Unconventional Plotstructures in Spike Jonze's "Adaptation"

How a Movie Creates Itself

by T. Schlipfinger (Author)

Seminar Paper 2010 13 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Table of Contents


Adaptation ’ s Back Story

Breaking Rules
Ordinary Plot?
A Plot Creating Itself
Adaptation as a Self-Conscious Movie

Viewer Participation

Adaptation and Hollywood Conventions




Adapation1 is the name of a screenplay written by Charlie Kaufman, turned into a movie by Spike Jonze. So far, so ordinary, but from then on, it gets a bit complicated: the screenplay is an adaptation from a book written by Susan Orlean. In this book, called The Orchid Thief, Orlean expands on an article she wrote in 1995 about her experiences with John Laroche. La- roche in turn is a slightly eccentric guy from Florida who got arrested for poaching orchids and who told her his life story. The end result is a movie that is about a fictitious version of Charlie Kaufman writing about a fictitious Orlean writing about a fictitious Laroche, all mixed together. And this is not even the most complicated part about Adaptation.

With Adaptation both, Jonze and Kaufman, clearly violated classic Hollywood rules. The aim of this paper is to show which rules exactly they broke and how they accomplished that. I am going to argue that, despite its inherent, somewhat confusing structure, the movie’s biggest rule-breaking is not trying to stay coherent in its own fictional universe. If we assume that Superman - contrary to all laws of physics - can defeat gravity and can not be harmed by bullets, then there is nothing wrong with the Superman movies. But this is not possible with Adaptation. Like the optical illusion of an ever-rising stairway, or an ouroborous biting its own tail, the movie keeps constantly changing itself, as - and this is important - the main character developes, which happens simultaneously.

In order to elaborate on this point, I am going to talk about three major aspects of the movie: at first, the back story. Normally this is not really relevant to understanding a film, but in this case, unusual circumstances call for unusual methods. Then, I am going to talk about the movie itself and how it violates classical Hollywood rules. The last chapter is about classical Hollywood conventions and how Adaptation relates to them.

Adaptation’s Back Story

As stated above, usually the back story of a movie (or for that matter, any kind of fiction), does not require specific elaboration. But in this special case, the back story is exactly what this movie is about, as Adaptation shows the - fictitious - process of how Charlie Kaufman got the idea for Adaptation.

After writing the screenplay for Being John Malkovich (which was also directed by Spike Jonze and gained mostly favourable reviews as well as a cult following), Charlie Kauf- man chose to adopt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. However, as the book relies more on facts, thoughts and ideas than on a coherent plot structure, Kaufman faced serious difficulties during the process of writing the script - he suffered from a writer’s block. The reasons for the rather airy and philosophical nature of Orlean’s book lie mostly in the process of its crea- tion. Originally, Orlean, who wrote for the New Yorker at that time, just wanted to write an article about John Laroche, an orchid collector from Florida. In 1994 Laroche had gotten ar- rested for poaching, as he was stealing wild orchids from a nature reserve. However, she later decided to expand this whole idea into a novel. But as Laroche’s live did not provide enough material to turn it into a book, she also put a major focus on orchids themselves (Harner 33). This resulted in a book about, well, flowers - not the usual stuff Hollywood’s dreams are made of. Nevertheless, Columbia wanted Kaufman to adopt it. He agreed, as he liked the book, but soon afterwards realized that he had no idea on how to turn it into a screenplay (Di- niz 225).

However, together with the fact that Charlie Kaufman is obviously familiar with Robert McKee’s theories on screenwriting, this is about as far as reality and fiction overlap. Everything else, Charlie’s Brother, the affair between Orlean and Laroche, the entire Florida trip of the second half of the movie and even Charlie’s rather unpleasant looks are all made up. The result was, according to most critics like Roger Ebert, a “bewilderingly brilliant and entertaining movie” (Ebert).

Breaking Rules

But what is so special about Adaptation ? Interestingly enough, on the surface, this movie is quite straight forward. Jonze did not rely heavily on technical tricks, confusing timelines or spectacular twists at the end. There is no The Usual Suspects -like moment of revelation. And even if the movie follows the stories of three different characters - eventually blending them - this is done in a very smooth way. At any given time in the movie the viewers know what is happening on screen and which story is being told at the moment. Even though the idea behind the movie, including its structure, provided every possibility to turn it into an exhausting, intellectually challenging experience, quite the contrary is the case. Adaptation turned out to be a really enjoyable movie, which is quite an achievement by Jonze2.

Ordinary Plot?

At the surface, not even the plot of the movie is complicated and can be summed up quite thoroughly in a few words. Charlie Kaufman, a screenwriter with an insecure, self loathing personality, is to adapt The Orchid Thief, a popular bestseller, written by Susan Orlean. How- ever, the book is mainly about flowers, so he encounters serious problems while trying to turn it into a fitting screenplay, especially as he tries to avoid making a conventional Hollywood movie out of it. His twin brother Donald - who has a personality completely different from Charlie’s - is also thinking about becoming a screenwriter. In order to do so, he attends a seminar by the screenwriting mogul Robert McKee. There, Donald learns how to write a completely generic and conventional screenplay - which is exactly what Charlie tries to avoid. However, Donald manages to produce a script which he can sell immediately at a very good price. Completely desperate, Charlie decides also to attend this seminar. There, McKee gives him the inspiration he needs to continue writing. Soon afterwards and rather by chance, Charlie and Donald discover that Orlean is secretly in love with John Laroche - the main character of her book. They follow her to Florida, where Laroche lives, and discover that they use the orchids for making drugs. However, they get caught and Orlean, afraid of losing her job when her affaire and drug abuse get public, threatens to kill them. This is followed by a chase scene during which both Laroche and Donald die. Charlie survives and soon afterwards overcomes all of his problems, including the writer’s block and his lack of self confidence.


As can be seen, on this very basic level, A daptation is not really something one would consider extraordinary. But already defining the movie’s genre causes difficulties. In his book Narrative and Genre, Nick Lacey writes about some key features a narrative should be provided with in order to help audiences “read the text”. Those features include: villain/hero structure, a recognizable setting, an understandable style and a conventional narrative structure which includes a cause and effect motivation. All those points taken together usually define the genre of a movie (Lacey 10). Applied to Adaptation, this movie certainly turns out to be a genre-mix, to say the least, especially as the villain/hero structure, setting and style completely shift during the second half of the movie.


But there are other discrepancies that occur if one digs a little deeper. For one, many characters represent real people and appear to be in situations similar to those of their real representatives. Considering the many biopics that exist today, this should not really attract ones attention. But what Kaufman and Jonze do with Adaptation, is to put the onscreen-versions in completely different situations their real representatives have never experienced, thereby completely mixing real and fictitious events.

A Plot Creating Itself

The next thing viewers realize sooner or later is that the script Charlie is working on during the movie is actually the script for the film the audiences are seeing at the very moment - the script for Adaptation. The viewers see (or remember that they have seen) all the ideas that Charlie has for his screenplay. Once he desperately attends McKee’s course and starts giving up on his ideals and starts embracing Hollywood conventions, the viewers see the results im- mediately on screen. Donald in a way takes over and from this moment on he is responsible for the screenplay3. The end of the movie is filled with “sex, guns, car chases and characters learning profound life lessons” - all things Charlie has not only tried to avoid so far, but even specifically vowed not to include in a scene earlier in the movie (Adaptation 0.05.50). As a result, the obligatory happy end is far from satisfying for the viewers. Given they paid atten- tion and participated actively in the process of the movie, they recognize that there is some- thing wrong with it. At least at the second time viewers watch it, a bell will ring once they see the scene where Charlie specifically states what he does not want to include in his movie. And this is what makes Adaptation so special. The aforementioned optical illusion of a never- ending stairway comes to mind. It certainly is not the way the story is told which makes view- ers talk and think about the movie - it is the story itself. As stated above, thanks to the un- complicated and clear way Jonze tells the movie, the plot is easy to grasp. But as soon as one recognizes where this movie is going and how it is functioning, the viewers’ brains get chal- lenged.


1 Adaptation, would be the official title. For the sake of a better reading experience, I omitted the full stop.

2 Of course, he is strongly supported by the actors. Nicolas Cage for example plays the roles of Charlie Kaufman and his fictitious twin brother Donald. They look completely the same and differ only through their personality. Nevertheless, at no point in the movie the viewers have even the slightest problems of recognizing who is which brother.

3 Charlie Kaufman (the real one) went very far with the idea of his twin brother- Donald is even mentioned as co-screenwriter and was consequently nominated for an Oscar - the first time this happened for a fictitious character. Also the movie is dedicated to him (as is the norm if a crewmember or an actor dies during the filming of the movie).


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Institution / College
University of Innsbruck – Amerikanistik
Adaptation Plotstructure Narrative Charlie Kaufman Spike Jonze


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    T. Schlipfinger (Author)


Title: Unconventional Plotstructures in Spike Jonze's "Adaptation"