Adaptation. (2002)
June 18, 2020 9:10 PM - Subscribe

A lovelorn screenwriter becomes desperate as he tries and fails to adapt 'The Orchid Thief' by Susan Orlean for the screen.

Roger Ebert: The movie is inspired by The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean, a best seller expanded from an article in the New Yorker. It involves mankind's fascination for these extraordinary flowers, the blood that has been spilled in collecting them, their boundless illustration of Darwin's ideas about natural selection and a contemporary orchid hunter in Florida who is a strange, compelling man. Considered simply like that, the book might have inspired a National Geographic special.

It could also have been a straight fiction film about the life and times of John Laroche, a Miami eccentric who hit upon the idea of collecting endangered species of orchids from swampland that was Seminole territory. By using real Seminoles to obtain his specimens, he exploited their legal right to use their own ancestral lands. Laroche himself is a student of orchids, and he narrates a poetic passage about the limitless shapes that orchids can take in attracting insects -- imitating their shapes and coloring, while all the while neither the flower nor the insect realizes what is happening. There is even one orchid so strangely shaped that Darwin hypothesized a moth with a 12-inch proboscis that could dip down into its long, hollow tube. Such a moth was actually found.

So you see how the movie could have been a doc. But the title is a pun, referring both to Darwinian principle of adaptation and the ordeal of adapting a book into a screenplay. Although its soul is comic, and it indulges in shameless invention, it is also the most accurate film I have seen about this process -- exaggerated, yes, but true. We meet Charlie Kaufman and his (fictitious) twin brother Donald, both played by Nicolas Cage, who finds subtle ways so that we can always tell them apart. They're like the twins in the old joke, one pessimistic, one optimistic ("There must be a pony in here somewhere").

AV Club: Turning an adaptation of a highly regarded book into a movie about the creative process may strike some as self-indulgent, and Kaufman would be the first to agree. He'd also concur with any statements regarding his slouched posture, balding pate, social ineptitude, constipated writing habits, and cross-wired neuroses. But beyond Kaufman's hilariously brutal self-laceration and his equally vicious take on "the industry," Adaptation speaks volumes about the possibilities of storytelling and the transporting powers of great art. Working in concert with Malkovich director Spike Jonze, whose modest flourishes once again pay dividends, Kaufman strikes just the right balance between playfulness and sincerity, leaping freely from one absurd situation to another before pulling back on the reins. In lieu of adapting the unadaptable, Kaufman has written a twisted love letter to Orlean, whose book was not so much a source as a source of inspiration.

NYTimes: Yes, ''Adaptation'' is, most obviously, a movie about itself, as gleefully self-referential an exercise in auto-deconstruction as you could wish. But it is also, more deeply, a movie about its own nonexistence -- a narrative that confronts both the impossibility and the desperate necessity of storytelling, and that short-circuits our expectations of coherence, plausibility and fidelity to lived reality even as it satisfies them. Common sense suggests that there could never be such a movie, but if there could, it would have to be one of the slipperiest, most fascinating and, by any sane reckoning, best movies of the year.

Slant: During one of Adaptation.’s purest moments, Charlie is noticeably taken aback by the “sad, sweet insights” of Orlean’s book. Anyone who has read The Orchid Thief can understand the challenges Kaufman must have faced in trying to adapt a novel of insights for audiences looking for something less abstract and more immediate. Adaptation. is a film for artists by artists and the action is at once cloyingly self-conscious and remarkably true. The film itself should be approached as an analogy of sorts, as a series of relationships between authors and subjects (some real, some imagined): Donald Kaufman is to Charlie Kaufman as Charlie Kaufman is to Susan Orlean as Susan Orlean is to John Laroche. What better way to comprehend Kaufman’s fear of stasis and his obsessive desire for creative evolution?

posted by MoonOrb (6 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What can i say, I loved it! I haven't seen it since it came out but I still remember chunks of it quite vividly. What a fun part for Meryl Streep. And Chris Cooper is so... Chris Cooper-y. Nicholas Cage is... he does his thing! Or one of his things!

It's just so extremely clever. I wish I had something more intelligent to say about it. I believe this movie is polarizing and has it's haters, but I found it extremely refreshing.
posted by latkes at 12:01 AM on June 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

I don't think Cage gets enough credit for his performance(s) in this. It's not Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers but by the end of the film I totally bought into the two being separate, independent characters rather than two performances by Cage.

I'm overdue a rewatch. I'm almost afraid to do so because I was so very fond of this when it came out.

You are what you love, not what loves you.
posted by slimepuppy at 7:45 AM on June 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

"Don't you dare bring in a deus ex machina!"

In researching just now to find the right quote, I saw an interesting and true point - the alligator is not the (main) deus ex machina... Robert McKee is the deus ex machina. Cool. Anyway, I love this movie a lot - it takes talent and guts to make a movie about itself and not make it hacky or cheesy.
posted by ftm at 10:29 AM on June 19, 2020

Next up: Charlie Kaufman adapts Tiger King.
posted by roger ackroyd at 11:12 AM on June 20, 2020

I remember watching this in the cinema when it first came out. No film has ever made me laugh out loud in sheer delight more.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 4:16 PM on June 29, 2020

Just rewatched this for the first time in like twenty years after watching the Matrix Resurrections, and it was at least as good as I remembered. Loved the quote used to finish the credits and the “in loving memory of Donald Kaufman” at the very end.

I don’t have anything clever or insightful to add. It’s just really good.
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:35 AM on January 1, 2022

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