I have always loved literature. I have always loved film. But up until recently I have found a new love: when literature is successfully adapted into a great film. Whenever I catch wind of a flick that was originally a novel or a play, I rush to the theatre. However, because I have only just discovered my passion for adapted stories onto the the screen, I have already missed a lot. My goal is to start a new writing series here on Odyssey where I can go back and watch films that I missed the first time around, never giving too much away but always provoking things I found interesting myself. It only felt appropriate to title the series Forgotten Cinema. It also only seemed appropriate to me that if I was starting with an adaptation then I should watch a film titled simply that.
Before I talk about the the 2002 film Adaptation, I want to introduce an important, and sometimes complicated question us English majors like to ask ourselves. That question being, “What makes an adaptation an adaptation?” To be honest, we don’t really know, or at least I don’t. There is a very blurred line when it comes to this kind of storytelling, because after all, isn’t everything based or inspired by something else? What is an original idea or story anyway? Do we even have any of those anymore?
This famous question is commonly ignored because it often brings up even more questions that drive us wild. There are theorists and scholars who spend much of their lives devoted to finding out the clear cut answers to adaptations. There are articles and publications filled with their work and I’m sure that most of them are interesting and fun and will provide me with even more questions; yet, I honestly didn’t want to bother with them because I just wanted to watch the movie. There could be hundreds of people with reasons and rules and papers written on what makes an original story ORIGINAL, but most times I just wanna say Who cares? and move on.
Sometimes you can’t just move on… so if I had to pick a theory for adaptation I would probably use the Ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus’ Paradox. The paradox is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that has had all of it's components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. If Theseus’ Ship went through a harsh storm at sea and it was a necessity for him to replace all of the parts of his ship but one… would it still be the same ship that went into the storm? My initial reaction is always no. It’s a brand new ship isn’t it? But it still has the same purpose as the original ship. It was rebuilt with that same ship in mind. It was maybe even built as a memory to the original. Ultimately, the person experiencing the adaptation, whether it be riding the ship, or watching the movie is going to decide on their own if it’s a new thing or not.
Now, onto the actual film. I’ve always loved Charlie Kaufman’s writing style. It’s nonconventional. It’s fresh. It’s something that might not make sense the first time around, but it always fills in it's pieces when it’s all said and done. Both of his magnificent works Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich took what I knew about movies and flipped it on its head. His writing plays with nonlinear story telling and tricks us with pace, character development and plot devices we’ve never experienced before. Adaptation can, and sometimes should do exactly that—and more. Why would we want the same exact story given to us in another medium?
Director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman set out on a journey to present a version of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief onto the big screen. The main problem with the book was that even though it was a great novel in itself, after one reads it they can’t help but wonder how it can even be a movie. So when the duo approached Orlean with the proposal of adding many fresh factors to it, the author jumped right in. Adaptation is about Charlie Kaufman himself, played by Nicolas Cage, struggling to write the actual adaptation for Orlean’s book. Because the writer took the perspective of the novel from the pages and placed it in the mind of a screenwriter, he was able to add multiple layers to the film. Kaufman gets a caring, yet annoying fictional twin brother, and we actually get to revisit the initial reason why Orlean wanted to write her story in the first place. The film is about writing the adaptation of The Orchid Thief, and it addresses this issue along with many others along the way. It’s very meta, and because of that there are echoes of adaptation everywhere.
There are many other things to say about this film. From the exceptional performances that Meryl Streep and Nicolas Cage bring us, to the powerful life questions the characters ask each other that linger in our minds, Adaptation can be described as an intense drama that explores the idea of mutating something for the better… or for the worse. It constantly asks us the question, to what extent a thing can be changed, whether that thing be a book, a film, or a human being.