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COMMENTARY

A few issues to work through

'Adaptation' is all true, says an ex-screenwriter who counsels writers who are as torn as the real -- and reel -- Charlie Kaufman.

January 12, 2003|Dennis Palumbo | Special to The Times

The funniest line in "Adaptation," the still-resonating black comedy starring Nicolas Cage as tormented screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, isn't in the movie. It's in the film's press kit.

As the now-familiar story goes, Kaufman, an Oscar nominee for his screenplay for "Being John Malkovich," was hired to adapt Susan Orlean's nonfiction book "The Orchid Thief" to the screen. Yet, despite his previous success, the production notes explain, Kaufman was still "plagued by insecurities."

Only a studio press kit would make such an assertion as though it were inexplicable -- and vaguely unseemly. After all, "success" equals "secure" -- right?

Wrong, as this film, directed by Spike Jonze, makes clear.

The film's journey to the screen is a unique one. After accepting the assignment to adapt Orlean's story about a charismatic and unlikely orchid thief named John Laroche, Kaufman found himself in the grip of a crippling writer's block.

Unable to turn Orlean's personal, lyrical prose into conventional screen narrative, Kaufman instead wrote a script about this very dilemma. His lead character is not Laroche, but a hapless, woefully insecure screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman, going crazy trying to adapt the book.

If you haven't yet seen it, let it suffice to say that in the course of the story, Charlie goes on to meet Orlean herself, Laroche, screenwriting guru Robert McKee, and some very nasty alligators before the film comes to its surprising and curiously moving conclusion.

As a former screenwriter myself, now a therapist who works with writers, I was struck by how accurately the film depicts the harrowing mesh of self-loathing, envy, rage and feigned cynicism that is the screenwriter's world.

Whether trying unsuccessfully to explain his concerns to his agent, fending off polite-though-suspicious inquiries by studio execs who want to know when they can expect to see pages, or clinging precariously to his sanity in the face of material that will not work, Charlie Kaufman's ordeal is one that every screenwriter will recognize.

Unfortunately. And hilariously.

Take, for example, the many scenes of Charlie's bearlike, bathrobed body shuffling aimlessly between rooms, or lying face down over the edge of his bed, or face up for a sobering, unchanging view of his stucco ceiling. He's trapped -- in his body, in his house, in his life; a bundle of raw nerves, and yet all that mental energy leads only to a kind of physical and psychological inertia.

Oddly enough, the real-life Kaufman ended up doing what I often suggest to my writer clients: When blocked, write about what you're actually feeling -- fear, despair, whatever -- and use that to bring urgency and personal relevance to the work. In "Adaptation," Kaufman goes this technique one better -- he makes his creative struggles the heart of the narrative itself.

The film resonates because it understands a profound paradox: that we're, all of us, in an ongoing process of adapting -- first, in the broadest sense, as a function of evolution; but, more specifically, to the day-to-day changes in our culture, relationships and workplaces. In other words, we're navigating the ongoing compromises that are a requirement of the social compact, and yet, within this, some part of us still yearns for personal authenticity.

In the film, Charlie's not just trying to finish his assignment. He's trying to write well, while having to base his work on someone else's vision. As we all do, more often than not, in our working lives: We're trying to be authentic to our own creativity within the framework of someone else's (a boss', a corporation's) structure.

Charlie's struggles to write a good script -- his attempt to speak truthfully through the vehicle of another writer's work -- goes right to the heart of the matter: the artist's striving for a purity of voice in a commercial marketplace.

It was true for Michelangelo, "adapting" biblical scenes for the Sistine Chapel, under the demanding (and cost-conscious) eye of Pope Julius II. And it's true now.

It doesn't get easier

Which brings us back to those production notes, and the idea that the real Charlie Kaufman's previous screenwriting success should in any way rid him of creative insecurities. It's a perception that reveals how misunderstood the writer's life really is.

I remember, years ago, after I'd achieved some success as a writer, my agent assumed that "writing must be a lot easier now." I tried to explain to her that, in my own experience, writing only gets progressively harder. The better the writer is, the more he or she expects of the work. The bar just gets set higher.

In her book, Susan Orlean writes that her real fascination with the Orchid Thief is with his passion for his work, and that she "wanted to know what it feels like to care about something passionately ...."

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