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Picture Perfect: Art imitating life imitating art – Spike Jonze’s ‘Adaptation’ stretches the limits of the imagination

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 16, 2021

By Paul R. Sell For The Spokesman-Review

Basing a film off true events is often a double-edged sword. While it can make the events of the film come across as humble or brutal, depending on the events, cinema also has a tendency to exaggerate true events for the sake of drama, which takes away the picture’s honesty. Which path a film takes can depend on a writer and how they decide to be honest.

Some of the best films based on true events include “The Social Network,” “Goodfellas” and “All the Presidents Men.” But for the absolute best depiction of true events, you’ll never find a bolder and more original adaptation than Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation.”

“Adaptation” (2002) is the brain child of the film’s writer, Charlie Kaufman, who has made a name for himself by writing some of the most insane, unpredictable and yet personally honest films of the last several decades. Kaufman outlandishly lovable films include “Being John Malkovich,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Synecdoche, New York.”

But his most personal film has to be “Adaptation.” The film was created by Kaufman when he chose to adapt the 1998 nonfiction book “The Orchid Thief,” about a slightly crazed man collecting flowers. Kaufman struggled with this adaptation because there is no way to turn a book about someone collecting flowers into a feature film.

Especially when the book had no narrative. Kaufman developed writer’s block and spent years challenging himself to turn “The Orchid Thief” into a screenplay. Until one day, Kaufman realized the angle that he needed to take.

“Adaptation” follows a fictionalized version of Kaufman played by Nicolas Cage as he struggles to adapt “The Orchid Thief” into the story about his adapting into the exact adaptation we’re watching called “Adaptation.”

Rather than basing the screenplay off the meandering book, Kaufman turns his screenplay into a self-referential tale about the difficulties of creation using his own hardships as the direct reference points. If Kaufman can’t find a story in “The Orchid Thief,” then he might as well make one up while still being truthful to himself. But the craziness doesn’t end there.

In this movie, Cage also plays Donald Kaufman, Charlie’s fictional twin brother who wants to be a screenwriter just like Charlie. The difference between the two is that Charlie wants to tell compelling, unique stories while Donald is content with writing screenplays that’ll appeal to the lowest common denominator, causing friction with his brother’s writing style.

The best part of the Kaufman tag team? Charlie and Donald Kaufman were credited with writing the screenplay for “Adaptation.” The pair was even nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award, even though Donald is a figment of Charlie’s imagination. The duo of Cage and Cage was so good in this movie that it even fooled the Oscars.

Even if you don’t like Cage’s acting, this is probably one of his few roles that everyone can find something to relate. Rather than his usual over-the-top delivery, Cage is subdued while battling his personal demons just to make something that he can be proud of in life.

Even in Kaufman’s most manic moments, Cage’s performances as Charlie and Donald keep the film grounded and authentic. I’d even say this is my favorite performance from Cage. By that same degree, the film also has my favorite Meryl Streep performance.

Streep plays Susan Orlean, the woman who creates the orchids that are being stolen in the Florida Everglades. And while Streep only starts out as a character in the screenplay Charlie tries to write, her character takes on a life of her own, much like the screenplay itself.

Jonze allows Streep to step outside her normal boundaries and show a vulnerable, scared side of her that we don’t normally get to see, especially during the climax of the film when her plot and Charlie’s screenplay become intertwined.

It amazes me that Cage and Streep give performances that are so radically different from their norm in this movie, and they’re my favorite performances from both of them. Unless you’re Charlie Kaufman, you really can’t make any of this up. Which is what makes this movie perfect – it is Kaufman’s imagination on full blast, both in and out of the movie.

“Adaptation” is a story about uniqueness, obsession and the creative struggle that combines the source material with Kaufman’s real struggles. Kaufman’s screenplay brings the “art imitating life imitating art” concept full circle and to its most extreme.

It never feels like it’s being desperate. Kaufman’s anxieties and concerns about how to make his own narrative always feel honest, just like any good adaptation should be.

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