Saw the film last week-end. No, the suckmaster doesn’t wreck it, nor
does he suck – he’s back in all his pre-8mm, pre-Con Air majesty, the Nick
Cage you might have seen in such films as Raising Arizona and Wild At Heart.
It would be hard to argue that this isn’t a good film. To argue that it’s
not a great one, one might start at the end. Spoilers herein.
Curious that to argue against its greatness one winds up asking, is it a
good adaptation?, and that such a question is obviously at the heart of
the film. The critical tendency is to evaluate adaptations solely on their
relationship with the original work: The Shining film is better than the
book, no, it’s worse, etc. For adaptation, then, one might wonder whether there is any reason why the Orchid Thief was chosen as the source material: is there any thematic link between that book and the film itself? Or could Kaufman have simply inserted his story into any book, to identical effect? Well, orchids are adapters. The film mentions they are not parasites: while an orchid may grow on a tree, it takes nothing from the tree itself, only light and water from the environment. The insinuation is that orchid-like, the film operates independently from the book: based on it, but an independent being. Consider the film separately, don’t, then, treat it as an adaptation at all.
I tend to agree. What’s on screen is all there is in a film. The source material — like tidbits about what happened on set, or speculation about the director’s psyche — is beside the point. And the problem on screen in this film is the end. It all works thematically, and it’s oh-so-clever: once Hollywood formula hack twin Donald starts helping with the script, we get car chases, drug deals, torrid affairs and window-peeping. Up until this point Charlie has been concerned with the themes of The Orchid Thief, but suddenly all are put aside in favour of the violent, cathartic Hollywood ending. What does this mean? Maybe unity is no longer necessary in scripts, sure; maybe they’re saying the story couldn’t be told properly by Hollywood, or that adaptation is always doomed to failure. But it feels like a failure. It feels like a different film, and it’s not as funny. Did Charlie Kaufman deliberately wreck his film to prove a point? Or did he simply fail?
But like I say, it’s still a good film: I only take issue with the last 20 minutes or so, the rest is excellent in every possible way. However, I can’t help but think a flawed ending mars Adaptation’s greatness. Then again, I’m still trying to figure out what I think about it, which is always a good sign.