Learning To Adapt

Nicolas Cage in Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)

If you are someone who wishes they could spend more time creating instead of being perpetually stuck in a state of block, then Spike Jonze’s 2002 film Adaptation is essential viewing. This metafilm follows real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) as he struggles to write a screenplay adaptation of the book The Orchid Thief, written by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). The Orchid Thief recounts Orlean’s investigations into an orchid collector named John Laroche who is put on trial for poaching a rare ghost orchid from protected Floridian Fakahatachee Strand swamplands. Meditating on beauty and the nature of obsession, Orlean’s writing is graceful and tangential, in many ways the antithesis of an easily adaptable big-screen blockbuster. The film Adaptation flits backwards and forwards through time, depicting Susan as she gathers source material for her book and Charlie as he struggles to transform her completed work into a successful screenplay. From the experiences of both characters the audience gains insight into the need for trusting one’s own instincts when seeking to create works of true originality.

Charlie is overawed by Susan’s writing, his creativity stunted by a self-imposed need to produce a work of equal brilliance to her book. But, by setting such a high threshold for himself, Charlie has no idea where to begin. He reads in The Orchid Thief a passion which he feels unable to access, unaware that the same doubts also plagued Susan during her own research. In The Orchid Thief, Susan writes:

I wanted to want something as much as people wanted these plants … I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately.

During her initial encounters with John Laroche, Susan fails to recognize that her interest in the story does not stem from a fascination with rare orchids but instead from a curiosity with the individual who collects them. Laroche cuts an antithetical figure to the metropolitan Susan and her condescending friends because he lives unabashedly for something they cannot understand and therefore ridicule. It is John who captivates Susan, not his beloved ghost orchid which she ultimately finds underwhelming. The Orchid Thief is born from Susan’s longing to discover a passion of her own, an obsession that will give meaning to her life in the same way orchids provide meaning for John. Her obsessive passion, it turns out, is for John himself.

As The Orchid Thief is not just a book about orchids, so Adaptation does not merely concern itself with the toils of screenplay writing. The film meditates more broadly on what drives us individually to feel passion for certain things and the importance such passion plays on the expression of our creativity. The title refers as much to the internal journey Charlie must undertake as to the material screenplay he is writing. Adaptation, Charlie learns, is more than just duplication – it is, instead, mutation. Unable to recreate Susan’s story, he decides to construct his own narrative, one with himself and his writer’s block at the centre. The resulting film is, of course, Adaptation.

When we create something new, our head and our heart are in constant battle for our attention. Blocks often occur when the head takes over, when our reasoning character convinces us to only follow the sensible, well-trodden path, to bear in mind the ‘market’ and the laws that determine popular success. The head desires regimentation, order and structure, all of which stand in opposition to the irrational, messy process that is true creativity. Creation requires experimentation, blunders, failures –things that the head, site of the ego, is mostly uncomfortable with. Creative blocks are therefore often the result of our reasoning mind trying to control a process that never belonged to it in the first place.

John Laroche embodies the choice of passion over reason. His obsessive interest in rare orchids is a coping mechanism for the trauma of losing his mother and uncle in a car crash and his ex-wife to divorce. He does not try to understand or affect his shifting interests, choosing instead to blindly follow them wherever they lead him. His wholehearted embrace of change is what constitutes the strength of his character. “Adaptation is a profound process,” he tells Susan. “It means you figure out how to thrive in the world.” For John, learning to adapt to his own whims and shifting intrigues is the only way he can effectively deal with the emotional turmoil of his personal losses.

Adaptation means not only allowing for change in our work and everyday lives, but also recognizing it’s necessity. Charlie only learns this truth when, in an act of desperation, he follows his twin brother Donald’s example and attends a seminar by screenwriter turned screenwriting self-help guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox). When Charlie asks McKee how he can write a story truly reflective of real life, where “people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies, they struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved”, he is met with unbridled contempt:

…nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save somebody else. Every fucking day someone somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ sake a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! Someone goes hungry, somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you my friend don’t know crap about life!

Change, Charlie comes to realize, is the very essence of life, a thing that cannot be avoided. “Your characters must change,” McKee informs him afterwards, during a more relaxed exchange. “And the change must come from them”. This is the same conclusion Susan reaches while writing The Orchid Thief. “[C]hange is not a choice,” she writes. “Not for a species of plant, not for me”. For both Charlie and Susan, learning to embrace change is necessary for the development of their creative works and in learning to progress more flexibly in their lives.  When Charlie stops straining and simply allows the screenplay to write itself, he ends up with a suspenseful Hollywoodized thriller complete with car chases and a shootout – everything he originally wished to avoid. Adaptation’s absurd closing scenes are jarring but absolutely necessary, for they are the direct opposite of The Orchid Thief’s quiet and undramatic ending. The audience is forced to recognize that the film is not a straightforward retelling of Susan Orlean’s book, but is a new and original work that belongs almost entirely to the mind of Charlie Kaufman.

For the creatively unfulfilled viewer, Adaptation is a reminder that even amidst the quotidian drudgery of seemingly insurmountable writer’s block, change never ceases to be. Our brain is always processing new information, always making unconscious connections deeper than our reasoning mind can go. But, in order to notice these processes and accept their results freely, we must let go of the stories we think we ought to be writing and start trusting our own instincts, even when they lead us down strange and perplexing rabbit holes. Ideas are born through flux and evolution, not through forced effort; they are cultivated from our engagement with works by other minds, and so every new book, film, album or artwork carries within them ingredients that we can use to flavour our own creations. This genealogy of ideas writes itself, however – it does not need our conscious mind to intervene and control the process. It is therefore always better to float with the stream of natural thought than to paddle against it. Adaptation requires openness, patience, and above all faith in our creativity’s ability to develop all by itself.

[N]either the flower nor the insect will ever understand the significance of their lovemaking. I mean, how could they know that because of their little dance the world lives? … By simply doing what they’re designed to do, something large and magnificent happens. In this sense they show us how to live – how the only barometer you have is your heart. How, when you spot your flower, you can’t let anything get in your way.

More often than not we are so busy trying to tell other people’s stories we forget how to tell our own. Creativity happens not when we try to anticipate our audience’s interests or write solely for the market, but when we follow our wildest intrigues simply to see where they might go. True, our stories can end up containing all the formulas and phrases we critique in others – but it doesn’t matter. Learning to embrace change allows us to relax more and move through the creative process with fluidity and ease, letting ideas wash over us and trusting one will eventually stick. Even when the head has its doubts – and it will – if there remains some strange passion lurking in the pit of your stomach, just begging to be externalized, then you’re probably onto something worthwhile. It may not be popular; it may not be worthy of a Man Booker or an Oscar; but it will be worth pursuing. Because it will be truly, and uniquely, your own.

All Quotes Sourced From: Adaptation. Dir. Spike Jonze. Colombia, 2002. Film.

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