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Meta-daptations “Adaptation”

July 6, 2009
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Excellent movies kinda sorta based on a book

By Nat

adaptationpubc“The movie’s not as good as the book.”

AAaaaarrrRRRrrrGGGHHHhhh!

Ohhhh, don’t you hate that? Whenever you see a really good flick, there’s always that onejerk who, when you’re walking out in the parking lot, talking about what you really liked about the flick, and right before you hit the little *brp* *brp* to unlock the car, drops that line, and Grrrrr—you just want to punch him in his stupid neck.

So to everyone who’s done that, I give you this—the first in a series of articles on book-to-movie adaptations that are not only excellent movies, but also go pretty far beyond the book, coming up with new material while staying faithful to the themes and general thrust of their source.

First up is the 2002 Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze film Adaptation.:

Movie: Adaptation.

Based on: The Orchid Thief

Trying to describe this movie is like petting a raccoon: You could get rabies. It’s also extremely difficult to do and largely pointless. Those who’ve seen it know what I’m talking about and know why it’s at the top of the list. Those who haven’t, well, see it. Not only is it the most accessible Charlie Kaufman flick, it’s also one of those films that reminds us why we keep Nicholas Cage around.

Okay, so why is it a meta-daptation? It becomes pretty clear in the summary: The A plot centers around screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s attempt to adapt Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. It’s not long before he realizes that much of the book is spent describing the nature and history of orchids and not enough describes the story of orchid thief John Laroche. In the meantime, Kaufman’s mooching brother Donald, after failing countless times at even more countless get-rich-quick schemes, decides to become a screenwriter like his brother, and, true to form, his screenplay for a psycho-sex-thriller-mystery reads more like a definitive list of clichés—when it sells for $1,000,000, writer’s-blocked Charlie somehow sinks lower.

The B plot is the story of Laroche and Orlean’s relationship, which covers everything that occurs in The Orchid Thief, some stuff that probably really happened, and then some stuff that really, really didn’t happen.

And, of course, the stories overlap—Charlie falls in love with Susan and arranges a meeting under the guise of discussing the book and the brothers head down to Florida for a dramatic, cliché-ridden…well, yeah.

What makes it a great movie is how ballsy Kaufman gets with real people—Susan Orlean, John Laroche, (and to a lesser extent) Robert McKee are all real people –putting them in situations that are pretty damn damning slander. If you check out Orlean’swebsite, she seems pretty cool with the whole thing (though, to steal a thought from Roger Ebert, all the real people mentioned probably signed a waiver).

And Kaufman doesn’t cheat. For each bizarre twist, he has a callback—when Robert McKee tells him never to use voiceover, and, in the last shot, he does, it’s a delightful joke for those who pay attention.

On par with Cage’s dual performances is Chris Cooper’s Oscar-winning role as orchid thief John Laroche. The always-beautiful, always-talented Meryl Streep plays Orchid Thief author Susan Orlean, and this generation’s Harry Dean Stanten/M. Emmet Walsh, Brian Cox, plays screenwriting coach Robert McKee. (He was also McKee’s personal choice to play himself.)

Frothygirlz rating 10/10

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5 Responses to “ Meta-daptations “Adaptation” ”

  1. pancake on July 6, 2009 at 8:45 am

    Excellent choice – I loved that movie

  2. anncine on July 6, 2009 at 9:25 am

    Delightful post. I look forward to the series of reviews.

  3. Skye on July 16, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    “Not only is it the most accessible Charlie Kaufman flick…”

    You really think so? I know a lot more people that seemed to love Being John Malkovich, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind way more than i hear anyone even mention liking Adaptation (not that i agree with them). I recall being the only person laughing in a packed audience at the Tivoli in St. Louis. I love feeling superior as much as the next guy, but the ONLY person laughing (when the switch flips from Charlie’s narrative to Donald’s) in a packed art-house?! I was like come on people, THIS is brilliant!!! My favorite fucking movie of all time i have to admit, a meta-movie extravaganza, the flipping of styles and self referential genius of it all is just too much. Love love loved it.

    I missed this review first time around mister Nat, Anne pointed me to it after we talked about how we should really watch The Long Goodbye.

    Keep up the good stuff!

  4. Nat Almirall on July 17, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    I haven’t seen Eternal Sunshine, but I think it’s easier for the audience to identify with Charlie than John Cusacks’ character in Malkovitch — they’re both pretty weird, but the whole puppet thing is a bit too alienating.

  5. Skye on July 17, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    I could see your point about identify, but to me the sadness of Cusack’s character/situation is pretty identifiable to many people, crappy/strained relationship, etc. The occupation i agree, hard to identify with, but his situation, not so much. I thought it was the meta-film nature of Adaptation would be lost on more people than anything going on in B.J. Malkovich. I thought Adaptation was so richly layered that most wouldn’t even really “get” what he was doing with the movie and it would just strike them as a very oddly put together film.

    I’ll have to watch Adaptation again, might change my thoughts on it, and hopefully we can chat more in person someday. Any chance you’ll make it out to the Almirall gathering in Manomet in August?

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