As movie-goers, we all have seen films advertised with the “based on the book” tag line. Unfortunately, after watching these films there are always viewers that bring up the fidelity of the film to the original piece. Artistically, this raises the question of to what extent do we define originality. Robert Stam, the author of Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation, pointed out that a film’s fidelity to a novel is an issue deemed by audiences to be moralistic, labeling a wrongful adaptation as a “betrayal” to the original piece and its readers (Stam, 2000).
However, Stam analyzes this debate of fidelity and discusses the inevitability of violations of “fidelity” between mediums and that the “betrayals” and frustration we experience as storytellers and audiences root back to our own fantasies. I will argue that there must be a point where storytellers need to find the artistic liberty to express their ideas and not feel restricted to specifics of another piece. Originality can be found in adaptation through passion and artistic expression. Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002) also tackles this concept.
The film is incredibly layered, discussing and addressing questions of origin, originality, creation, and creativity. Through the characters of John Laroche, Charlie Kaufman, Susan Orlean, Donald Kaufman, and Charles Darwin, the film explores these themes as they relate to art and life itself. These themes are accented in how these characters develop and interact with one another. As the film progresses and ultimately comes to its ironic conclusion, it pushes the audience to ask themselves what makes a story worth telling and what makes a life worth living.
In Adaptation, the themes of origin and creation are first made prevalent from a biological perspective. We are introduced to visuals of evolution and the ideas of Charles Darwin. These visuals cleverly provide the audience with information about characters’ perspective on personal and artistic origin and creation. When we are introduced to John Laroche, we see him in his van, listening to a videotape about Charles Darwin and natural selection. We are repeatedly reminded of his incredible passion for nature and orchids.
When describing the orchid flower, he understands that every detail of the flower has a purpose, and in order to obtain this detail it needed to adapt and mutate. The dream-like sequence of the relationship between a bee and a flower best exemplifies his passion and his understanding of life. Laroche sees the importance of adaptation in nature. We see and understand his proactive outlook on life as he adapts throughout the film. For Kaufman, however, he perceives his existence and origin as insignificant. He views creation as stark and pessimistic.
In the first few minutes of the film, following his voiceover of self-contempt, Kaufman thinks back to how he got to where he is in life. There is then a montage of the creation and evolution of the Earth and its organisms. Instead of it highlighting nature’s ability to adapt, it highlights images of destruction and rebirth. The images of the death of the dinosaurs, the decomposition of a fox, and the accumulation and melting of snow exemplifies this point. Charlie views both biological and artistic creation and originality as impossible through adaptation.
This biological approach in analyzing origin, creation, and one’s purpose in life develops the film’s characters and integrates itself into a more in-depth analysis of life and creative storytelling. Adaptation builds off of these ideas of evolution and Charles Darwin and use them as it relates to the characters’ struggles with originality—their ability and/or inability to change themselves and adapt in order to thrive both socially and professionally. In other words, it questions the origins and originality of their personality and lifestyles.
Given his immense passion for Charles Darwin and his past xperiences, Laroche is depicted as being flexible to change. He is able to adapt in his environment, overcoming the turmoil of losing his family, home, and plant nursery. He does this by letting go, moving away, and making a new nursery in the Everglades. He further manifests this adaptive personality in his constant changes in hobbies. Laroche has the profound ability to adapt in his environment in order to survive. This appeals to Susan Orlean’s character in that she aspires to have that personality, but doesn’t have the courage to adapt as Lorache does. She is disillusioned by her aristocratic and high-art lifestyle.
She lives a static life that is slowly realized by her to be a life not worth living. If given the opportunity, she would want to divorce and “be new. ” For Charlie Kaufman, he is similar to Orlean in that he is also unable adapt. However, unlike Orlean, he is conflicted. In a professional sense, he refuses to adapt. As a creative screenwriter, he looks down on giving way to the “formulas” and cliches of screenwriting. He resists the idea of adapting to the world of film that has now become more of an industry as represented by his twin brother (possible alter-ego), Donald.
In a social sense, on the other hand, he wants to adapt but is unable to. Kaufman questions his purpose in life and constantly desires the body and image that society deems as attractive. Kaufman personality and frustrations exemplify the difficulties of the creative process—the conflicting thoughts of creating a new piece of work versus using other works to build another. This is where the ideas of evolution and adaptation begin to take form in a more in-depth artistic perspective discussing originality and creativity.
What separates this film from Orlean’s novel is not just taking Orlean’s themes and using them within characters’ relationships, it is also the film’s use of her themes to make a commentary on artistic originality and creativity. It also provides the audience perspective on what we consider to be good entertainment and storytelling. The film does this by using an ironic twist ending. Charlie feels it is his responsibility to be faithful to the novel. As stated by Robert Stam in Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation, “film adaptation of novels has often been profoundly moralistic” (Stam, 2000).
This is made clear in Charlie continuously throughout the film. He believes it is his artistic responsibility and his moral responsibility to not submit himself to the Hollywood film industry and stay true to the novel. However, by the third act, all of the cliches he rejected (making the flowers into poppies, learning profound life lessons, guns, sex, and car chases) ended up in the film. This ironic twist raises the question of why we, as an audience, expect plot devices like these in films. Is there a balance that can be made between plot devices and originality?
The relationship between Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother, Donald Kaufman, helps illustrate this debate over fidelity, originality, and cliche. The relationship between Charlie and his twin brother Donald can be interpreted as representations of two extreme sides of filmmaking/ storytelling—the artistic and the commercial… the original and unoriginal. Charlie constantly rejects the “formulas” and “recipes” of screenwriting in Hollywood while Donald embraces them. Donald treats writing and film as a product to be sold to the masses, while Charlie perceives it as more of an art form that should not spell things out for the audience.
This conflict between Charlie and Donald and the ultimate fate of Charlie’s screenplay sheds light on the fact that both methods of storytelling has their downfalls but can be compromised. Although Donald is able to write a profitable Hollywood screenplay, it is simplistic, lacks creativity, and has little to provide the audience except Hollywood thrills. As for Charlie, he has the talent to write incredibly deep and original scripts like Being John Malkovich that provide the audience with ideas beyond superficial entertainment.
However, when it came to trying to write a screenplay for The Orchid Thief, he is not able to craft a story that anyone wants to listen to. It was a story not worth telling. Charlie ultimately turns to his brother Donald for help to finish the screenplay. It is not a coincidence that the moment when Charlie asks for Donald’s advice that the film began to plug in the Hollywood plot devices. Some may view this as the film selling-out in order to satisfy everyone in the audience with cheap thrills. However, this transition in the script was strategically placed in order to emphasize the relationship between both sides of storytelling.
Following the death of Donald, Charlie is finally able to find the courage to achieve originality through artistic expression. He realizes that it is possible to create an original story with new and used ideas. This event also impacts his social life. Charlie begins to live out the life lesson given by Donald: “You are what you love, not what loves you. ” This is, what the film argues, is the core to artistic adaptation. As an artist, you must let go of all of the doubt and use your passion and expression to create.
This idea of artistic freedom and passion is concluded with a visual of flowers thriving in the urban environment of Hollywood while the song, “So Happy Together,” plays in the background. The ideals of Charlie and Donald are compromised to create something original and beautiful. The ideas of both Hollywood and high-art can in fact be happy together. Adaptation’s discussion about origin, originality, creation, and creativity brings us back to the debate of fidelity. Is it possible to have a completely art piece despite being labeled, “based on the book” advertisement? Both Robert Stam and Spike Jonze say it is not.
According to Stam, the concept of fidelity is questionable. Especially when transitioning from one medium to another (literature to film), Stam believes that pure fidelity is an impossibility. Considering both the technical differences and the differences in individual fantasies of what the piece depicts, an artistic creation requires a certain degree of adaptation and originality (Stam, 2000). Adaptation also expresses that there is no such thing as a completely original idea that is also worth sharing. The only thing that should concern a storyteller is his/her expression and translation of the piece.
When brainstorming for his screenplay in one scene, juxtaposition between Kaufman and Darwin brings the audience back to the biological perspective of origin, originality, and creation as it relates to everything discussed thus far: Kaufman: How did this flower get here? What was its journey? Darwin: … all of the organic beings that have ever lived on this earth, had descended from one primordial form in to which life was first breathed. Kaufman: It is a journey of evolution… adaptation… the journey we all take. A journey that unites each and every one of us.
This segment does more than just explain the origin of species. It shows that every art piece and person originated from another’s existence. Films such as The Maltese Falcon is not an original film creation but an adaptation of another piece. It translates the darkness of the novel and lead the way to popularize film noir and pulp fiction. As a story teller, John Huston, it was his artistic expression and use of cinematography that brought this new genre to life but also illuminated the cynical themes of Hammett. Similarly, in Adaptation, Kaufman created a layered story that discussed the originality of art and life.
This brought a new way of expressing Orlean’s ideas of passion and change. Both from the perspective of Darwin, Jonze, and Stam, adaptation is about progress and creation. Stam perfectly sums up the ideas of fidelity, saying that maintaining “fidelity” should be less moralistic and less sensitive to prior material. As an audience, we must let go of the fantasies we create when looking at a previous piece and look at the adaptation as a new work of art. If we do that, then the differences between art forms can be welcomed rather than debated (Stam, 2000).