Postmodernism in the Film Adaptation

Discussing postmodernism is never a simple task. Analyzing postmodern film proves difficult as well, for it seems that in order to truly explain the postmodern elements of a film, the writing tends to take on postmodern components as well; that is to say, the form of the writing begins to echo the content of the film. Perhaps Lemert explains the quirky, free form nature of postmodernism best: “[postmodernism] is a surprising, sometimes humorous, and always disconcerting mix of present, past, and future” (Lemert, 452).

This quotation seems especially relevant when considering Adaptation, a film which deftly mixes the present with not only the past and future, but also with the imaginary, which often takes the viewer by surprise, reminding them that “the world is no longer one – or even unifiable” (ibid., 459). There are several worlds here, often overlapping or on the verge of doing so: the world that Charlie Kaufman occupies physically and his internal world which is revealed through voice over; Susan Orlean’s world as a writer/interviewer, as she is portrayed in her book, and as Charlie discovers her; John Laroche’s world as an orchid thief, as portrayed in Orlean’s book, and as Charlie discovers him; and glimpses of the childhood worlds of both Orlean and Laroche. The viewer also gets flashes of the world regardless of Charlie, Orlean, or Laroche, flashes that show the history of the planet and of mankind.

Not only do we get the sense that the world is not one, but we also get the sense that each person is not even one, most clearly demonstrated by the presence of Donald, Charlie Kaufman’s identical twin brother in the film. Charlie, the writer of the film, not only writes himself into Adaptation, but he writes an imaginary twin brother into the film as well. Donald serves as a sort of foil to Charlie; while Charlie is feeling terribly anxious and insecure with himself and troubled about the film script he’s attempting to write, Donald emulates ease and confidence and gleefully begins to work on a script titled “The Three” (Adaptation). It is no coincidence, then, that Donald’s film is about a man with multiple personalities, a man who is not only a serial killer, but also a cop looking for the killer, and the soon-to-be next victim of the killer.

His script is merely an altered version of what Charlie has already done by putting a nonexistent twin in his film; whereas Charlie fragments himself into two distinct and often opposing personalities, Donald introduces three distinct personalities only to reveal that all three are actually one. It seems evident that both Charlie and Donald have developed a very postmodern take on the individual, a “heightened sense of self in relation to itself” (“A Postmodern Primer,” 1). Charlie sees himself as having more than one personality, the two often in emotional conflict with each other. Donald sees the possibility of one person having several selves, the three in physical and/or emotional conflict with each other.

This is not, of course, the only instance in which an increased awareness of self is demonstrated. The film begins with a voice over of Charlie proclaiming, “I am old. I am fat. I am bald. My toenails have turned strange. I am repulsive. How repulsive? I don’t know, for I suffer from a condition called Body Dysmorphic disorder” (Adaptation). The intricacies of the mind at work here are fascinating; first Charlie tells us that he is all these specific things right down to the disorder he suffers from, but his acknowledgment of the disorder at once causes the viewer to question the validity of the previous statements.

We realize, then, the slippery nature of truth, something which postmodernism often calls into question, only to conclude that “truth. . . remains elusive, relativistic, partial, and always incomplete; it cannot be learned in totality” (“A Postmodern Primer,” 1). Even when we believe we have encountered the truth, changes in perception or events that follow often distort the believability of that truth, make us question if truth exists.

Adaptation addresses the issue of truth time and time again. As Charlie struggles to figure out a way to adapt Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief into a film script, he goes on a tyrant about wanting to remain true to the book, saying,
“I don’t want to compromise by making it into a Hollywood product. An orchid heist movie. Or changing the orchids into poppies and turning it into a movie about drug running. . . or cramming in sex, or car chases, or guns. Or characters learning profound life lessons. Or characters growing or characters changing or characters learning to like each other or characters overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end” (Adaptation).

But Charlie does exactly this; by the end of the film, drugs, sex, car chases, and guns become involved, characters do learn lessons and grown and change. Does this mean that Charlie was lying when he said this wasn’t what he wanted, or is it merely that what is true at one point in time might not be true in another, that truth is a shifting and shapeless notion that cannot be entirely grasped or defined? Despite what hypocrisies the viewer might unearth within the film, Charlie tells his editor that “this is more honest than anything anyone’s ever done before in a movie. . . the only truth we can offer is the truth that’s our own experience of the world” (Adaptation). Here, Charlie at once declares his acquisition of truth while also acknowledging that it is his truth, perhaps not everyone else’s.

Charlie is not the only character searching for a way to convey the truth. Orlean, too, in writing her magazine article and then her book about Laroche, the actual orchid thief, tries desperately to understand Laroche and his passion for orchids. First, Orlean just wants the simple truth about why Laroche stole these orchids, but soon she finds herself caught up in the details of Laroche’s life and the entire history of orchid hunting.

We come to learn that Laroche has a long history of being passionate about various things, the first being a passion for turtles, but that part of the reason he was stealing the orchids was to “clone hundreds of them babies in [his] lab, sell ’em, and make the Seminoles a shit load of change” (ibid.) – or at least, that’s the reason he tells Orlean initially. Orlean, in an attempt to understand Laroche’s various passions, wants to know why he suddenly just quit loving turtles and moved on to something else. Laroche explains only that

“I once fell deeply, profoundly in love with tropical fish. I had sixty goddamn fish tanks in my house. I’d skin-dive to find just the right ones. Anisotremus virginicus,Holacanthus ciliaris, Chaetodon capistratus. You name it. Then one day I say, fuck fish. I renounce fish. I vow to never set foot in the ocean again, that’s how much fuck fish. That was seventeen years ago and I have never since stuck so much as a toe into that ocean. And I love the ocean!”

When Orlean presses him further, he says matter of factly, “done with fish” (ibid.). Laroche does not offer an explanation because he does not know.

But Adaptation is not told in such a straight forward manner as it may seem in this explication. For instance, when we learn that Laroche used to collect turtles, we see this in the form of a flashback to when Laroche was ten years old. We don’t even realize that it is Laroche, as the subtitle merely reads “NORTH MIAMI, TWENTY-SIX YEARS EARLIER,” (ibid.) until another turtle flashback is followed by an image of Orlean and Laroche in his van and she asks how many turtles he ended up collecting. This method of scripting the movie stresses the point that “history is not real and simple, but complicated and perverse” (ibid.). The plot of Adaptation is not simple or straightforward either, because it needs to follow the complicated and at times perverse history of the characters.

Mixed throughout the film, there are a whole series of images of a seven-year-old girl, who turns out to be Orlean, swinging on a swing set in the backyard of her childhood home. The first time, the scene is bright and her parents are pushing her on the swing, kissing between pushes. The next time, the scene is darker and only her father pushes her, while her mother smokes in the distance. The final time we see Orlean on the swing, it is night and she is alone, noticing through the windows that her parents sit on opposite sides of the house.

Far later in the film, Kaufman explains into his recorder that “this symbolizes the profound scarring their waning passion has had on the girl’s psyche, how she became afraid to ever really love something because it would go away” (ibid.). These scenes do convey a distancing, perhaps the distancing of self from passion that has made Orlean “want to know how it feels to care about something passionately” (ibid.). The way that Kaufman separates these memories from each other demonstrates that he “sees the self as dissolved or dismembered by the fragmenting of experience” (Giddens, 493), because Orlean does not understand herself in terms of these memories, nor does she even recall them one after the other and recognize her own lack of passion as the end result of these circumstances.

Time, place, and people are constantly jumbled throughout Adaptation, even though Donald says, “do not proliferate characters; do not multiply locations. Rather than hop scotching through time, space, and people, discipline yourself to a reasonably contained cast and world” (Adaptation). Here, Donald follows the teachings of script writing guru McCoy, taking a modernist stance of what a script should be. For the majority of the film, however, Charlie disregards these concepts to put together a postmodern script where it is possible for the viewer to watch as Orlean sits at her computer, working on her novel, as her voice over explains that “orchid hunting is a mortal occupation” (ibid.) and then follow a series of images of four specific orchid hunters that died in the past one hundred years as Orlean’s voice over explains how they met their fatalities. In Charlie Kaufman’s script, it’s okay to go back thirty years for a minute long shot, or even back to the beginning of time. We do not see history as a matter of chronology or sequence; “history is not a straight, progressive line” (Lemert, 452). There is no concrete beginning, middle, and end. It is often unclear to what end the plot strives toward.

Charlie, in fact, offers the viewer countless beginnings. We think the beginning is Charlie’s description of himself as old, bald, and fat, but once we learn that Charlie is actually just agreeing to adapt The Orchid Thief to a film script, we wonder just where the film begins, if not at what we thought of as the actual beginning. Kaufman reads The Portable Darwin and gets the idea to start the movie

“four billion years ago. Life has not begun. Endless, barren terrain. Silence. Silence. . . then, after the entire history of life on the planet, in the last seconds of the montage, we see the whole of human history: tool-making, hunting, farming, war, lust, religion, self-consciousness, yearning. Then, bam! Cut to Susan Orlean writing a book about orchids. And the story begins. It’s perfect! It’s circular! It’s everything!” (Adaptation).

Here, Kaufman literally wants to begin at the beginning of the world, clearly influenced by the Darwin he reads, and we watch a quick series of images to that effect. Later he decides, “movie opens with Susan Orlean typing ‘John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick,’ and then instantly switches to Laroche’s history to say that the “movie opens with a young boy picking out his first pet” (ibid.). Other ideas that he comes up with include starting with Laroche because “he’s funny. Okay, he says. . . I love to mutate plants, mutation is fun. Okay, we show flowers and okay, we have the court case. Okay, we show Laroche, he says, I was mutated as baby, that’s why I’m so smart. . . okay, we open at the beginning of time. . . no” (ibid.). To my mind, Kaufman’s inclusion of all his ideas for beginnings in his final script speaks to the idea that “the grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative” (Lyotard, 467) or something else. This script is not merely Charlie Kaufman’s story, nor is it Laroche’s or Orlean’s, or humankind’s. It seems to originate from and belong to many people and no one all at once.

The concept of simulacrum, which Plato defines as a copy of a copy, twice removed from the original and therefore twice removed from the value of the original, pops up repeatedly in Adaptation. First, we must consider that Adaptation is a film, and at the most basic level, all films can be considered a form of simulacra since they create a “mental picture of something not real or present” (Gamson, 374) by simulating life on a screen. Furthermore, Adaptation is simultaneously about a script writer’s process of adapting a book to film and an author’s process of writing a book about a real man and events in his life. In regard to Charlie Kaufman’s character, Kaufman himself has written his own character who writes about himself and is, in turn, portrayed in the film by Nicolas Cage. Kaufman writes Orlean’s character, who is portrayed by Meryl Streep, based on what Orlean has revealed about herself in her book. Kaufman also writes Laroche’s character, portrayed by Chris Cooper, based on his perception of what Orlean has written about him. Therefore, Orlean and Laroche are based on several copies of copies of the original, and in this case, simulacra actually proceeds the original, or the real. This is what Baudrillard defines as “precession of simulacra” (Baudrillard, 482), instances in which the simulation (Orlean and Laroche as characters in The Orchid Thief) is what the simulacra (Kaufman’s film) is based on, rather than on the originals (Orlean and Laroche themselves). Simulacra, then, become “hyperreal representations for the ‘real’ world” (Gamson, 387).

Another instance of precession of simulacra occurs toward the start of the film. Charlie explains to Margaret, the woman he has unexpressed feelings for, that he has an offer to adapt The Orchid Thief to film. She seems happy for him, saying, “Doesn’t it sound exciting, to immerse yourself in a real subject and learn everything about it? Blake wrote about seeing heaven in a wild flower” (Adaptation). The viewer has no idea whether or not Charlie is familiar with Blake, but when he meets with Valerie to discuss the project, he tells her that he “want[s] to show people heaven in a wild flower. As Blake wrote” (ibid.). It seems as though he is merely repeating what Margaret said in an attempt to seem clever, unaware of the original work.

Later in the film, Charlie awkwardly discusses his script with a woman at a party, trying to impress her, and mentions Blake again: “it’s, like, Blake talked about seeing. . . heaven in a wild flower” (ibid.). The only evidence that speaks strongly to the effect that Charlie is not familiar with Blake’s work is when he records his own interpretation of the scene with Valerie; “Kaufman sits across from Valerie, a pretty film executive. . . he tries to sound like he knows what he’s talking about. He’s full of shit” (ibid.). Charlie’s insecurity about his own intelligence and ability leads him to repeat something that Margaret said to him because he thinks an established writer’s idea is better than anything he could think of himself. Another time, Charlie quotes T.S. Eliot – “The great poet, in writing himself, writes his time” (ibid.) – to validate the way he chooses to write his script.

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