Adaptation (2002): Spike Jonze Directs Charlie Kaufman’s Script, Starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep

Spike Jonze followed up his bravura 1999 feature directing debut, Being John Malkovich, with another amusing, playful, and self-referential script by Charlie Kaufman, Adaptation,” based on Susan Orleab’s non-fiction book, “The Orchid Thief” initially published in the New Yorker nagazine.

In a role originally intended for Tom Hanks, Nicholas Cage stars as twin brothers, Charlie and Donald Kaufman, and Meryl Streep is cast as the author Susan.

The supporting cast is headed by Chris Cooper, who won the 2002 Supporting Actor Oscar, Cara Seymour, Brian Cox, Tilda Swinton, Ron Livingston, and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Centering on the issue of creative block, Adaptation is the story of Charlie Kaufman’s struggle to adapt the highly-acclaimed, complex book of “The Orchid Thief” into an original and commercially viable Hollywood movie. In the course of the deliberately convoluted plot, Orlean romances with John Laroche, while Charlie recruits the help of his twin brother, Donald.

 

Like all of Kauffman’s scenarios, this one is personal. Kaufman went through writer’s block while trying to adapt “The Orchid Thief.” He then wrote a script about his experience adapting “The Orchid Thief” into a movie.

 

The serio (romantic) comedy begins with a dramatic event. Laroche and his wife run a successful Florida nursery but tragedy strikes, and his family gets into a car accident. Laroche’s mother and uncle are killed, and his wife goes into a coma; once she regains consciousness, she divorces Laroche and sues him. Things get worse, when a month later, Laroche’s home is destroyed by Hurricane Andrew.

Meanwhile, local Seminoles hire Laroche due to his vast knowledge of orchid poaching but he finds out they only use the extract of the flower for illicit drug use, not for tribal rituals as he had thought. Caught and tried at the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, he attracts the attention of New Yorker journo Susan Orlean. A friendship evolves, and Orlean writes “The Orchid Thief,” after which they become romantically involved, despite huge personality differences and even though Susan is still married in New York.

When Charlie goes through melancholy depression, his twin brother Donald moves into his Los Angeles place to console him. Donald decides to become a screenwriter like Charlie, and visits the seminars of writing guru Robert McKee.

Charlie wants to adapt the script into a faithful adaptation of “The Orchid Thief,” hoping to impress Susan. However, he realizes there is no conventional narrative—or happy ending–and finds it impossible to turn the book into a film, going through a serious case of writer’s block.

In contrast, Donald’s spec script for a cliché psychological thriller sells for high fee, while Charlie accidentally starts writing his script full of self-references.

Failing to meet his deadline with Columbia Pictures, Charlie visits Susan in New York for advice on the screenplay. In New York Charlie finds that he is not courageous enough to meet Susan, leaving without consulting with her. Charlie visits a McKee seminar in New York, gaining advice from the wriring guru, and bringing Donald to assist with the story.

Donald even agrees to go on an interview with Susan, posing as Charlie. Holding that Susan is lying, the siblings follow Susan to Florida where she meets Laroche, observing them taking the Ghost Orchid drug and having sex.

The rest of the ironic plot consists of Hollywood conventions.   Donald is shot in a car chase, and then killed in a crash, Laroche is killed by an alligator, and Susan is arrested by the police. But, alas, his writer’s block is broken, and Charlie finally summons up the courage to tell his former girlfriend Amelia that he is in love with her. He then finishes his script, and cast French actor Gerard Depardieu to portray him on screen.

Opening on December 6, the indie film was successful, grossing $22,245,861 at the domestic box-office.

 

Oscar Nominations: 3

Oscar Awards: 1

Supporting Actor: Chris Cooper