Adaptation is exactly what one would expect the cinematic brainchild of director Spike Jonze, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and producer Jonathan Demme to be like; in other words, it is entirely as surreal, unexpected, and grimly hilarious as one could hope for. Watching for the first time now, over a decade since its original release, it is easy to catch an occasional glimpse of the tones, impressions, and feelings that will impact equally painful and enchanting movies like Her (2013) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Like a contemporary American take on the sentiments of 8 ½ (1963), Federico Fellini’s famous meta-narrative about his own writer’s block and personal crises, Adaptation confronts these creative issues and the self-perpetuated doubts which plague each creator’s sense of worth and progress—a trope which has largely been represented in onscreen depictions of the male experience and perspective, thus far, continually perpetuated by variations of Fellini’s Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), whose self-loathing, self-pity, and sexual insecurity are echoed in Mad Men’s Don Draper (2007-2015, dir. Matthew Weiner; played by Jon Hamm), Birdman’s Riggan Thompson (2014, dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu; played by Michael Keaton), and Nicolas Cage’s interpretation of Charlie Kaufman, the character.
Although Kaufman’s self-deprecating, self-reflexive vision of his own creative crisis doesn’t exactly add anything new to that particular conversation, these familiar themes and archetypes come into hyper-focus and rise to extreme, disorienting heights within the labyrinthine psychology that maps the film’s narrative. With the inclusion of author Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), the tradition of depicting creative crises from the masculine point of view is slightly disrupted, however, and we at least see that the same artistic and personal agony takes place within male and female characters, and receive some form of (unfortunately, necessary) affirmation that their crises have nothing to do with their gender. Susan’s longing to start over, to be a baby and be new again, resonates with equally poignant force and pain as Charlie’s constant panic, “Do I have an original thought in my head?” and both reach a truth closer to the core of human nature than the messy memories of failed relationships and sexual anxiety which so often coincide with these types of tormented protagonists.
As the film reminds us, the one constant hope we all have in the end for coping with our unique inner turmoil is one another’s company—in its special Kaufman-Jonze-Demme way, however, we leave wary of depending too much on those outside ourselves, as the ruthless absurdity of the world has a habit of surprising us with loss and absence that may feel undeserved. Like the title suggests, though, we find it is often in such moments of loss and despair and total loneliness that we learn to be kinder and more forgiving of ourselves, adapting more and more to the world’s caprice and the person it has made of us.