“You and I Share The Same DNA”: On Adaptations and Charlie Kaufman
This month I found myself reading a number of criticisms towards some film adaptations of recent years. The first was that of the Dune trailer, which has sent a number of people into a tizzy over how “faithful” it looks to the novel, and which I believe should have a little more color and feel less like any other given modern blockbuster picture. My feelings were echoed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, who said, “The form is identical to what is done everywhere. The lighting, the acting, everything is predictable”. The second was a conversation I saw on Twitter, which began with Kyle Turner noting that Leigh Whannel’s The Invisible Man, although interesting, was “basically all super text and basically resists other readings or interpretations” (a notion I would agree with).
Much of the success of these classic sci-fi and horror texts exists on the ability to analyze them to great extent, allowing for a number of interpretations over the years; we can transpose our own experiences and thoughts onto them and create new ways of exploring said texts. It is why someone can wax poetic on the queerness of a work of art despite no one involved in the making of said art being queer themselves. There are dozens of lenses through which to explore art that offers itself up to multiple readings, and Whannel’s film, though competent, basically only offers one way to read it (with “abuse” being its super text) and, as Kyle notes, is “not really interesting after a first watch.”
In response to this statement, someone said, “I think that we have been misled to think that a good movie must have an open interpretation, to make us look for answers or put the pieces together.” Another person tossed in, “A film can be solid and ‘good’ without being [Christopher] Nolan or [Charlie] Kaufman.” They then go on to complain about Greta Gerwig’s Little Women adaptation, accusing the filmmaker of being “pretentious” and “deliberately obtuse” for using a “shuffling of time periods.”
This makes no sense.
A filmmaker adapting a source text and creating a work that stands on its own as both an adaptation and as an original text that embraces change is by no means pretentious. In Gerwig’s case in particular, she not only toys with the structure to smartly deliver emotional beats in a fresh way, but she embeds the film with an interesting criticism of the period and politics native to both the story and the author herself. As Kyle replied, noting Alissa Wilkinson’s writing on the film, it is “a really wonderful act of film and literary criticism.”
This kind of adaptation is not “inaccessible”, as Little Women stands on its own as a film that needs no exterior explanation; there are no “Little Women Explained!” videos floating around on YouTube for men to break down what you didn’t understand and positing their interpretation as the be-all end-all. Without the novel, it is pretty much just an engaging version of a story we have seen before that also happens to be a great exploration of the frustrations that come with being a writer (and more precisely a woman writer in an oppressive time period).
Its narrative structure is not designed to “appeal to a film audience that values unconventional structure even where it’s unnecessary,” it simply uses a fairly straight-forward juxtaposition of past and present that is emphasized by color shifts, among other visual signs, to explore the way our histories and our stories intersect. As much as it stands on its own, it complements the text wonderfully, bringing the characters and plot points to life with the same intimacy that the novel does. Gerwig’s Little Women engages with Alcott’s text in the same way that any high school or college literature course requests of its students, without ever feeling like homework.
It isn’t even the only recent example of a filmmaker taking pieces of an author’s life or a general sensibility and embedding it into an adaptation (Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship) or an author’s biopic (Josephine Decker’s Shirley or Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights With Emily). In fact, Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan is a perfect jumping off point for what I’m about to say: a great adaptation is not a carbon copy of the text. A great adaptation is more interested in creating a unique work of art that can exist as a complement to its source material, and in providing the audience with some enlightenment beyond that text, whether that is some insight into the author, the filmmaker, or the narrative itself.
Love & Friendship succeeds as an adaptation because it is not only an ideal diluting of Austen’s penchant for dialogue (being adapted from an epistolary novel) but because it blends that with Stillman’s knack for verbal energy. The two are a match made in heaven when it comes to exploring the comedy of manners, with works like Metropolitan and Damsels in Distress being the same kind of exploration of what we perceive as high and low society within any given community. As Alonso Duralde noted for TheWrap, “”In the same way that Stillman has brought the courtliness of another era to his modern stories, in Love & Friendship he puts a contemporary twist on venerable material, down to a third-act twist that suggests behaviour that’s anything but chaste. Were she around today, Miss Austen would, I think, smile upon this adaptation.”
Adaptations don’t need to be limited to individuals who maintain the same style as the creators of their source material though. Take, for instance, something like Misha Green’s recent HBO series Lovecraft Country. Though Matt Ruff’s novel set the stage for the series, his writing serves as only a sort of loose blueprint for the series to take off in its own unique direction. Misha Green’s aesthetic choices for the series are seemingly tied to reappropriating the freewheeling adventure and supernatural horror films of the 1980s that were primarily populated by white actors and designed for white audiences (with characters of color frequently being treated as sidekicks at best and racist caricatures at worst, designed for condescension or death) and placing black characters and actors front and center in their own narrative.
Where the novel is explicitly confronting racism in American history, and even more specifically in the literature of the past (by H.P. Lovecraft more than anything else referenced), it is still written by a white man who prioritizes certain figures over others. The series seemingly aims to rectify this by giving all of its black characters — from those who are perceived as passive figures (like Ruby) as much as those who are active figures (like Leti)— more agency, even in the face of a universe that refuses to allow them to have it, and acknowledges the historical reality of things without ever losing its playfulness in delivering horror and action set pieces. Though it may seem like a reach, it is a refreshing contrast to HBO’s Game of Thrones, which often found itself reducing its characters of agency and flat out removing any meaningful discourse of race, gender, sexuality, and more within a realm that was fantasy based. Whether or not Lovecraft Country will stick the landing as it goes on is questionable, but, as of now, Misha Green has succeeded by approaching the show as a critique of classic works as much as it engages with those works, their aesthetics, their narratives, and their themes.
But what of adaptations that exist somewhere between an adaptation of a text, of an original story, and of a personal narrative? This forces me to circle back to a name somewhat misguidedly dropped early on: Charlie Kaufman. Though many have accused Kaufman’s work of being “pseudointellectual” or “up its own ass,” or comfortably claim that they’ve outgrown it as though they’re above whatever realms or moods he explores, I believe Kaufman is maybe one of the most intriguing individuals to look at when considering the strengths and weaknesses of an adaptation. Let’s begin with Spike Jonze’s Adaptation.
Instead of directly adapting Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, Kaufman mixed together a number of things: the book’s text itself, his own writer’s block in attempting to adapt the text, and completely fabricated plot points about the book’s author, its characters, and himself. This is, by all means, a complete risk as an adaptation, but Kaufman is well-aware of that fact. In adapting a non-fiction book that takes a journalistic approach to exploring its subject (that of John Laroche’s arrest for poaching rare orchids), Kaufman focused on Orlean’s developing fascination for the “ghost orchid” and the way she became so deeply embedded in the investigation that she gets a glimpse of what true passion looks like. The writer herself noted, “What I admire the most is that it’s very true to the book’s themes of life and obsession, and there are also insights into things which are much more subtle in the book about longing, and about disappointment.”
In other words, much like Charlie Kaufman’s character Charlie Kaufman (as played by Nicolas Cage) says in Adaptation: “You and I share the same DNA.” So much of Adaptation is about how complex the process of creating an adaptation is and that frustration with creation and the sense of humor that comes with it extends to most of Kaufman’s work. All of his critiques of his own process come tinged with a sense of humor and a willingness to poke fun at himself and his neurosis (which seems in line with Orlean’s own penchant for playfulness, extending all the way up to her recent drunk twitter journey). Both Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York have hints of exploring the concept of adaptation within them, despite being original screenplays. The former explicitly seeks to dissect how we can adapt our own memory, our own lived-in experiences, and how individuals can shape our very reality in overwhelming ways. The latter takes this a step further, once again diving into the frustration of creation by way of meta-referential text and hyper focusing on the fine line between realism and fantasy, but this time using a character that wasn’t self-named as a method of openly confronting the concept of adapting one’s own life into fiction.
An artist’s perception of the world and the text they’re adapting is essential to the way we analyze an adaptation, whether or not it is successful. Anomalisa, which itself is an adaptation of a radio play that Kaufman wrote, expands upon many of the insecurities and characterizations present in much of the writer’s work. It may be the least interesting of his works to explore in terms of adaptation (despite being an adaptation), but it is an important stepping stone towards what is maybe his most fascinating work of adaptation to date and his first foray into outright taking a fictional novel and making it into something altogether his very own: I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
[Spoilers for the novel and Kaufman’s film follow this]
Iain Reid’s novel is a fun little psychological thriller that ends with a gimmicky twist and reveal that felt awkwardly telegraphed from the get-go. After hours upon hours of back-and-forth conversation, odd happenings, and a slow but steady building of existential horrors, Reid settles for a gory and ultimately lackluster finale by having the protagonist be a figment of her boyfriend’s imagination, and their collective experience actually being the journals of a lonely school janitor who killed himself much like his character does (with a self-inflicted stab to the neck with a coat hanger). The book has a number of chapters interspersed throughout with investigators looking into the murder and foreshadowing the ending, but it feels as unfulfilling as any given story that ends with an “it was all a dream” reveal, especially after successfully mounting tension and exploring eerie characterization for most of its length.
The most interesting part of Reid’s writing is his uncanny ability to really center the reader in the uncertainty of thought; the chapters unfold in sort-of stream of consciousness, with the reliability of the narrator only becoming questionable the further the novel goes along. Where most filmmakers fail at adapting the internal to the external — more often than not using voice over work as a crutch rather than interestingly weaving — Kaufman’s approach is oddly refreshing: using an unsettling combination of overlapping dialogue, harsh cuts, claustrophobic set pieces, and scattered voice overs to effectively depict the way a mind bounces from one place to another. Where Anomalisa explored the way we internally process that which is external (in the film’s case, looking into the cacophony of sameness in every voice and face that one man experiences), I’m Thinking of Ending Things flips this by exploring the way we externalize our internal thoughts.
The film presents itself as being a glimpse inside the mind of Jessie Buckley’s protagonist (whose name changes throughout so I’ll choose to refer to her by the actresses’ name), her every thought said aloud via voiceover as though it was being scripted at that exact instant. Kaufman’s frenetic editing is what really sells the tone of the film; the charm of “someone who finishes my own sentences” that many seek in a romantic relationship is challenged by the horror of being trapped in a car with someone who never lets you finish a sentence, even when you’re not speaking it aloud. But the trick of the script and the novel is that Jessie is being written at this very moment by the man in the car with her: Jake (Jesse Plemons). Their performances are constantly at odds with each other, their personalities shifting as dictated by however Jake wants the situation to go, however unpleasant that may be. It’s a melange of shifting tones, new topics of conversation, various memories, and more; less an actual story being told and more like a flipping through of diary entries ripped out of a book and scattered.
Where Reid’s novel felt like it was focused on keeping the story straight and then making its grand reveal so that the reader would question everything they read beforehand, Kaufman’s film is rather actively provoking the viewer to question what is real and what isn’t. It isn’t hard to figure out that Jessie doesn’t exist — something that has been a complaint by many viewers — but Kaufman isn’t actually making it that hard. If anything, Kaufman is trying hard to make the viewer understand that she isn’t real, that she is an extension of the man who is always by her side. The writer has always found himself fascinated with the notion of adjusting and adapting to the whims of others, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things explores what happens when you have no idea who you’re creating.
Much like many of his films, this one feels like a work of self-criticism as much as it is a criticism of how we experience and create art. Kaufman seems to be making the claim that putting our assumptions onto those we meet and creating lives and stories around them, often without their knowledge or consent, is an issue. We cannot seek to create idealized versions of ourselves to escape our traumas because they are distinctly a part of what makes us alive and, in accepting empty platitudes like “it gets better” while projecting our hopes and fears onto others, we inevitably hurt ourselves. Ever the cynic, Kaufman’s thesis isn’t particularly optimistic, and he always challenges whatever flashes of beauty he offers (particularly the film’s last act pas de deux between reality and fiction) with grotesque imagery that contextualizes his disdain for being alive in a world that has let him down. As he wanders through the school, we become aware of how Jake truly views himself — not as Jessie, not as a young man dating her, not as the janitor going through each day fantasizing about change, but as the maggot infested pig from his childhood, bleeding out as he walks.
Where Reid’s ending emphasized death above all else, at the very least ending his protagonist’s damaging fantasy, Kaufman offers ambiguity in his adaptation: Jake may be dead and gone or Jake may have survived freezing to death in his car as the engine turns under snow. If you believe the latter, you must question further: does survival offer a potential of rebirth grounded in reality or is it simply a means of continuing the same traumatic cycle of fantasy?
This is the kind of adaptation I want. Something that takes an established story and does something completely new and unique with it. It’s why something like Amy Heckerling’s Clueless works so damn well, a perfect modernization of a classic text that fits both the original story and the new world it’s inhabiting. It’s why David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is riveting, creating a decidedly queer hybrid film with scenes from the novel blended together with a tale about the writing of the novel itself. It’s why Baz Luhrmann’s decision to transpose original Shakespearean dialogue to Verona Beach in the ‘90s with Romeo+Juliet makes an old work feel fresher than ever before.
We need more adaptations that take risks. Why settle for anything less?