Adaptation is a flight of ego, an indecisive film that will forever stand as a testament to the incredible power of quitting. No film I can recall approaches this for the sheer power of its unshakeable devotion to failure, one which so thoroughly disavows the merits of its characters, its origins, its structure and itself.
Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief is a lovely book. It's not sprawling New York stuff, but rather rambling, ambling, hopeful in its constant willingness to stray from its ostensible point of origin if it thinks it might discover something along a side path. Kaufman pays it a little face value, and to draw a parallel between The Orchid Thief's willingness to explore and the necessity of Kaufman's unwillingness to stick to The Orchid Thief is to give an unnecessary amount of credit to Kaufman. Adaptation is not an homage, as this would imply, but a stab at the book, reading less like a valiant struggle to give the book its due and more like a constantly repeated assertion that the book is nothing, is wispy and unworthy of having its events recounted or document[arize]d, and no matter how strong we may labor to believe that Kaufman is devoted to the book, it's hard to keep up much faith in that belief as he returns again and again to himself instead.
Many films have given their share of jabs at the art, or lack thereof, of the script. Hollywood satires abound, but seldom has a film cut so deeply at the heart of the screenwriter himself, and never has one personally wounded so deeply the inevitable failed scribe. It's not that Kaufman is alone in his conceit, which he plays here as self-doubt, a potentially honorable yearning to do justice to the material, to respect the audience and the centennial of cinema; countless writers have attended screenwriting seminars, and while many for money, some, it must be true, for art. Even this, though, isn't the problem. Adaptation isn't much interested in the money; while Charles is jealous of Donald's payday, this petty squabble can't begin to compete with Kaufman's love affair with his own self-hate. This, too, will resonate, with failed screenwriters, with successful ones, with everyone watching who envisions himself more neurotic than he really is. If we accept that Kaufman the writer is as neurotic as Kaufman the character, then we validate the neurosis' own yearning for recognition; if we decline to accept it, we buy into the artifice of the film, the then-supposed exaggeration of Kaufman-the-writer's little personal quirks in the service of trickery, of movie 'creation.'
Kaufman has Kaufman condemn himself; he decries the technique as, among other things, indulgent. It can't, by any but the most casual of viewers, be construed as charming or cutesy, and it can't, by any but the most unacclimated of critical viewers, be thought of as anything new or metatextually interesting. It's Kaufman's insistence that he is giving up. Absolutely par for the course, as this movie is a paean to giving up, over and over again. Nearly any plot point, of any size at all, is someone giving up on something. Kaufman gives up on the idea that The Orchid Thief can be a faithful movie. Given the chance anyway, he gives up on the idea that he can write it. He gives up on a girl, several times consecutively. He gives up on the script again. He writes some beginnings and throws them away. Even the movie's successes are much more easily called failures; when Donald's script is well-received, the overwhelming point is that Kaufman the writer has given up on the pursuit of quality. Kaufman works a little while with the Charles/Donald concept - until the nature of Donald's script makes it abundantly clear that he has given up on the legitimacy of that device.
Charles gives up on Orlean in L.A., and lest it seem like this is an overly condensed version, it need be only very slightly expanded to mention that this consists of a series of scrapping some more attempts at the screenplay, disavowing his writing skills, and largely giving up on his own attempts at any kind of reasonable human interaction.
He goes to New York so that he can give up on Orlean again, then sacrifices all his convictions to attend a screenwriting seminar, to which he is violently opposed. Confronted with an opposing viewpoint, he throws out his entire belief system and, in a move which should not particularly surprise anyone, his cumulative ideas about writing the script. At this point, Adaptation largely throws in the towel. Charles' clearly stated assertion that he does not want to make up a crazy story goes by the boards, and all bets are off. Any slight amusement by Orchid Thief readers, at the ludicrous nature of the new version of the movie and of thoughts that maybe Susan Orlean would find it funny, is offset by the glum realization that the book is no longer relevant, not secondary to making an exciting or maybe a Hollywoodesque movie, which would be a sacrifice of a kind, but tertiary to (1) Kaufman's indulgence, for Adaptation now becomes a test of his fabled ability to make up a crazy story, and (2) to making that exciting or Hollywoodesque movie, for Kaufman acquiesces to the very devices which were supposed to be so deeply corruptive. Is it funny, is it incisive? Kaufman, acquiescing or perhaps even leaping to the occasion of throwing in these devices, embraces his failure, and while this was some uncertain, swamplike footing to begin with, wholeheartedly converts the story from one that could potentially have ended up being about the unfortunate inability, at least for one worried guy, to reconcile life and art (despite one character's insistence that such reconciliation is necessary only for the blindest of would-be perceivers) into an endorsement of not caring anymore.
The only thing that could cut through this ungleeful jokery, though, is Kaufman's dedication to resignation, and [he brings back the Charles/Donald thing so he can kill off Donald and keep going with his own self-inflicted misery].
Look, I feel for the guy. We all question our attempts at reasonable human interaction, but it's hard not to wonder if he missed the boat on the book. "It's about disappointment," assesses Charles, and maybe a little bit of it is. I'm sure Orlean was at least as disappointed at not seeing a ghost orchid as readers of the book were at seeing one in the first fifteen minutes of the movie, but she ends up saying that she doesn't want to see one, that it will remain better in her mind, and the very worst you can say about that is that it's about avoiding disappointment, which sounds a little bit like hope.