The Layers of Adaptation (2002); by Meng Hui

Published: 16 October 2018

With its symbolic characters and many layers of complexity hidden in its seemingly straightforward storyline, Adaptation (2002) is not your typical film on the struggles of screenwriting. The screenplay of the film in fact, mirrors the personal experience of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman in the highly-competitive industry; Kaufman has written himself—both literally and figuratively—into the movie, along with all his anxieties, mundanities and struggles in real life.

The essence of the screenplay lies in the title of the film, which itself is a brilliant play of the word, on three fronts. The first calls for an understanding of adaptation in a biological sense (re: Darwinism) and it relates to the proliferation of the orchid plant as a species. As the oldest living species on the planet, orchids are regarded as one the most evolved group of flowering plants on earth. Fun fact: the orchids species has been around since the age of dinosaurs! A second (and rather straightforward) interpretation of adaptation attest to Charlie Kaufman’s attempt (and struggle) at adapting the non-fiction book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orleans into a screenplay. The last (and perhaps the least obvious one) hinted at the adaptation of social actors as functioning, participating members of society. Kaufman’s brilliant introduction of these complimentary themes encourages us to ponder more critically about the relationships established between social structures / institutions and us, social actors.


“I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases or characters learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcome obstacles to succeed in the end. The book isn’t like that, and life isn’t like that, it just isn’t.”

Charlie Kaufman

The struggle for Kaufman to adapt the screenplay becomes pronounced with his realization of the lack of a usable narrative to which he could develop on in The Orchid Thief. While Kaufman rejects formulaic script-writing and longed to preserve the authenticity of the story, he is constantly pressured to conform to the established rules of the industry — the production of a sensationalized and dramatic script so widely celebrated by Hollywood.

The institution seemed to be an omnipresent and dominating force in society: its tenets are often imposed, propagated and reinforced by the ‘agents of control’ such as Marty Bowen (Kaufman’s filmography producer) and Robert McKee (famous story consultant) in Adaptation. According to Bowen, Kaufman should simply fabricate a crazy, edgy thriller to appeal to the audience for there will be serious repercussions (re: the end of Kaufman’s career) if he pulled out. Similarly, when Kaufman seeks the advice of McKee, all he obtained was more principles of storytelling defining the standards by which the worth of a piece of work should be evaluated. Besides them, we also have the writers community who attended McKee’s writing seminars, as well as the producers and audience acting, all as control agents: the producers approved of only certain types of scripts and only films with specific plots garnered massive support from the audience. These agents of control are powerful means by which institutions instill order and control over social actors to conform and stay within the accepted boundaries of behaviour. There is thenceforth great inertia and difficulty for Charlie Kaufman to break out of the norm to create something unconventional. The division between a good screenplay and a bad one is more often than not, analogous to one’s choice to conform or to challenge the existing boundaries.

This brings us to another interesting element of the film: the introduction of Charlie’s fictitious twin brother (and another aspiring screenwriter), Donald Kaufman. While a figment of his imagination in real life, Donald as a character serves as a reflection of Charlie’s internal struggles and his confrontation within himself. Charlie and Donald Kaufman are indubitably two sides of the same coin: Charlie is disillusioned, Donald is highly enthusiastic; Charlie faces the crisis of writer’s block with his intent to faithfully adapt The Orchid Thief, whereas Donald embraces the tenets of screenwriting as laid out by McKee and, much to Charlie’s bafflement (and envy), Donald’s first speculative screenplay on a cliché psychological thriller —despite its illogical and bewildering plot— is very well-received. Donald can be interpreted as Charlie’s alternate self and desire to conform and thrive in society, as someone whom he somewhat despises but wants to be like. Through the purposeful installation of Donald as a character, Kaufman comically hinted at multiple personality disorders as a cliché plot while simultaneously showing how the conformist attitudes and behaviours are once again celebrated through these seemingly neutral intermediaries.


“What I came to understand is that change is not a choice. Not for a species of plant, and not for me.”

Susan Orleans

In the beginning of the film, Adaptation alluded to this theme of wearing a superficial front that covers the true self. As aptly reflected by the life of Susan Orleans, society values polished and presentable facades over true identity. It is more often than not, mirrored by the sensationalization celebrated in Hollywood in contrast to our dull and mundane reality. The movie industry, and producers and audience alike seeks a spectacular movie while its realisticity takes a back seat. For us social actors to fit in and be accepted by society, we have to conform, or at least adapt so we appear to conform.

Susan Orleans’ character fittingly illustrates how societal standards of worth imposed upon her (meant to curb deviant behaviour) merely caused her to hide it. Orleans has been putting up a strong front and she does feel incongruent with her true self: while she gave off the impression of an aspiring journalist (someone ‘normal’), her attempts to hide her deviance and her desire to break out of societal norms is slowly uncovered as the story develops. Her frustrations with current life propelled her fascination with people such as Laroche, who have the courage to pursue their passion even though their actions may deviate from what is acceptable by society. We see Orleans’ deviation from societal norms eventually, with her affair with Laroche and her consumption of drugs. She is however, still rather conscientious about her image and the clash with her desires: when her deviant behaviour was discovered by Charlie Kaufman, Orleans resolves to undertake the extreme act of killing him in her attempt to hide her deviance and maintain her appearance as a conforming member of society.

With the overemphasis of the external perception of us in social life, we have nurtured facets that helps us be accepted as participating members of society: we develop fronts that do not reflect our true realities and selves; we deal with characteristics deemed to be deviant by concealing them. We appear to conform, but are we truly? The film Adaptation not only highlights how society values the sensationalised life above real life, but also how we as individuals have come to lose touch with our own reality when all we are striving for is a dramatic flair portrayed in the over-sensationalist media so dearly celebrated by society. With much more attention paid to the sensationalised life that we are trying to portray but not actually living, we paid less attention to our real selves. Our hidden deviance which fall through the cracks of regulating institutions on the other hand, has simply adapted to survive and it manifest hidden from sight.

Needless to say, the movie is ironic, with its dramatic twist and exaggerated account of Kaufman’s struggles with his attempt at adapting The Orchid Thief — the story development depended on the very principle of screenwriting Kaufman rejects. It is however, commendable that Kaufman has written himself into the movie, along with the only reality he knew: his panic, self-loathing, mundane and ‘pathetic’ reality. The death of Donald Kaufman at the end of the movie symbolises that he has made peace with his reality, despite its deviance, letting go of his need to appear well-adjusted in life for the sake of pleasing society. Yet despite the elements of conformity, Kaufman’s venture into such a cynical screenplay is perhaps also his own form of adaptation to a social reality that is truly his… Now, what’s yours?