This was actually my second time seeing this film- the first was with my parents when it was in theatrical release, and as a 15 year old I’m not sure I got much out of it beyond “gee, watching Tilda Swinton hump Nicholas Cage in front of my dad is AWKWARD.” This time around was a bit different, but twenty minutes after the credits have finished rolling and I’m still sitting here trying to sort out what the hell just happened. Bear with me, please, as I try to sort this out.
I think the most intellectual-sounding conclusion I’ve drawn is that “Charlie” “wrote” the first two-thirds of the screenplay and then handed the reigns over to “Donald”. The first part, therefore, is about the process of reading and writing. It reminded me of an article I’d just read the other day about whether films should require a second viewing. I would (and did, in the comments section, because that’s a worthwhile use of my forthcoming masters in English) that yes, good films frequently do require a second viewing in the same way that a good book often necessitates multiple readings in order to squeeze all the figurative juice out of it. In Adaptation, we see the process of reading and interpreting a work quite literally, as we watch Charles struggle with finding a way to turn The Orchid Thief into a screenplay, but we also see the ways in which writers struggle to present their work in any medium. Towards the beginning of the film we are shown a montage of the beginning of life on Earth leading up to the life of Charles Kaufman; later, in a dictation to himself via recording device, Charles describes that same scene as the opening of the fictional film leading up to the career of Susan (instead of Charles) (and then he describes himself describing it! Whew! So much META!).
So that is the first half of the movie- the process by which we get meaning from various works of literature and film, usually by repeat exposure to said works. The second half is chock full of the cliched elements used to sell commercial hits but critical flops: violence, drugs, sex, redemption, and a happy ending in the form of Charles revealing his love to his would-be paramour. It’s Charles asking his hack of a brother to do the writing for him when he’s finally given up on telling the story his way, and it’s exactly what the studio exec asked of Charlie in their first meeting (“We were thinking LaRoche and Susan could fall in love!”). In other words, the first part of the film is what happens when a writer over-thinks the process of adaptation, whereas the second half is what happens when you give up on making something faithful to the original and go ahead and give the audience what it thinks it wants.