Setting Expectations

Adaptation (2002) I recently had the experience of being reminded of the film Adaptation twice in twenty-four hours. I take such events as a signal that it’s time to revisit such works, and so I recently sat down and watched the film again.

Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, Adaptation is the story of a screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage), attempting to write the screenplay for the adaptation of a novel, The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. Kaufman the character struggles with a very old problem for writers: the tension between an audience’s expectations and a writer’s sense of duty to their vision. In the case of Adaptation, the tension is threefold. Since he is writing an adaptation of another person’s novel into a film, there is not only his vision and the audience’s expectations to reconcile, but the original author’s vision as well.

Any writer who has ever fought to pull themselves back from the edge of the abyss of self-doubt (which should be most if not all of us), will appreciate the self-deprecatory humor, as Kaufman the character, for example, internally monologues about rewarding himself for writing by getting a muffin, then proceeds to go get the muffin instead of doing any writing. A character later in the film will interrupt another such a voiceover with the statement that internal monologue voiceovers are sloppy writing. These are just two of a large number of writer in-jokes, which I imagine come off as oddly defeatist and probably not even funny to non-writers.

When I first watched Adaptation, I was in the throes of dealing with the fallout from the toxic writing group I attended while writing my first two novels, Voyage Embarkation and Insomnium. What most resonated with me at the time was the thread of the film in which Kaufman struggles with audience expectations. In the world of the film, Charlie Kaufman has a twin brother named Donald, who, completely uninhibited and uncritical, attends writing guru-led events and writes a schlocky screenplay. Adaptation has a wonderful closing section, which I won’t spoil. What is relevant, however, is that my first viewing had me interpret this section as a “send up” of Donald’s uninhibited acquiescence to audience expectations and unquestioning acceptance of formulaic plot construction.

This time through the film, with my former writing group much less on my mind, I realized that the film’s ending isn’t so much a mockery of subservience to an audience’s expectations, but rather a depiction of how a skilled writer can construct meaningful purpose from even the most banal expectations and formulae.

Therein lies the true brilliance of the film. Ostensibly, it is about Charlie Kaufman failing to adapt The Orchid Thief to the screen and writing a film called Adaptation, which ironically embodies that failure to create an adaptation. However, what I realize now is that Adaptation does marry Kaufman’s incessant self-reflectivity with The Orchid Thief’s themes of disappointment and obsession by transposing those themes from rare flowers onto artistic creativity. Adaptation is an adaptation of The Orchid Thief, although certainly the most unconventional of adaptations ever created.