Written by Charlie & Donald Kaufman
Directed by Spike Jonze
The first thing you need to know is that there is no such person as Donald Kaufman. Writer Charlie Kaufman completely fabricated his identical twin brother for the purposes of this story and then included him in the writing credits. Adaptation is a movie intended to mess with your head and not hide its commentary on storytelling, films, and narcissism. To say what this movie’s plot is about is near impossible as it composes so many layers and goes deep into the mental recesses of Kaufman.
The first layer to the story in Adaptation is of journalist Susan Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) trip to Florida to interview an orchid thief named John Laroche (Chris Cooper). Laroche’s story exists within Orlean’s as he tells her about being hired by Seminoles looking to start a rare flower nursery. He’s arrested after trying to find a legal loophole allowing Indigenous people the ability to harvest endangered flowers due to cultural practices. Orlean becomes swept up in Laroche’s passion for things, jumping from one obsession to another every few years, altogether abandoning the old stuff he devoted his life to.
The next layer of the story is screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) being hired to adapt Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, into a feature film. The book doesn’t have a narrative and is more a meditation on orchids. Kaufman is also a profoundly insecure and neurotic person, he’s just come off the success of Being John Malkovich and is suddenly doubting his talents. We can see he’s just purchased a new house with some of that money, a cookie-cutter home with vast empty space yawning for furniture. The area is shared with Kaufman’s twin brother Donald (also played by Cage), who is an aspiring screenwriter.
Donald represents all those things about the Hollywood system Kaufman abhors and fears he will become. The brother is writing his own script, a somewhat trite murder mystery thriller into which Donald dumps all those cliches filmgoers of the late 1990s/early 2000s will likely be extremely familiar with. Kaufman continually talks down to his brother inbetween bouts of internal fretting and fantasizing over women. This is fascinating for the amount of self-loathing and criticism Kaufman heaps onto himself, making sure we don’t sympathize too much with him and end up feeling a soft spot for his brother.
Adaptation constantly surprises its audience, taking us back to the beginning of primordial life on Earth to the inner sexual fantasies of Kaufman and finally to a third act that twists and turns all of reality on its head. We see real people playing themselves in the picture: John Cusack, Katherine Keener, John Malkovich. But we also see real people performed by actors, Kaufman, Orlean, Robert McKee. And Donald Kaufman is a complete fabrication. You are being asked to question what you assume is real, ask yourself what parts of your life are genuine and which are shaped to match an ideal.
Donald is ultimately the person Kaufman thinks he’s supposed to be. He follows the principles and structures of screenwriting as developed by the studios. He quickly churns out pap for the mainstream audience. But Donald also meets a woman and has a healthy relationship. Donald doesn’t allow his neuroses to rule over his life. This makes the final twenty minutes very telling about what Kaufman is saying about the ideal. And boy that ending, it works on multiple levels just like the whole story that has happened before that point. Adaptation is a film to be unpacked over many viewings, with subtle gestures hidden within its dizzying structure.