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I finally got around to seeing Spike Jonze's
"Adaptation", a film that premiered a year ago and that is now
available in DVD/Video. Not only was it written by Charlie Kaufman, who was
responsible for Jonze's "Being John Malkovich", it features him as a central
character, played by Nicholas Cage. Cage also plays Donald Kaufman, a fictional
twin brother who is clearly intended to represent Charlie's alter ego. The two
characters are responsible for whatever dramatic tension exists in this
postmodernist confection, with Charlie representing Art and Integrity, and
Donald--an aspiring hack screenwriter--representing
While noticed by only a handful of critics, the two brothers
have the same kind of relationship as the brothers in Sam Shepherd's "True
West". In the 1983 Broadway production, the screenwriting brother played
by Gary Sinise was analogous to Charlie Kaufman,
while John Malkovich played his crass sibling who
eventually succeeds--like Donald--on
The title "Adaptation" is a play on words. Kaufman
is struggling to write an adaptation of Susan Orleans's "The Orchid Thief",
while her book is--among other things--a study of how orchids have exemplified
Darwinian adaptation. As a New Yorker writer, she decided to write her book
after learning about the trial of John Laroche and
three Seminole Indians in
For careful observers of the
Indeed, postmodernist exercises like "Adaptation" can be a box-office success, just as the films of the Coen brothers are, who are basically exploring the same kinds of self-referential themes as Jonze and Kaufman. The sweaty, self-doubting, blocked Charlie Kaufman character will evoke the Coen brothers' "Barton Fink", a 1991 movie about another frustrated screenwriter, loosely based on Clifford Odets. In each of these films, there is scant interest in broader social questions. What the film-makers are solely interested in is the personal drama of the artist, whose struggle to remain uncompromised is ostensibly their own as well. In "Barton Fink", the Odets character is ordered by the studio bosses to write a wrestling movie that will be a vehicle for Noah Beery. In "Adaptation", Charlie Kaufman is counseled by his brother to spice up his movie with an old-fashioned violent climax.
And Charlie Kaufman does seem to take his brother's advice.
In the dark comical conclusion of the film,
The one thing that Kaufman does not seem all that interested in is something that interests me a great deal, namely the troubled interconnections between American Indians, ecology, Darwinism and the flower market. If it was up to me, I would have made the three Indians who were caught with Laroche into the lead characters and put everybody else into the background, most of all Charlie Kaufman.
But that's just me.