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Adaptation (2002)

Dir: Spike Jonze

“Writing is a journey into the unknown”

How do you come up with a follow up to Being John Malkovich? For Charlie Kaufmann the answer lies in adapting the best seller The Orchid Thief. Except, like most movie based film-writers, Charlie has writers’ block. So starts Adaptation, a film about writing a film featuring a script about writing the script. Confused? Well fortunately, despite its multiple levels, the film never loses sight of its aims – despite it paradoxically being about losing sight of your aims. Adaptation is used not only in the sense of the screenplay adapting a book (with all the moral dilemmas facing a writer tackling someone else’s work) but also in the Darwinian sense. Indeed Darwin himself makes a couple of appearances and the narrative at times moves from the dawn of life right to the modern age. Structurally too the whole piece flits from one time frame to another, leaping around from the (filmically) present to the past and to events in the book, as we try and unravel the films mysteries. These mysteries essentially revolve a around gap-toothed orchid hunter and a New York journalist’s attempt to write a book about his compulsive and impulsive life (“One day,” the once-ocean obsessed horticulturist mentions “I said ‘fuck fish'”)

Chief stumbling point for Kaufmann lies in his inability to get across the concept of “flower” in film script terms. He is struggling to become the screenwriter as artist, eschewing the manufactured blandness of the Hollywood factory to the extent that words like “pitch” or “the industry” send him in paroxysms of rage. These matters aren’t helped by his less uptight twin brother who decides, apparently at whim, to become a screenwriter too. Only while Charles is becoming embroiled in a cycle of self-loathing (“I’m losing my hair, I’m fat and repulsive”) and dead-end ideas striving for artistic credibility brother Donald launches straight into a high concept serial killer film called The 3 with help from screenwriting seminars.

Rather like Being John Malkovich this is a strange and unusual film the likes of which you have never seen before. All the elements are recognisable but its skewed look on its subject makes it so fresh. Cage is great as both brothers (and the effects to have them interact on screen together are seemless – the best since Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers), abley supported by a top notch cast. Intelligent, indulgent and original – proof that Hollywood can still turn out a piece that is witty, left-field but not preachy or unduly complicated. Clearly a lot of effort went into making a film appear so effortless.