Sunday, 13 December 2015

Adaptation (5 Stars)

This year the film "Legend" was shown in which one actor, Tom Hardy, played two characters, the Kray twins. It might seem like a novel gimmick to have an actor play both twins, but it's something that has been done repeatedly in the history of cinema. In 1929 William Bakewell played Louis XIV and his unnamed twin brother in "The Iron Mask". In 1946 Douglas Fairbanks played the twins Mario and Lucien Franchi in "The Corsican Brothers". Of course, in the early days of cinema technology was limited. It was difficult to put the same actor in the same picture twice without cutting film frames in half, or maybe using a stand-in in double shoots with his face hidden.

In 2002 Nicolas Cage was cast to play both of the Kaufman twins, Charlie and Donald, in "Adaptation". No other film comes as close to highlighting Nicolas Cage's brilliance as an actor. Charlie Kaufman is insecure, full of self-loathing. Donald Kaufman is self-confident, happily sailing through life, naively oblivious when people speak badly of him behind his back. (On a side note, the Economist once praised German Chancellor Helmut Kohl for dealing with problems by not noticing them until they were gone). The relationship between the twins is even more poignant. Donald, on the left in the picture above, loves and idolises his brother. Charlie's feelings are more complex: he has affection for Donald, but he considers him to be stupid and an embarrassment. Nevertheless, Charlie would like to be more like Donald.

My regular readers will realise that it's no coincidence that I've shown a screenshot where the two characters are reading books. Charlie is reading "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean, the book which he is attempting to adapt into a screenplay. Donald is reading "Story" by Robert McKee, a book of instructions on how to be a successful screenwriter. The authors of both books appear in the film, played by Meryl Streep and Brian Cox respectively.

In real life Charlie Kaufman doesn't have a brother. In the context of the film it's obvious to interpret this as a multiple personality disorder. Donald is writing a screenplay in which a police detective and a serial killer are the same person, which the detective doesn't realise when he's pursuing the killer, or even when the killer holds the detective prisoner. We can interpret the film as Charlie being held prisoner by his other self, unable to escape until he kills him.

Robert McKee

However, there's another way to interpret Donald Kaufman. Donald represents Robert McKee, while Charlie represents the real Charlie Kaufman. They are two screenwriters, but on opposite poles of creativity. Robert McKee has all the answers. "Follow my 10 rules of screenwriting and you'll be rich". Charlie Kaufman struggles to do something original, knowing the rules but deliberately breaking them. Supposedly Charlie dislikes Robert (or at least what Robert stands for) in real life. "Adaptation" is Charlie's way of dealing with him. If Robert says don't use voice-over, he'll use it throughout the movie. If Robert says don't use a deus ex machina, he'll throw in an alligator in the final scene.

"Adaptation" is as much an adaptation of "Story" as it is of "The Orchid Thief". The joint adaptations go in different directions. "The Orchid Thief" is a sprawling non-narrative which has been developed into a coherent plot. The story emerged from the primeval ooze and developed into an upright piece of fiction. "Story" is a well-organised book, but it's reduced into chaos, being smashed to pieces by the end of the film. It's evolution versus entropy.

"Adaptation" is probably the most brilliant screenplay ever written. Its depth and nuances make it an ideal topic for a film studies PhD thesis. Probably someone has already written a thesis about it. If I find a thesis on this film I'll ask the author for permission to publish it in full on my blog, because I know that nothing I write myself could ever say enough about the film.

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