Cinema will always be full of adaptations. From Webber and Watson’s experimental Fall of the House of Usher to the groundbreaking epic of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, adaptations have come in a multitude of forms, and for as long as there are still books to adapt we can be safe in the knowledge that even when our favourite screenwriters are running out of ideas they can always turn to a novel. Heck, even Marvel’s box office beasts are all adaptations of their respective comics.
There is no doubt that adaptations aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, which is why I think it’s important to look at the them and ask: what makes one worthwhile?
I believe two things are vital when adapting a book to film; an understanding of the text and a sincere connection with the original story. While an understanding is pretty self-explanatory, what do I mean by sincere connection? To put it simply, the filmmaker must have an emotional connection to the story, a connection that will make them approach the film with enough care that they will adapt the film faithfully while letting a piece of themselves slip through the cracks.
In my mind, no film does this better than Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation.
Now, if I’m being honest, I have never read Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief so I am slightly unqualified to comment on the faithfulness of books direct depiction in the film, but from the way Kaufman presents this story to us, I have no reason to question it. From the very start, Nicolas Cage’s sweaty Charlie Kaufman talks about wanting to stay true to Orleans’s original intent, to remain faithful without “Hollywood-izing it.” So from this, I have no reason not to believe that after scenes of Charlie (writer’s note: I’m going to differentiate between the character of Charlie Kaufman with the writer Charlie Kaufman by referring to the character by his first name, although is there really a difference?) sat by his typewriter, desperately trying to write a faithful and true version of Orlean’s book, that the scenes of The Orchid Thief are Kaufman’s genuine attempts at being as sincere as he possibly can.
Obviously, Charlie Kaufman doesn’t exist in the world of Orlean’s book but it is impossible for Kaufman to not exist in his own world when reading. Kaufman’s reactions and feelings towards the book are all real and sincerely felt, ignoring these feelings and adapting the book straight would be disingenuous. By abandoning the idea of a direct adaptation of The Orchid Thief, Kaufman was able to explore the text more thoroughly and take a hard look at his own passion: screenwriting. This kind of self-reflection is what’s key to Adaptation.
Kaufman sees himself in Susan Orlean, relating to her sense of purpose in the world. But, he couldn’t write a film based on her character with elements of his own personality added in to make it seem like a personal piece of work; no. Kaufman pays respect to her, writing her as he sees her, making this clarification clear with writing himself as a separate character in the screenplay to parallel the differences and similarities between the two writers.
Taking a step back and looking at the themes and values of Orlean’s original text, Kaufman could stay true to her work with his own sincere take. This is key to a strong adaptation. Staying true to the key ideas and themes, even when changes are made in the narrative. That’s what makes a film faithful.
Not all adapted films should take the Kaufman route and include a fictionalized version of the screenwriter to lead the film, but all good adaptations must include at least some of the filmmaker’s own views and feelings. Without this comes a lifeless version of what might be a masterpiece of a novel. Film is a different art form, give the viewer a reason to choose it over the original text. If you’re a screenwriter adapting a novel, try new techniques, hell, even write yourself into the screenplay if you have to, but give the viewer something, and if you really connect with the work, that understanding and passion will come through into the film.
“Say who you are, really say it in your life and in your work. Tell someone out there who is lost, someone not yet born, someone who won’t be born for 500 years. Your writing will be a record of your time.” – Charlie Kaufman, 2011