JUST BECAUSE YOU FEEL IT DOESN’T MEAN IT’S THERE
Finished Gravitations 3 last night. It had another wordy short story at the end, but this one was actually kind of fun. It had a guy chasing after a young girl and insisting he wasn’t a Humbert Humbert--sort of like how none of the boys in the main story are gay when they kiss. Ironically, the author had a note about how the short story wasn’t very good. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.
I had a couple of great teachers in college. I hated my academic experience overall, but there were a handful of classes that really made a difference for me, and it was usually down to the teacher. In fact, I learned quickly if you found a good teacher, you should stick with him or her. Stephen Cooper and Charles Webb were two writing teachers who pushed me in the right ways; I forget the name of another who unwittingly did the same. You can take two semesters of novel writing, and he was teaching what was to be my second. Only he wasn’t going to allow me to continue the book I started (Cut My Hair) because it didn’t “interest” him. I went and sat down at my desk, stood back up, and walked out. My only regret is that I had taken the first week and had been forced to read not only The Firm, but a completely useless textbook on how to write a novel (tip: they're all useless).
Another great teacher was Dr. David Peck. He was particularly helpful in talking about 20th century American literature and the novel of initiation—which is kind of what I was working on. (He even wrote a book on the subject.) His colleague was Dr. Charles May. May’s specialty was the layered nature of fiction, how story exists on many planes at once and can be sliced up and peeled like an onion. (He also wrote a book, Fiction’s Many Worlds, that is excellent, but for some reason very expensive.)
He came back to me as I rewatched Adaptation this weekend. This movie that seems to confound so many (or cause them to declare it pretentious and boring) seems so natural and obvious to me, and I am guessing it’s all down to what I started picking up from Dr. May.
For me, the key to Adaptation is to approach the many possible layers, the worlds that exist simultaneously and parallel. We begin with (1) the real world Charlie Kaufman, who is a screenwriter hired to adapt (2) the fictional world of Susan Orlean’s book, which actually also could cause (1) to intersect with (3) the real world Orlean. Ultimately, what he hopes to create is (4) a motion picture version of (2). The difficulty of that task causes (4) to mutate and splinter, creating more layers: (4a) the fictional world of Charlie Kaufman, where he is writing (4b) his version of The Orchid Thief. Within that is (4c), what he imagines as the real world of Susan Orlean (something that might have stuff in common with (2) and (3), but not necessarily, just as (4a) is only a representation of (1)). Further, we get (4d) the life of Donald Kaufman, his brother, and (4e), the screenplay Donald relates to Charlie, The 3. Midway through the film, we also get (4f), which is where Donald takes over the screenplay (after Charlie sees Robert McKee and calls his brother to New York), taking it to his own conclusion, scooping up (4a), (4b), (4c) and his own (4d) along the way--and with the brothers singing “Happy Together,” even incorporating (4e). (In fact, aren’t Charlie, Donald, and Susan really a reflection of the multiple personality character Donald has created for The Three?). By the end, we have (5), the actual film Adaptation, a combination of all of those elements.
Not stopping there, we also have (6), the viewing public. This is the story we create just by trying to peel the onion, and to pierce the mythos crafted around the film—such as wondering whether Donald Kaufman is an actual person or not. I would argue that the discourse around the film, that the people loudly questioning the fabric of it in the theatre when I saw it, added another layer to the metafiction Kaufman and Spike Jonze created.
But, it’s important to remember, even in discussing (1), (3), or (6), that there is no reality, per se. In trying to decipher what did happen and what didn’t, keep in mind that what is actually on film is all story, all crafted by an author. It doesn’t matter what “really happened,” but what triggered each onion petal.
A lot of DVD collectors have avoided buying the Adaptation DVD out of the fear that there will be a better version later, featuring special features, not just the bare bones release we have now. I actually hope that doesn’t happen, unless what they present only serves to obscure the onion’s construction further. A serious commentary on this movie, at least if presented by the filmmakers, would destroy the experience. Adaptation shouldn’t be explained, only deciphered. And trust me, the second time around, it makes even more sense. Every screenwriting trick Donald and Charlie learn along the way sets up the final act, and so many of the other elements end up foreshadowing or reflecting others.
I have no idea if this will make sense to anyone but me, but I was mainly writing this to run through the gears in my own head anyway.