Adapting ‘Adaptation’

By Randal Stevens · June 21, 2010

I realize I'm a bit (read: very) late to the party, but last week I watched Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation for the first time. I had been told countless times from a wide gamut of people – movie fans and otherwise – that I needed (I emphasize need here) to see the Oscar-nominated film. I really had no valid reason not to watch the movie; after all, I listed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on my Top 10 Films of the decade last year and I was a big fan of Being Jonh Malkovich. I suppose the reason I put off seeing it for so long had something to do with the fact that I grew up and was educated in a relatively small and ignorant bubble of reality and didn't want to watch any film or television show dealing with "the biz" because I didn't want to face the fact that the movie industry is much larger, more complicated, intimidating and difficult to adapt to than I'd like. For a kid who grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, went to college in central Pennsylvania and only developed aspirations of filmmaking at the age of 20, what I didn't want to hear was that you have as much a chance of winning the lottery as you do striking it rich in Hollywood.


Well, being far removed from college and having read and watch plenty of material about Hollywood on top of meeting and knowing many people who have made the trek there and back again in hopes of fulfilling their own aspirations, I decided that I was cynical and jaded enough to finally check out Adaptation. You know how sometimes you encounter a movie where the word of mouth behind it is inescapable, where the comment of, "I haven't seen it" will bring looks of shock and scorn from children and the elderly, where it's wound up on just about everybody's best of something or other list? Adaptation is one of those movies and holy shit, did it live up to the all the hype.


As if there were any doubts, Charlie Kaufman is indeed brilliant. There are plenty movies out there about screenwriting, but Adaptation is the absolute best one when it comes to capturing the psyche and internal musings of a screenwriter. I'm sure that anybody who has ever sat down in front of a blank piece of paper or laptop screen can relate to the part where Kaufman tries to convince himself that a third party bribe or reward – in his case, a cup of coffee – would help motivate him to concentrate on writing. How many of us have justified our not writing by saying "I just need this to get going" or "well, I've written so much so I deserve a break." But even better than that, Kaufman has perfectly captured the intense self-loathing, self-doubt, self-importance and psychological struggles that a writer experiences in trying to complete even a single draft of a screenplay.


Many readers who follow my blog know how much I champion the documentary Tales from the Script when it comes to a litmus test for one's screenwriting aspirations. Now that I've seen Adaptation, I would Kaufman's feature alongside of Peter Hanson's doc as a way to weed out those who like to write from those who truly want to write. It's safe to say that the life Kaufman depicts for the audience is in no way glamorous or smooth going. There is, of course, an inherent distrust in the audience when it hears a critically and financially successful filmmaker telling them that life is very difficult, but with Kaufman, who is quite neurotic and anti-social, we can believe it. This isn't George Lucas, who makes what he wants without the slightest contradictions from anyone, telling us that filmmaking isn't easy. Who would believe that? This is Charlie Kaufman, who gave barely an acceptance speech at the Oscars because he hates being in the spotlight, because he wants to be left alone, because it goes against everything in his nature to be a public figure. But I imagine that Charlie Kaufman couldn't live with himself if he was a casting director, if he was an investment banker, or if he was a pediatrician. Charlie Kaufman writes because Charlie Kaufman couldn't be happy (for lack of a better word) doing anything else.


And this is where the inconvenient truth of screenwriting comes into play. Both Hanson's and Kaufman's work convey without any sugar coating or overstating that screenwriting is not for everyone. This is an unfortunate fact that I'd say more than half of aspiring screenwriters have to face at different points in their life, whether it's when they're starting out and they realize they can't grasp the three-act structure, or whether it's years – perhaps decades – after they've moved out to Hollywood and found their screenplays rejected time and time again. Some people may not have that stick-to-ittiveness that is required to write 10 scripts just to sell 1. Some people may not be able to translate their encyclopedic knowledge into a coherent screenplay. Some people may just be straight up bad writers. Just because you want to be a screenwriter, doesn't mean you should be a screenwriter.


But let me be clear – that's not to say you should not ever try to be a screenwriter. Sometimes the only way to know that you shouldn't do something is to do it and even then, there's no harm in giving up. Our culture, for some reason, have for many years hammered into our heads that giving up is a cardinal sin equivalent to pedophilia. Nonsense. If you're not equipped properly do perform a certain task, you're only embarrassing yourself by keeping on and potentially passing up on different (notice I don't say better or worse) opportunities. Think about it – Roger Ebert, the world's most respected and well-known film critic, has only 3 screenplay credits to his name and they all come from Russ Meyer sexploitation flicks. Harvey Weinstein, arguably the most significant figure in the American independent film movement of the 80s and 90s, had his dreams of directing shattered thanks to the lost and disastrous Playing for Keeps. Robert McKee, who hosts wildly successful screenwriting seminars across the world, has no feature film screenplays to his credit at all. Should you come to the conclusion that you're not meant to be a screenwriter, take heart – it's not the end of the world. Your calling is out there. Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, studied clarinet at Julliard. Martin Scorsese almost went into seminary. Sharlto Copley, star of District 9, had no inclinations to be an actor.


Besides, no matter how badly you may "fail," you're bound to be better than the "successful" duo of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.