Self-made Heroes

Film still for Self-made Heroes

Adaptation puts the self-obsession of the screenwriter centre stage. Henry Bean thinks it's something to celebrate.

Paris - When It Sizzles (1963) was directed by Richard Quine from a script by George Axelrod, a year after the latter's celebrated adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate. A Hollywood writer, Richard Benson (William Holden), is holed up in a fancy Paris suite ducking calls from his producer (Noël Coward) about the screenplay that is due on Monday. A young Englishwoman appears at the door, employed to help hurry Benson along by typing up the manuscript. Her name is Gabrielle, and she is played by Audrey Hepburn with anorexic arms and a wardrobe she couldn't possibly afford, but she is so adorable that no one, least of all the movie itself, could ever object.

As Gabrielle discovers, Benson hasn't simply failed to complete the screenplay, he hasn't even begun it. He sold the studio a title, The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower, but has no idea what the movie is even about and has simply been trying to stay drunk enough to avoid having to deal with it. His problem, we come to realise, isn't the usual screenwriter's regret over some long-lost career as a novelist; it is, rather, the weary disgust of the Hollywood hack who has trotted out the same stock scenes and stock characters so many times without believing in them that he can no longer summon them at all.

Gabrielle saves the day, of course, and not just with her big dark eyes. Unlike Benson, she still believes in the old Hollywood stuff (or pretends to), and her innocence and credulity (such knowing, almost sinister innocence and credulity one wonders what Henry James might have done with them) restore, if not Benson's faith, at least his blarney. To please her, to keep her here in his suite typing so that he can, compulsively, seduce her, Benson begins to invent the scenes which, an hour ago, he couldn't face. He bases the characters on Gabrielle and himself, and we see them in what is first a western, then a musical, a heist, a spy caper, a romance, the imagined movie shifting fluidly, meaninglessly, through the genres as Benson, coming to a dead end or losing interest in one idea, effortlessly transmutes it into something else.

The imagined plots are all trite, silly and ridiculous, though only marginally more so than the one in the hotel suite where Benson and Gabrielle are making them up. But Paris - When It Sizzles reaches a strange epiphany in its most clichéd turn, the final kiss. For a moment we can't tell who exactly is kissing whom: the spy and his girlfriend, the cowboy and the lady, Gabrielle and Benson...? Then we hear the writer describing the scene for the typist - "And as the two highly paid stars turn to each other..." - and we realise that who we are really seeing, now as always, are Audrey Hepburn and William Holden, the stars appearing before us strangely naked, like gods suddenly unclothed in myth.

Revenge of the writer

Forty years later, here is Adaptation, another account of a blocked and desperate screenwriter inventing a film as we watch. Superficially, the two scribes are very different. Holden's Richard Benson is handsome, dapper, charming, seductive and without a shred of artistic integrity. Charlie Kaufman, as Nicolas Cage plays him, is all integrity, a fat, balding, sweaty slob who can barely bring himself to talk to other people, much less get the girl, even when she wants him. Yet deep down what the two share is more important: not only the paralysing doubt that afflicts most artists, but that special legacy of the screenwriter, self-loathing.

A well-known Hollywood writer told me recently that he couldn't watch Adaptation because, "It was like seeing a movie of my own life, and what do I need that for?" He might seem an odd complainant; he gets over a million a script, has been nominated for an Oscar, is wined, dined, respected and (deservedly) celebrated. So what's his gripe? Simple: he has no power.

In the deep sense, of course, neither has anyone else in the movie business. The few who don't answer to a boss are beholden to corporate boards, shareholders, banks and the audience. That tiny handful who have carte blanche to "do anything they want" have it because they have shown that they will never abuse it. As Blake says, "Those who restrain their desires do so because their desires are capable of being restrained."

So why does it seem worse for the writers? Maybe they can't help comparing themselves to novelists, poets, playwrights - writers who have, if nothing else, the final word over their words. Or maybe it is that their suffering is so public.

By the very nature of the movie business, the writer submits - if not at the beginning when he takes a job, invariably on someone else's terms (Adaptation opens with a nice version of this scene, Charlie and a studio executive discussing how he might adapt Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, each pretending not to notice what the other is saying), then somewhere along the way as the producers, the director, the actors, the editor, the focus groups and finally the projectionist and the cinema's sound system have their way with his words and intentions. What the screenwriter learns over and over, what is carved into his flesh, is that he is not Prince Hamlet, nor was he meant to be.

And yet, and yet... Like any real writer, he must be not only Hamlet but Gertrude, the grave digger and all the rest, including Shakespeare himself. Otherwise how could he summon the nerve to invent worlds out of nothing, or out of someone else's something: The Orchid Thief for Charlie, Plutarch or Holinshed for Shakespeare. Yet in the end, the screenwriter can have his words shredded, deformed or, worst, unproduced - or would that be best? And, most terribly, sooner or later he internalises the studio, the audience, the conventions that make movies dreary and predictable, so that when he opens his mouth what comes out is already deformed.

Paris - When It Sizzles is just that, the self-mocking cry of a screenwriter who has had so many cheap thoughts he can longer have a precious one, and decides that cheapness is all there is. Admirably, the film refuses to redeem the Holden character; at the end he is, if anything, more of a hack than ever, though by channelling Hepburn's ingenuousness (which is itself false) he has become, once again, a pro.

But Adaptation is something else. It is the revenge of the writer. For once this butt-of-all-jokes, the abused figure of the 'creative team', has somehow hijacked the production, locked the director and cast in his typewriter case and taken over the controls. The film's writer, the real-life Charlie Kaufman, does this not just by putting his miserable alter ego at the centre of a story built around writer's block, but by writing a film that is all about writing. (Hereafter I use 'Charlie' to refer to the character in the film and 'Kaufman' to refer to the author of the screenplay of Adaptation.)

Late in the movie, screenwriting guru Robert McKee (the brilliant Brian Cox) thunders at a convention of would-be scripters, "And God help you if you ever use voiceover," by which time Adaptation has become an orgy of voiceovers. Not only Charlie's endless, self-flagellating, self-absorbed monologues that constitute the core of the film, but also Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) reading voiceover passages from her book which are if anything even more ephemeral, discursive and wonderfully 'uncinematic' than Charlie's; not to mention the orchid thief himself, John Laroche (Chris Cooper), narrating episodes from his own life down the phone. Even an aged Charles Darwin, scratching away with a quill pen, ruminates on the ascent of man. We hear the voices, watch the characters writing, see the words they have written, typed, printed in books, underlined, highlighted, crowded with marginal notes - an endless flood of speaking and writing.

Much of this is funny and interesting, some of it profound (the way both flowers and screenplays adapt to survive), some of it pathetic and inane. Kaufman has Charlie lay out the argument for this inclusionary policy in that opening scene. He tells the pretty studio executive (Tilda Swinton) that he doesn't want to load The Orchid Thief with the usual drama, gratuitous sex, character arcs and life lessons (the very stuff Richard Benson feels condemned to regurgitate). Instead he wants to give it the messy feel of ordinary life. To which the executive responds with a happy "That sounds great", then stops and confesses she isn't quite sure what he means.

Adaptation's courage to insist on a different kind of subject matter - which, in turn, requires a different structure - is its triumph. As with Pulp Fiction (1994), one feels a door opening onto new possibilities for commercial film-making, a fractured, spontaneous, compulsive non-linearity, shaped not by the logic of 'reality' or the exigencies of narrative, but by the writer's neurotic, obsessed mind, and able to go anywhere it wants, largely by renouncing fealty to the Hollywood ideals of tightness and clarity. Like Pulp Fiction, Adaptation holds its seemingly fragmentary structure together and turns it into a popularly accessible form in part through the sheer delight of its freedom and invention, and in part because, despite appearances to the contrary, both films are so carefully organised that the audience never feels abandoned.

This is all the more remarkable given that what Adaptation is chiefly about is the protagonist's solipsism, Charlie's desperate effort to climb up out of his own mind and write a screenplay. What makes this so difficult is that, despite all his research into orchids and his sexual fantasies about various women, the only thing that really interests him is himself, and anything that distracts him from that is, finally, a torment.

What distracts and torments him most is his genial idiot of a twin brother, Donald (who shares Kaufman's writing credit on the movie, but is in fact a fiction). The worst thing about Donald is that he is working on a screenplay of his own; in it a cop chases a serial killer who has his potential next victim locked in a cellar. If that sounds familiar, Donald has a wrinkle: what none of the characters realises is that, due to a multiple-personality disorder, all three are, in fact, the same person.

What Adaptation realises is that, despite Charlie's contempt for this cheap device, it is equally true of his own script. Everyone in it is there simply as a neural configuration in Charlie's mind. Therefore, although the cast is uniformly good - and Cooper is remarkable - none of them comes fully alive. They all get sucked into the black hole of their creator.

Yet it is precisely in this inwardness that the movie goes most against the grain of cinema and aspires to real originality. Charlie's acute discomfort with people, his wish always to return to the gloomy bedroom where he writes, his self-loathing from behind which self-love is always peeking out, his refusal to kiss the very cute violinist who wants him, all turn Adaptation into a kind of anti-cinema, a rejection of the worldly actions (car chases, love affairs, killings, people) that constitute the material of most movies.

Eventually it comes to seem that film itself - the camera's cool regard, its appetite for the world - is Charlie's real enemy, as if he can comfortably inhabit only words while images (which reveal his hated body, other people, life itself) threaten to crush him. In retaliation, or self-protection, he would destroy cinema, swallow all its lethal light down into the darkness of his own voice, then crawl under the covers where he could finally be left alone, invisible and allowed to beat off in peace.

That this ambition does not crush the film into some turgid, unwatchable singularity is largely a tribute to its director Spike Jonze. Adaptation is a 'written' movie in a way that few are, yet it is also beautifully and imaginatively directed. Jonze does not simply permit Kaufman's triumph (unusual enough given typical relations between directors and writers), he enables it. He loves Kaufman's writerly obsessions, speaks that language and finds a multitude of inventive, often brilliant visual conceits for conveying it. (A three-minute history of the earth from the dawn of creation to the birth of Charlie Kaufman and a final sequence of flowers unfurling are particularly good.) Jonze might be the best cinematic friend a writer has had since the early Alain Resnais.

Yet I almost regret his success. Jonze normalises Charlie, lifts him up out of himself into the light. Without this we wouldn't see him, yet to see Charlie is, in a way, to miss the point. Kaufman - the real one - has had his cake and eaten it. It is Adaptation, showing at a cinema near you. But I would like to see the anti-cinema that Charlie, left to his own devices, might have produced. What would it have been: the writer on stage, arguing with a recording of his own voice? Two hours of black leader with a soundtrack? It would probably be unwatchable, but perhaps it would be a masterpiece.

Beyond cliché

Paris - When It Sizzles ends with a whimper, or maybe a snarl. The old genres, it says, are exhausted and empty, yet it plays them once more, this time as farce, as if there were no alternative, as if the world were made entirely of cliché and nothing existed outside Hollywood's cave. Yet it knows that's not true. Gabrielle, as it happens, has been dating an actor (Tony Curtis, hilariously self-important) who has just landed a role in "one of those New Wave films". Axelrod makes fun of these supposedly plotless works because he knows that if there were a real alternative to Hollywood storytelling, Richard Benson's misery (and his own) would suddenly look trivial, a choice rather than a fate.

Adaptation knows there are alternatives. It is one. In recent years, commercial films have begun to adopt unexpected formal devices from the other arts. Se7en (1995) replaces the thriller's action sequences with what amounts to a series of gallery installations; The Usual Suspects (1995) translates the unreliable narrator from literature to the crime film. Adaptation tries something even more radical: it creates a protagonist who, like those of countless modern novels, imagines everything and does almost nothing.

The 'dramatic question' of the film, then, becomes whether Charlie can escape his self-absorption and write a movie set in the world. Happily, heroically, he fails. When, out of desperation, he tries to employ the usual stuff (violence, drugs, car chases, redemption) they are neither effective nor funny. So he can finish his script only by copping to his obsession and making it about himself. In this he fulfils his ambition to write something without any of the tedious, perfunctory stuff of 'ordinary movies'. His failure is his triumph. And it gives us hope.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012