially credited to Charlie and ”Donald” Kaufman. Joaquin Phoenix was allegedly considered for Cooper’s role.

Oscar: Best Supporting Actor (Cooper). Golden Globes: Best Supporting Actor (Cooper), Supporting Actress (Streep). BAFTA: Best Adapted Screenplay. Berlin: Jury Grand Prix.

Last word: “I’d be literally acting with a tennis ball or an X on a wall, to tell me where to look, and an earpiece in my ear listening to whatever I had already recorded so that I wouldn’t overlap dialog. And then I’d try to move so it worked with my memory of what I’d done as the other character […] I was a fan of Jeremy Irons’ performance as twins in ‘Dead Ringers’. But I’d get frustrated when we would switch the characters three or four times a day. At one point I literally screamed out of frustration and Spike would talk me down.” (Cage, RogerEbert.com)

 

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