A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002)

Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep in Adaptation.
Charlie Kaufman/Donald Kaufman: Nicolas Cage
Susan Orlean: Meryl Streep
John Laroche: Chris Cooper
Valerie Thomas: Tilda Swinton
Amelia Kavan: Cara Seymour
Alice the Waitress: Judy Greer
Caroline Cunningham: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Marty Bowen: Ron Livingston
Robert McKee: Brian Cox

Director: Spike Jonze
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman
Based on a book by Susan Orlean
Cinematography: Lance Acord
Production design: K.K. Barrett
Music: Carter Burwell

Adaptation.* is a hall of mirrors and a kind of cinematic pun, starting with the title. The word "adaptation" refers to (1) the process of transforming material from one medium to another, and (2) the evolutionary process by which an organism's particular characteristics enable it to survive. So the movie's Charlie Kaufman is adapting a nonfiction book into a screenplay, with all the "fictionalizing" that is normally involved. But he's also writing, or rather wants to write, about the way plants adapt themselves to their environment, a key subject in Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief. Kaufman is trying to do the honorable thing: stay as close to the original material as possible. He wants "to present it simply without big character arcs or sensationalizing the story." As a result, Charlie is blocked. Meanwhile his twin brother, Donald, is also writing a screenplay, but his is an unfettered original, a preposterous tale about a serial killer with multiple personality disorder, in which the one character is both the killer and the detective trying to capture him. To Charlie's great dismay, while he is blocked in his attempts to adapt Orlean's book, Donald's screenplay is gobbled up by the studios. And from this, Charlie learns a lesson: To adapt in the first sense of the word, you must adapt in the second sense. That is, in order to survive as a screenwriter, you have to make compromises with the source material. So, after meeting with Donald's mentor, Robert McKee, who gives seminars on how to write a screenplay, Charlie gives in and takes McKee's advice: "The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end and you've got a hit." So in the last act of Adaptation, which is a film about a screenwriter blocked by his attempt to stay true to Orlean's book about a quirky naturalist in search of rare orchids, he forgoes his efforts at integrity and turns it into a crowd-pleasing story full of sex and drugs and violence. The real Charlie Kaufman doesn't have a twin brother, but he invented one for the screenplay, partly to provide a character who serves as a motivating force for his fictionalizing of Orlean's book. And he gives the moral of the film to Orlean and her orchid thief, John Laroche. The latter says, "Adaptation is a profound process. Means you figure out how to thrive in the world." To which Orlean replies, "Yeah, but it's easier for plants. I mean they have no memory. They just move on to whatever's next. With a person, though, adapting's almost shameful. It's like running away." Adaptation is a movie about thriver's guilt.

*The period is part of the title, both in the onscreen credits and on the poster for the film. But from now on I'm going to ignore it whenever it results in overpunctuation.

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