Adapting the adapted adaptation: Essay on “Adaptation.” (2002)

Adapting the adapted adaptation

Chris Cooper and his dear flowers in Jonze's "Adaptation" (2002)

Chris Cooper and his dear flowers in Jonze's "Adaptation" (2002)

It’s tough to be a screenwriter in Hollywood. You ask Charlie Kaufman. This brilliant and brilliantly original mind is fighting against the Hollywood screenwriting ‘rules’ ever since he became part of the most well-known synonym for global cinema. A few years ago, he finally came to terms with his frustrations by writing the screenplay of Adaptation., directed by Spike Jonze, starring among others Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper. A story about a screenwriter, who’s writing a script about writing the script of a book that a novelist wrote about someone… How confusing this may seem, it is just the tip of the iceberg.

Hidden in the story as well as on the surface of it, there are comments on other texts, on itself, on the genre it’s part of, on the whole principle of adaptation. Of all these forms of intertextuality, I chose to apply myself to two particular aspects of it: metatextuality and hypertextuality. In my humble opinion is Adaptation the perfect case study to explain the working of these two concepts. For this essay, I therefore want to state that metatextuality and hypertextuality are the two most versatile expressions of intertextuality. First, I shall (try to) describe the most relevant plot peculiarities of the film Adaptation., after which I shall describe the two key aspects of my thesis statement and in conclusion will apply them to my case study.

The plot of Adaptation.

First and foremost, it is essential to know a little more about the plot, or plots, of this multilayered motion picture. I will describe here the most significant plot details.

The story evolves around the character of Charlie Kaufman, a fictitious representation of the film’s screenwriter. He leads a truly uninspiring and unexciting live, full of depression and misunderstanding, and comes to live together with his identical twin brother Donald. While Charlie, who has agreed to adapt the unfilmable novel The Orchid Thief by Susan Orleans, suffers from a terrible writer’s block, his brother Donald plunges for the first time into the world of screenwriting by means of a series of seminars given by screenwriting-guru Robert McKee. This lays the foundation of a mutual struggle between the brothers, in which Donald is utterly convinced that everyone can be a screenwriter by following the “rules of the game”, while Charlie makes a firm stand to persuade him that screenwriting is an art form and cannot be bounded by rules. Eventually, Donald’s screenplay, which follows traditional rules and classical Hollywood narration, gets sold for a huge amount of money, and Charlie hasn’t made any progression in writing the screenplay. The reason for this is clear: ‘The book has no story. There’s no story,’[1] as he reluctantly cries out halfway through the movie. Unable to see the wood from the trees any longer, he starts to write himself into the screenplay, creating a large amount of self-reference. At this point in the adaptation process, he sees no other way out than to make an appeal to his brother’s advices and Robert McKee’s rules. For the climax of the movie, he adds a car chase, sexual activity and narcotics – elements that are common to the average Hollywood movie. At last, Charlie Kaufman has finished the adaptation of the novel.

But this is only one frame narrative, the exterior one to be precise. Inside this narrative, there’s the story of novelist Susan Orlean and her attempts to write a novel about orchid poacher John Laroche. His story, or the events she writes down for her novel, is the third frame narrative in Adaptation.: the story of Laroche, told in the story of Orlean, told within the story of Kaufman. In the end, all of these frame narratives shade off into one another, when the Kaufman brothers follow Orlean to Florida where she meets Laroche again. A passionate and tragic love affair between the novelist and her subject comes brutally to an end when the situation terribly escalates. John Laroche dies, Susan Orlean flinges herself into sorrow, but the Kaufman brothers have a beautiful screenplay to sell to Columbia Pictures – which they do, in conclusion.

Metatextuality and hypertextuality

Before I start to examine the working of these two concepts within the film Adaptation., I will explain these on the basis of the writings of Robert Stam, Gerard Genette and Daniel Chandler. First, Stam describes Genette’s idea of “metatextuality” as ‘the critical relation between one text and another, whether the commented text is explicitly cited or silently evoked’ (Stam 1992: 24). According to Stam, it is difficult to see a clear distinction between this aspect and the idea of “hypertextuality” (Stam 1992: 24). Chandler is more clarifying in this matter, by defining metatextuality as ‘explicit or implicit critical commentary of one text or another text’, while hypertextuality means, in his view, ‘the relation between a text and a preceding “hypotext” – a text or genre on which it is based but which it transforms, modifies, elaborates or extends (including parody, spoof, sequel, translation)’ (Chandler 1997). Consequently, the distinction can be made between more or less concealed commentary (metatextuality) and more visible transformation of the genre or another text to which the text actually belongs. By these principles of reflexivity, a text draws attention to itself, to the way it is constructed, and to the way it is influenced by other texts. As this description won’t probably appeal to one’s imagination, I will use the example of Adaptation. to clarify these aspects further.

Intertextuality in Adaptation.

The most visible expression of metatextuality in the film Adaptation. is the discussion about the “true” nature of screenwriting: Charlie vs. Donald, art vs. commerce, independent cinema vs. Hollywood. Explicitly, but almost implicitly within the plot, the film criticizes the Hollywood domination in the land of the screenwriting, and prefers obviously the unrestricted and creative minds of the independent cinema. In Adaptation., this critical commentary is being presented in what is perhaps the most explicit form, by means of the struggle between the two brothers and the seminars of  the – real existing – screenwriting-guru Robert McKee. Throughout the film, this conflict remains and Charlie has to cope with the temptations of classical Hollywood narration and simple Hollywood plot solutions. In the end, one might think that Kaufman surrendered to the almighty Hollywood rules, but when we think this over, we’ll discover that using this conventions only intensifies the critical commentary. And has Kaufman ever abandoned the use of the voice-over, which McKee so deeply loathes? The answer is a simple ‘no’. Kaufman stays true to his independent spirit.

Whichever way you look at it, Adaptation. criticizes also the novel that started this whole undertaking: Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. In reality, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman did get the task to adapt this novel for the screen, and indeed he suffered from a terrible writer’s block. Furthermore, Kaufman wrote himself into the screenplay, as well as an identical twin brother, and in doing this, he interwove the narratives of him adapting a novel, the novelist writing a story, and the poacher who forms the basis of the story. And in this screenplay, Kaufman makes no secret of who he thinks of the original novel; his homonymous character is at first truly excited about the originality and the odd nature of the novel, but as time goes by he gets annoyed by its lack of narrative and just the impossibility of adapting it.[2]

On the other hand, there is the element of hypertextuality. Adaptation uses and rejects the conventions of the genre it actually belongs to: the book adaptation. Every time we see a fragment of the story of Laroche – the most interior frame narrative – we get a hint of how the film would have been if Kaufman adapted the novel in the “normal” way. However, by adding the frame narratives of a writing novelist and a writing screenwriter, our attention gets drawn to the process of adaptation in itself. The viewer becomes aware of the fact that behind a book adaptation, there is a whole universe of consideration. In doing so, Adaptation. transforms the genre and its conventions by letting the spectator know how this transformation is being done; we see the application and rejection of conventions through the contemplation of the struggling Kaufman, and little by little a book adaptation takes shape.

And of course, Adaptation. does exactly the same with its source material: Orlean’s novel is being modified from a average novel with a lack of narrative, into a multilayered and deeply intertextual creation.

Eventually, Adaptation. manages not only to use other texts for its own purpose – namely making a film – but especially to give these other texts – the original genre, the original novel – something in return: a deeper layer to the novel, an exploration of the world of the book adaptation genre. Adaptation. functions as a mirror, reflecting on itself and on other ones. And that’s the meaning of intertextuality.

This English essay has originally been written as an assignment for the ‘Performance at the Edge’-course under the auspices of dr. Catherina Lord et al., at the University of Amsterdam, department of Mediastudies. All of the original copyrights are owned by this weblog’s author. Copyright 2008.



Chandler, Daniel. ‘Semiotics for beginners. Intertextuality’. (1997). 8-4-2008 <;.

Hilderbrand, Lucas. ‘Adaptation.‘ Review of Adaptation., dir. Spike Jonze, 2002. Film Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 1 (Autumn, 2004): 36-43.

Stam, Robert. Reflexivity in film and literature. From Don Quixote to Jean-Luc Godard. New York: Columbia UP, 1992.

Other sources

Adaptation. Dir. Spike Jonze. Propaganda Films, 2002.

Being Charlie Kaufman. Silverbullet. Daily update. 8-4-2008 <>.

Orlean, Susan. ‘Susan Orlean. Types 120 wpm.’. 8-4-2008 <>.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Daily update. 8-4-2008 <>.

[1]Adaptation. (2002) – Memorable quotes’. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Daily update. 8-4-2008 <;

[2] See also the quotation in this essay’s plot description.


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