Angry Robot


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.

6 comments on "Adaptation"

  1. marijke says:

    Yeah, the ending was tough to swallow. As I watched, I kept going back and forth between “Oh, I get it. Piss-take on Hollywood endings.” and “Oh, that was sort of a cop-out. The ol’ piss-take on Hollywood, bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you bit.” More than a week later, I’m still going back and forth.
    I found that the use of a cliche (the Hollywood ending) with a simultaneous self-awareness of said cliche, not to mention the incorporation of the audience into that self-awareness (a sort of nudge-nudge, wink-wink) gave the whole thing a metatextualism that felt a little forced. Call it an Eggersian style, if you will. And I’ve just never been sure if I like that style. Not to mention that it forces you to step away from the story (be it book or film) and take it in from a distance, and I’m a big fan of being mentally/emotionally (hell, even physically) involved in a film or book.
    The toughest thing about the ending of Adaptation was that I was highly involved in the film up to that point. The sudden distance was jarring and disappointing.

    Still, the film had some positively superb visual moments (the evolution sequence, the bees) and some truly original plot moments, and will remain pretty damn high on my list. When the only criticism I can come up with is “Yes, but was the ending original enough?”, the bar has already been set pretty high….

    And Chris Cooper kicks my ass. Every time.

    Hot new look, D.

  2. marijke says:

    Addendum on the “Hot new look” thing: My Preview, Post and Forget Me buttons are blank (IE 5.1/Mac); I had to wing it….

    just an fyi.

  3. D says:

    Know what you’re sayin’. I think it’s that supermeta self-reflexive parodies are traditionally detatched and cold, whereas up until the end Adaptation had been quite far from that: I was amazed at just how much Kaufman had exposed himself. (Or did he, the character was fictionalized, yada yada.) Then at the end, distancing… it just doesn’t feel that clever any more. Sure it’s some subversive Brecht shit, but seeing as Seinfeld brought it to primetime network TV years ago…

    Odd that IE chooses to ignore my button styles… I’ll switch that shit so it displays properly for you IE dudes, but not before once again endorsing Mozilla. Mmmm…. fabulous, smooth creamery Mozilla. Displays pages great, and stops popup ads!

  4. marijke says:

    you know, when I lived in Paris, I lived in Brecht’s old apartment… His daughter still owned the place, and rented it to my parents, if I recall correctly.

    I was too young to appreciate it at the time.

  5. ÿ says:

    Tilda Swinton has a cool name and smart face and everything – and I really don’t have anything against her – but I think she has to stop taking these personification-of-post-modernity type-roles. She just looks too glib and comfortable in these parts, and the staleness of the routine always feels to me like it speaks more to the lazy imaginations of high-brow casting directors than it does to any of her own personal limitations.

    Aside from that, I think this movie was too much fun to find fault with. If we do call it Eggersian, I think we should say it’s better than Eggers (though I didn’t get too far into his self-professed masterpiece of self-deprecatingly self-referential ruminations on the self-reflexivity of ‘the self’) and the reason seems clear enough: Eggers writes spiraling autobiography with neurotic flare, whereas Kauffman imagines the writing process of someone saddled with the same responsibility he’s been saddled with: to faithfully adapt someone else’s semi-autobiographical attempt at biography. I got the sense this movie was all about passion: La Roche’s for orchids (and porn), Orlean’s for La Roche, Kauffman’s for Orlean, Donald’s for McKee, McKee’s for Casablanca, and, inevitably, Spike Jonze’s for all the characters who populate Kauffman’s script.

    I didn’t mind so much the self-awareness that came with the conclusion. I think it would have been hard for the end of this particular movie to creep up on us (the way we hope a good ending will,) without having it feel abrupt, or unresolved. Having read Robert McKee’s “Story” a few years ago – and having remained in the dark about the fact that he (or someone playing him) was going to turn up in the film – I have to say I was particularly rewarded by the tension between the notorious script doctor’s stringent logic and that of the screenwriter’s, and I basically had no trouble forgiving the instructive nature of its film’s finale as a result. (this is what happens if you listen too closely to Robert McKee…)

    Meryl Streep on drugs, and Meryl Streep just in general, was so hypnotic, so sad, so sexy, so much fun to watch, and when I think about the film’s conclusion in the context of her character I think it really succeeded in doing what it set out to. I saw it yesterday, it effected my dreams last night, I think I’ll think about it again tomorrow. I’m thinking a lot more about how enjoyable it was than I am about any of its shortcomings.

    As a result, for what it’s worth, I give this movie five heaping bucketsful of golden topping.

  6. D says:

    Curious pan of Adaptation in Salon.

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