Adaptation is 20 years old! And we’re here celebrating the curious, intriguing film from director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman (the latter of 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fame).
It features a terrific double performance from Nic Cage, plus an interesting and meta script with postmodernism… or something. Whatever, Meryl Streep is in it as well, plus Chris Cooper, and a mysterious drug. Let’s revisit this thing.
Meta Screenplay Action in Adaptation
The screenplay for Adaptation was written by Charlie Kaufman. It was based on his struggles to adapt a screenplay of the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (a very real book by a real author called Susan Orlean).
Adaptation’s lead character is… Charlie Kaufman (Nic Cage). Plus, there’s his twin brother Donald (Nic Cage).
Cage is on great form here, showcasing the different personalities of the twins. Charlie is depressed, self-loathing, anxiety ridden, and shy.
Donald is extroverted, charismatic, and bags the babes. He moves into his brother’s house and starts freeloading about the place, chatting to movie stars at the like.
He annoys his brother by saying he’s hung out with Catherine Keener.
Charlie promptly has a confidence crisis about adapting The Orchid Thief and goes to speak to his agent. He wants off the project.
That’s rejected and he’s expected to go ahead, with Charlie having a moment of clarity later and thinking he’s got the script on the go.
Meanwhile, Donald also picks up a job as a screenwriter and seems to have a natural knack for it. Further annoying his troubled brother.
That’s after attending seminars with (the real-life) author and lecturer Robert McKee.
Donald suggests Charlie attends some of McGee’s lectures. The latter doesn’t like the idea at first considering it below his experience level.
Instead, he descends further into self-loathing as he struggles to meet deadlines with his studio Columbia Pictures. In a panic, he heads off to New York to meet Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) and talk to her directly about her novel for ideas.
However, he’s too socially awkward and doesn’t have the confidence to talk to her when he meets her on an elevator.
Stricken with writer’s block he gives up and goes to see McKee for a class.
What happens next is Donald interviews Orlean, but is suspicious of her general behaviour. The brothers follow Orlean to Florida, where she meets a guy called John Laroche (Chris Cooper) who’s the protagonist of her book. And who she’s sleeping around with whilst taking drugs.
Charlie catches them in the act and the two decide (for some reason) the best course of action is to murder Charlie to keep Orlean’s reputation intact.
The result (spoilers ahoy) is Adaptation’s bizarre ending:
- Orlean and Laroche catch Charlie and Donald and drive them to a swamp where Laroche intends to shoot him.
- Charlie and Donald instead escape into the swamp.
- The pair try to flee in a car, but collide with a ranger’s van, with Donald being ejected through the windscreen and killed.
- Charlie escapes back into the swamp.
- Laroche spots Charlie and goes to shoot him, but is killed by an angry alligator.
- Orlean is arrested for being a two-faced bitch.
In the aftermath, Charlie reconciles with his mother. And also tells his love interest Amelia (Cara Seymour) he swoons for her, with Amelia reciprocating the feeling.
The film ends with Charlie wrapping up his screenplay.
Yeah. We never did like that ending and thought it was just a series of stuff happening for the sake of shock value. Rather than actually being a good bit of writing from Charlie Kaufman.
However, rubbish finale aside we think the many highs of Adaptation make it notable and worthwhile 20 years after its release.
Nic Cage is on great form and infinitely watchable here.
It’s a great duel role. Cage comes across as a charismatic, if eccentric, bloke and yet here he’s offering a range of extreme introversion and a more extroverted brother. This he nails with cool aplomb, showing the world once again what he was capable of.
And it’s the introverted Charlie’s battle with getting his screenplay into form that’s the highlight for the first hour (before all the weird, unexpected turns with Orlean).
To note, the real life Susan Orlean wasn’t initially pleased with her depiction in the film. She doesn’t take drugs and has been happily married since 2001 (to be clear).
However, Kaufmann convinced her to have the dodgy bits including in the film anyway. Not that we think it works very well.
But, hey ho, if you want to watch the film it’s out there! And it’s worth it for Nic Cage alone.
The film’s $19 million budget didn’t result in a huge return, with a global box office of $32.8 million. But it received a strong critical response and was nominated for Oscars.
Chris Cooper won a Best Supporting Actor gong for his efforts.
For his role as John La Roche, he grew his hair long, lost a bunch of weight, and used a prosthetic in his mouth. That made it look like he didn’t have any teeth.
Nic Cage was nominated for Best Actor, but lost out this time. He won that in 1996, though, for the cheerfully bleak Leaving Las Vegas. Can’t be too disappointing if you already have one, eh?
Tom Hanks was originally supposed to get Cage’s role, but dropped out of the project. Cage wore a fatsuit for his role as Charlie Kaufman and thinned his hair out to look like he was balding.
Interesting stuff here, but the fatsuit was stuffed with lentils and beads. These things get very hot on set and can dehydrate actors rapidly—Cage got so hot the lentils burst into life and sprouted within the suit.
For the scenes with twins, his brother (New York radio presenter Marc Coppola) was on set to offer his likeness. They don’t look that similar, but you can sort of tell they’re brothers.
Other times split screen photography was put to use to make it look like Nic Cage was performing alongside Nic Cage.
Another fun fact is the three lead characters in the brilliantly absurd Con Air (1997) appear in the film—Cage, John Malkovich, and John Cusack. With the latter two in cameos.
Malkovich has his own Kaufman treatment in the incredible bizarre Being John Malkovich (1999), which we guess we’ll have to review soon.
Otherwise, the production of the film seemed to go relatively hitch free—apart from an extended period in editing, which dragged on for 18 months.
It’s now kind of fallen into obscurity a bit, but we think it’s an interesting script (and film) helped along by Cage’s endearing performances. Well worth a rewatch.