As the now-familiar story goes, Kaufman, an Oscar nominee for his screenplay for Being John Malkovich, was hired to adapt Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief to the screen. Yet, despite his previous success, the production notes explain, Kaufman was still “plagued by insecurities.”
Only a studio press kit would make such an assertion as though it were inexplicable—and vaguely unseemly. After all, “success” equals “secure”—right?
Wrong, as this remarkable film, directed by Spike Jonze, makes clear.
The film’s journey to the screen is a unique one. After accepting the assignment to adapt Orlean’s story about a charismatic and unlikely orchid thief named John Laroche, Kaufman found himself in the grip of a crippling writer’s block.
Unable to turn Orlean’s personal, lyrical prose into conventional screen narrative, Kaufman instead wrote a script about this very dilemma. His lead character is not Laroche, but rather a hapless, woefully insecure screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman, going crazy trying to adapt the book.
If you haven’t yet seen it, let it suffice to say that in the course of the story Charlie goes on to meet Orlean herself, Laroche, screenwriting guru Robert McKee, and some very nasty alligators before the film comes to its surprising and curiously moving conclusion.
As a former screenwriter myself, now a therapist who works with writers, I was struck by how accurately the film depicts the harrowing mesh of self-loathing, envy, rage, and feigned cynicism that is the screenwriter’s world. Whether trying unsuccessfully to explain his concerns to his agent, fending off polite-though-suspicious inquiries by studio execs as to when they can expect to see pages, or clinging precariously to his sanity in the face of material that WILL NOT WORK, Charlie Kaufman‘s ordeal is one that every screenwriter will recognize. Unfortunately. And hilariously.
Take, for example, the many scenes of Charlie’s bear-like, bath-robed body shuffling aimlessly between rooms, or lying face down over the edge of his bed, or face up for a sobering, unchanging view of his stucco ceiling. Trapped—in his body, in his house, in his life; a bundle of raw nerves, and yet all that mental energy leading only to a kind of physical and psychological inertia.
Oddly enough, the real-life Kaufman ended up doing what I often suggest to my writer clients: when blocked, write about what you’re actually feeling—fear, despair, whatever—and use that to bring urgency and personal relevancy to the work. In Adaptation, Kaufman goes this technique one better—he makes his creative struggles the heart of the narrative itself.
The film resonates because it understands a profound paradox: that we’re all of us in an ongoing process of adapting—first, in the broadest sense, as a function of evolution; but, more specifically, to the day-to-day changes in our culture, relationships and work- places. In other words, navigating the ongoing compromises that are a requirement of the social compact. And yet, within this, some part of us still yearns for personal authenticity.
In the film, Charlie’s not just trying to finish his assignment; he’s trying to write well, while having to base his work on someone else’s vision. As we all do, more often than not, in our working lives: trying to be authentic to our own creativity within the framework of someone else’s (a boss, a corporation, whatever) structure.
Charlie’s struggles to write a good script—his attempt to speak truthfully through the vehicle of another writer’s work—goes right to the heart of the matter: the artist’s striving for a purity of voice in a commercial marketplace.
It was true for Michaelangelo, “adapting” Biblical scenes for the Sistine Chapel, under the demanding (and cost-conscious) eye of Pope Julius II. And it’s true now.
Which brings us back to those production notes. The idea that the real Charlie Kaufman’s previous screenwriting success should in any way rid him of creative insecurities reveals how misunderstood the writer’s life really is. I remember, years ago, after I’d achieved some success as a writer, my agent assuming that “writing must be a lot easier now.” I tried to explain to her that, in my own experience, writing only gets progressively harder. The better the writer is, the more he or she expects of the work. The bar just gets set higher.
In her book, Susan Orlean writes that her real fascination with the Orchid Thief is with his passion for his work, and that she “wanted to know what it feels like to care about something passionately…”
In Adaptation, the character of Charlie Kaufman is passionate about trying to figure out how to turn Orlean’s book into a movie—as a way to discover what he, as a Hollywood writer, is ultimately passionate about himself.
And that’s the source of his conflict. He can’t adapt the book because he himself can’t adapt to writing scripts that feel false and contrived—yet he’s certain that, ultimately, he’ll have to.
Which is why I believe that for most writers, the scenes that will linger are those depicting Charlie sitting, in despair, at the word processor. Bleary-eyed, unshaven, sleep-deprived. Staring pathetically at the empty screen, hoping for inspiration and yearning for another cup of coffee, and maybe a banana nut muffin. While, in voice-over, a dozen nagging, self-mocking thoughts echo in his head: He’s untalented, a fraud. He’s getting old and fat. No woman will ever want to sleep with him. His life is over. And on and on.
Narcissistic. Self-pitying. And right on the money.
I know. I’ve been there. And though I like to believe I’ve gained a world’s worth of perspective during my work with writers over the years, I suspect if I were to find myself tomorrow on assignment for a studio, I’d be right back there. Blinking at the computer cursor, blinking back.
Praying for the Muse. Fending off demons. Dreaming of Starbucks. Asking, as Charlie does, how did I get into this, and what do I have to do to get out?
Again, that’s the paradox of Adaptation.
For as Charlie comes to learn, the only way out is to go further in. Where the pain lives. And the passion.
And, hey, who knows? Maybe they’ll turn it into a movie.
Article written by Dennis Palumbo, first appeared in the Los Angeles Times, published January 12, 2003.