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Charlie: I've written myself into my screenplay.
Donald: That's kind of weird, huh?
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, fresh off the success of Being John Malkovich, had a problem. He'd been hired to adapt the Susan Orlean book The Orchid Thief, about her experiences with rare flower hunter John Laroche, into a film, only to find out it had no real story and was mostly about flowers. Going out of his mind with writer's block, he eventually went off the deep end and wrote a screenplay beginning with:
This only begins to touch upon the Post Modern head trip that is Adaptation. This film functions both as a surprisingly effective film version of Orlean's book, with Meryl Streep as Orlean and Chris Cooper in an Oscar-winning performance as Laroche, retaining as much as possible the botanical and historical treatises on orchids; and as a layered deconstruction of the creative process, with neurotic intellectual Charlie (Nicolas Cage) and his tortured quest to write a movie where nothing happens, "like in real life", conflicting with his free-spirited twin Donald (oh yeah, Charlie Kaufman gave himself a twin brother also played by Nicolas Cage) who has written a trashy thriller full of car chases and murders - the exact kind of movie Charlie hates. But it's also increasingly the movie he's in after a meeting with screenwriting mentor Robert McKee (Brian Cox) inspires him to move the story steadily further away from reality.
All this plays against the raging existential crisis running incessantly through Charlie's mind. The theme of "adaptation" gains a triple meaning throughout the film, referring not only to Charlie's attempt to adapt Orleans' novel, but also to the evolutionary marvel of orchids, and also to Charlie's own attempt to evolve, to "learn how to live in the world".
This article is about the movie titled Adaptation. For adaptation-related tropes, see Derivative Works.
- Acting for Two: Nicolas Cage plays Charlie and his twin brother Donald.
- Adaptation Decay: Charlie's inability to adapt Orlean's story. The movie is unique in being about its own adaptation decay..
- Auto Cannibalism: The modus operandi of the Serial Killer in Donald's script, The Three. He also dies from this as the villain and the leading lady are the same person.
- The Cameo: John Malkovich appears as himself on the set of Being John Malkovich (Kaufman's previous movie where Malkovich played himself), along with several other cast members.
- Creator Breakdown: Charlie goes through this, ultimately writing himself into the story.
- Credits Gag: "Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman." The film is dedicated to Donald's memory as well. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, so Donald is possibly the only fictional characters to receive any real-life awards nomination. (Donald's "picture" on the Oscarcast was a picture of Charlie reversed.)
- A Date with Rosie Palms: Charlie, rather frequently. We're even lucky enough to see what he's thinking..
- Decon Recon Switch: For movie clichés.
- Defictionalization: There exists a movie called Thr3e that has a remarkably similar premise to Donald Kaufman's (fictional) script "The Three". (There's no chase scene with a horse and a motorcycle, though.) Amazingly enough, though, its similarity was entirely coincidental.
- Identity has an extremely similar twist to The Three, with the added bonus that it has multiple serial killers, multiple cops, and multiple damsels in distress all running concurrently and on different levels of reality.
- Despair Event Horizon: By the end of the film Susan Orlean regrets everything she's done her entire life.
- Deus Ex Machina: Charlie and Donald are saved from Orlean and Laroche by alligators appearing and attacking Laroche. Justified in that the end of the movie is probably meant to correspond to Donald's cliched ending to the screenplay.
- Evil Twin: Well, not actually "evil"; Donald writes Lowest Common Denominator screenplays, while Charlie wants to make True Art.
- Fan Service: It's surprisingly abundant. There is a lot of toplessness (some of it coming from Meryl Streep of all people)
- Fantastic Drug: Susan and Laroche are apparently hooked on a drug made from the Ghost Orchids.
- Genre Shift: Charlie asks Donald for help writing the film's ending...
- Inner Monologue: Which disappears the moment Robert McKee says it's hackneyed.
- Kavorka Man: Ron Livingston's character is an agent who isn't above using his job to score aspiring actresses. In conversation with Charlie he frequently breaks off in mid-sentence to mutter "Ooh, I fucked you in the ass!" at women passing in the background.
- Donald is another example.
- Lampshade Hanging: "And God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That's flaccid, sloppy writing."
- It must be noted that in real life, Robery McKee says he allows voice over "despite what Charlie Kaufman tells you" as long as it does more than simply describe what's happening on the screen.
- Lovable Rogue: Laroche. The fictional version of him, at least. The real one actually organized that poaching operation to draw the authorities' attention to the legal loophole.
- Meta Fiction
- Mind Screw: Seriously. Just think about it for a minute, especially considering that most of this story is true.
- Though this depends a lot on your definition of "truth." See Mind Screw.
- Mood Whiplash: The final act, very intentionally so.
- Never Smile At a Crocodile
- Polar Opposite Twins: Donald and Charlie Kaufman
- Post Modernism
- Self-Insert Fic: Done professionally
- Shaggy Dog Story: The Orchid Thief.
- Split Personality: In The Three, the detective, killer and hostage all turn out to be the same person. However that's supposed to work.
- Stylistic Suck: Donald's cliched thriller. Also, the entire final act; Charlie finally allows Donald to assist with the Orchid Thief script he's writing, thereby altering their own reality in the process.
- Talking to Himself: Nicolas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman.
- Title Drop: In Laroche's speech about evolution
- Writers Suck: Kaufman's self deprecation is the major theme of this film, and this self-loathing persists until The Climax. At the same time, however, Kaufman (the real writer) uses his Author Avatar to capture the triumph and joy of the creative process, and the qualities that separate a talented writer from a hack like Donald.