Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)
Vol. 8 No. 27, August 2004
_Adaptation_, 'Adaptation', and Adaptation:
Zizek and the Commonplace
'Lord Polonius: The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the liberty, these are the only men.' (William Shakespeare, _Hamlet_)
'The catch is thus that appearance is literally the appearing/emerging of the essence -- that is, the only place for the essence to dwell.' (Slavoj Zizek, _The Ticklish Subject_) 
_Adaptation_ is the film this article is about. The rules of electronic articles require that it be quoted with underscores. 'Adaptation' is the subject and title of this articleand so should be indicated with inverted commas. Adaptation, without underlining and without quotation marks, is just adaptation, the thing itself. And here comes the question: what is Real Thing Itself? _Adaptation_ addresses the question of what the real, the primary, is, and its relation with that which is secondary -- with the many interpretations, versions, understandings, adaptations.
First, there were orchids. Real orchids. Then, there was an orchid thief by the name of John Laroche. Also real. Then, there was a real journalist by the name of Susan Orlean writing an article about this real thief of wild orchids. Then the real Susan Orlean wrote a book about herself writing about the orchid thief John Laroche. Then along came Hollywood agents, and there appeared a film based on the book. Or better still, there appeared a film about a Hollywood screenplay writer, Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), writing about himself writing about Susan (Meryl Streep) writing about Laroche (Chris Cooper). Then, the real Susan Orlean writes about the film _Adaptation_ on her personal web-page. Just like Charlie Kaufman in the beginning of the film, one feels incapable of untangling the knots of the endless 'abouts'. There are so many 'a-bouts' here they all finally melt together into one long 'aaaaaa . . .', making you dizzy. But somehow it seems that the knots must be untangled, that there is a thread which should be pulled -- and everything will become clear, smooth. And in the very center of the tangle there will be the real, original Thing. Using the tangible metaphors of the Russian essayist Alexander Genis, one can say that the film is similar to a juicy, appetizing cabbage head.  One can peel off one leaf of hints and allusions after another, in order to finally reach the sweet stalk of sense.
Except that there is, of course, no guarantee that we will find any cabbage-stalk at all. It may well happen that, having spent so much time untangling the knots/peeling off the cabbage leaves, we will see but the hollow center of an onion (to continue with Genis's vegetable analogies). This 'onion hollowness', Genis suggests, is meaningful only in so far as it holds together layers of meanings and associations which would otherwise fall apart. But even then, it's worth trying. After all, we will never know what is in there unless we give it a try.
I am not suggesting deconstruction. It is parodied in the film already, which deconstructs itself at least twice. First, there is the hilarious episode in which Charlie gives a piece of advice to his brother Donald. This latter has just decided to try his hand at writing scripts for thrillers and is busy attending an intensive seminar on the principles and practice of making money in Hollywood screenwriting business. Charlie, himself in search of what would be a truly creative move, but unable to produce a single line, suggests that Donald make the murderer in his script kill his victims by chopping off bits of their bodies, and that the criminal should thus be called a deconstructionist. Donald follows the sarcastic advice in all seriousness (with some changes, though: in the final version of his screenplay, the victims are made to eat the pieces of their own flesh). The screenplay is a huge success and is sold for a huge lump sum. Indeed, deconstruction has a great marketing value. Except that it is not of much practical use to chop off pieces of a whole in order to then return them to where they belong.
The second deconstructive moment in the film is the multiplication of the 'about'-layers. Every subsequent layer 'deconstructs', in a way, all the previous original/ copy interactions in a way similar to a mirror hall, where every mirror reflects the back-side of that which is reflected by the previous one. Like in Carroll's _Alice in Wonderland_, it doesn't matter from what side you take a bite of your mushroom, whether you grow bigger or smaller, whether you cut off pieces of the film or add more layers. The result is always the same: you are never of the right size, never at the right level of interpretation.
But one must begin somewhere. I sympathize with Charlie Kaufman at the beginning of the movie -- probably like all people writing. The endless alternatives of possible beginnings drive him crazy, and do not bring him an inch closer to the Real Thing. At least not until he makes an important discovery: one should begin at the beginning. But at the very beginning -- at his own living self. Charlie Kaufman, bold, fat, unattractive, begins by stating that Charlie Kaufman is 'old, fat, bald, ugly, disgusting'. This is productive narcissism: only after one acknowledges his feeling that he is old, fat, bald, ugly, disgusting, and sweating, can he find that which will 'grab him' (to use Charlie's phrase) in the Other -- be it a person or a thing.
Here is what grabbed me. As I realized that there indeed exists a living person called Susan Orlean, who actually wrote the book _The Orchid Thief_, I decided to check the Amazon.com site to learn more about the book and the author. And this is what I found at the bottom of the page featuring Orlean's book:
Customers who bought this book also bought: _The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters With Extraordinary People_ by Susan Orlean; _Mrs. Dalloway_ by Virginia Woolf; _Adaptation: The Shooting Script_ (Newmarket Shooting Script Series) by Charlie Kaufman, Donald Kaufman; _The Hours_ by Michael Cunningham; _Ultimate Orchid_ by Smithsonian Institution.
The customers who bought this book must have exceptionally broad interests: from a collection of a journalist's reports on her encounters with 'extraordinary people', to a kind of popular encyclopaedia of orchids, via Virgina Woolf and a best-seller inspired by, and partly about, Virgina Woolf, and the script of _Adaptation_ inspired by, and partly about, the 'orchid' journalist. The market responded to the enticingly postmodern mixture of genres by offering a generically diverse range of cultural artifacts to choose from.
What do all these texts have in common? 'Aboutness.' _The Hours_ is about _Mrs Dalloway_, just like _The Orchid Thief_ is about the orchids described in _Ultimate Orchid_, just like _The Bullfighter Checks_ . . . is similar to _The Orchid Thief_, in that it is about interesting people just like _Adaptation_ is about writing about a book by Susan Orlean about her encounter with an interesting person. Except for _Mrs Dalloway_, each one of these texts has a clear pre-text. The circle closed -- the original is good only in so far as it can give life to 'about-texts'. A work of art in the age of its mechanical reproduction sells the better, the more opportunities it gives for 'about-writing', i.e. 'writing about it' -- adaptations of itself. There is a certain pleasure in recognizing the familiar, the no-longer-surprising in new texts. Modern textual productions tend to have a shared ground. A common ground. A common place. A Commonplace.
Which is exactly what this film is about. _Adaptation_ plays with an idea which is hardly original, but unfailingly provocative: it is in the Commonplace that the Real Thing resides. It resides in that very place which many texts share, as they reproduce each other and themselves. It is remarkable that a shot from _Adaptation_ is used to introduce another internet site -- that of Robert McKee. Mr McKee (played by Brian Cox) is he who teaches people like Donald Kaufman to produce the screenplay of a Hollywood blockbuster in but three days. The magic formula is in finding the right proportion of sex, violence, and car chases. In the film, Mr McKee is the very embodiment of the trite and the kitschy. As I learnt that he, too, is a real person, who in fact practices the very things the movie ridicules so bitterly, I was sure he would sue the creators of _Adaptation_ for turning him into a laughing stock. I was wrong. Apparently being presented as a genius of the commonplace is the best promotion campaign for Mr. McKee and the skills he teaches. Otherwise he wouldn't have put a shot from the film (at the time when this article was written, in late 2003) on the opening page of his website, which promises you quite amazing things:
An intensive three-day course that produces proven results for: Screenwiters, TV Writers, Novelists, Producers, Directors, Film Executives, TV Executives, Journalists, Playwrights, Actors.
This is a paradox that the film uses to good effect so skillfully: the more the film makes fun of the 'deconstructionist chopping off of body pieces' by increasing its own 'about-layers', the more successful is its self-deconstruction. The greater the degree of the kitschy and the commonplace, the closer it is to the unexpectedly tragic moments of real life. The creators of the film play a double game, as if saying: yes, on the one hand, we certainly make fun of Mr. McKee, of everything he propagates, since we are intellectuals and it is our job to ridicule his kind. On the other hand, we are well aware that in this world, both inside the movie theatre and outside of it, his recipes work. And the victory of the Commonplace is by no means a reason for pessimism, if one is, indeed, able to discern in the Commonplace a presence of the Real Thing.
But to explain this, I must turn to theory, even though it may sound somewhat strange when one deals with a motion picture so blatantly anti-theoretical. To justify the theoretical turn, I can say that the theorist I am about to quote is a vehement admirer of popculture and the Commonplace, to which he consistently turns for an illustration of his profoundly intellectual speculations. Here is, then, a quotation from Slavoj Zizek:
'In this case, however, the 'preponderance of the objective', that which eludes our grasp in the Thing, is no longer the excess of its positive content over our cognitive capacities but, on the contrary, its *lack*, that is, the traces of *failures*, the *absences* inscribed in its positive existence . . . Consequently, this excess/lack is not the part of the 'objective' that is in excess of the subject's cognitive capacities: rather it consists of the traces of the subject himself (his crushed hopes and desires) in the object, so that what is properly 'unfathomable' in the object is the objective counterpart/correlative of the innermost kernal of the subject's own desire.' 
The 'preponderance of the objective' -- this is easy. It is that which happens and exists, which surrounds us at every moment of our existence, that which occupies the same place that we occupy -- the Commonplace. This is the kind of reality in which 'microwave screenplays' with the carefully measured amount of sex, violence, and the concluding 'I love you' make sense. I mean 'making sense' literally, since this is what creates the pattern according to which we decide what *has* sense, and what is sense*less*. The ''preponderance of the objective' . . . eludes our grasp in the Thing', which is not surprising. We do not usually look for the Thing in that which is grounded in a kitschy replaying of the predetermined, in a clearly forseeable ending, in that which is refreshingly interesting only when parodied. The final titles for _Adaptation_ mention 'stand-ins for Donald Kaufman', who in reality (of the film) does not exist, since both the twin brothers are played by Nicolas Cage. In a similar way, we see in a Commonplace, more often than not, a 'stand-in' for the Real Thing, a temporary place-holder for That Which Matters. Instead, we should try to accept, for once, that the Commonplace may contain the Thing for which we search.
Again, the preponderance of the objective 'is no longer the excess of its positive content over our cognitive capacities but, on the contrary, its *lack*, that is, the traces of *failures*, the *absences* inscribed in its positive existence.' V. Linetzky takes up Nabokov's point about the dialogic, i.e. intertextual, nature of kitsch. In his essay, Linetzky defines kitsch as 'a dialogic exaggeration'.  Considering the proximity of the Commonplace to the kitsch, it can be possible that it, too, has a dialogic character. That is, it depends heavily on an intertextual recognizability. In light of this, it is understandable that the Commonplace will try to expand itself, filling as much of our being as possible. The success of the screenplays with car-chases, shootings, and the concluding 'I love you', stands in direct proportion to the amount of such screenplays. These scripts are inherently tautological, being almost identical replicas of each other. One can again think of a mirror-hall effect, which creates the illusion of presence while in fact there is but one object/image present, the rest are just multiplied copies of it. Hence 'the *absences* inscribed' in the 'positive existence' of what we see as the objective (commonplace) reality surrounding us: the more 'about' layers there are, the greater is our feeling that the Real Thing evades us.
'Consequently, this excess/lack is not the part of the 'objective' that is in excess of the subject's cognitive capacities; rather it consists of the traces of the subject himself (his crushed hopes and desires) in the object, so that what is properly 'unfathomable' in the object is the objective counterpart/correlative of the innermost kernel of the subject's own desire.'
If the Commonplace is dialogic in its essence, and if we experience its tautological nature as irritating since the Real Thing seems to be alienating itself further and further from us, then it can be said that we find ourselves in a perpetual state of feeling that 'this is not it'. On the one hand, we despise the kitschy movies with guns, sex, drugs, and alligators who eat the bad guy a second before he pulls the trigger. We are insulted by the concluding 'I love you'. On the other hand, we experience a childish, unsophisticated pleasure when we are shown guns, sex, drugs and alligators, and at least for one short moment we are happy to hear the 'I love you'. In Zizek's terms, somehow this goes towards the satisfaction of 'the innermost kernal of the subject's [our] own desires'. On the other hand, we realize that the last episodes of the film are made so plainly according to the recommendations of Mr. McKee, and we feel a bit uncomfortable as we enjoy it. It is, I think, this very weird feeling that one is supposed to be ashamed of enjoying such things that made many a high-brow critic frown at the ending of the film. Intellectual spectators, we are so proud of being able to tell the real from the fake, the Unique from the Commonplace. But there is something inside us that is drawn to the Commonplace, and the film plays upon this forbidden attraction. This is what constitutes 'traces of the subject [the viewer] himself (his cherished hopes and desires) in the object [the film]'. It makes us feel uneasy. And it should.
The film is an illustration of being caught between two kinds of Commonplace. The first kind is plain kitsch, which comes from the outside, from that reality which surrounds us, from all those many copies of the few originals which we encounter everywhere. This is the kind of a Commonplace which Charlie Kaufman tries to resist so desperately in the beginning of the movie, when the agent suggests to him that he try 'to make the protagonists fall in love with each other'. The second kind is a Commonplace which begins inside, from the subject himself (in this case -- from Charlie Kaufman), from his 'crushed hopes and desires', and which ends in the same: the protagonists falling in love, drugs, and guns. These are two extremes which meet, and between them there is lack, the failure to grasp the Real Thing.
But: this very failure, the meeting of the two extreme Commonplaces, *is* the Real Thing. The commonplace, that which seems to be so annoyingly obvious, 'is literally the appearing/emerging of this essence -- that is, the only place for the essence to dwell'.  When the circle of imitation closes, when we are not sure whether that which was announced as a self-conscious meta-film turns into kitsch, or whether that which was introduced to us as a kitsch manifests itself as a tragic reality -- at this very moment of juncture we are allowed to glimpse the Thing. As with the famous Gestalt pictures that allow you to see either the vase or the face, the duck or the rabbit, but not both of them at once, the film tests our ability to value uncertainty and the momentary transition from one meaning to the other. What is important is not these meanings by themselves, but the moment of juncture -- or rupture of meaning. Zizek again:
'We reach the end of the psychoanalytic process when we isolate this kernel of enjoyment which is, so to speak, immune to the symbolic efficacy, the operating mode of the discourse. This would also be the last Lacanian reading of Freud's motto *Wo es war, soll Ich werden*: in the real of your symptom, you must recognize the ultimate support of your being. There where your symptom already was, with this place you must identify, in its 'pathological' singularity you must recognize the element that guarantees your consistency.' 
This 'kern of enjoyment' can be understood as the Commonplace -- that which enables us to experience enjoyment and comfort from a complete overlap between that which was expected and that which actually happens. The fact that we almost inevitably feel ashamed of having enjoyed ourselves is the best proof that the 'kern of enjoyment' was triggered. The commonplace is 'immune to the symbolic efficacy' exactly because it is so deeply rooted in our being. Something which is not the Commonplace (a 'symbolic efficacy') might awaken our interest, make us angry, surprised, annoyed, but it can hardly weaken our attachment to the Commonplace. The famous dictum 'wo es war, soll Ich werden' can be taken as an illustration of this. Where the 'es' was, the uncensored desires, to which the Commonplace appeals, there the 'Ich' will be, the conscious 'I' of the subject. This 'I' should lead the subject to the understanding that the only possibility to create, to be original, is to go towards one's own weakness, towards that very Commonplace which to a great extent determines the desires and the impulses of a human being as it allows him to make sense of that which happens around him. Where the Hollywood agent was, there Charlie Kaufman will be.
The Commonplace is symptomatic in this Freudian/Lacanian sense of the word: it points to a weakness at the core of one's being, a weakness that seeks justification.
The shamelessly popcultural ending of this serious, philosophically and psychologically astute comedy can be seen as a justification of this weakness. A justification by Commonplace. Where the made-up, the ridiculous, the fake was, there the Thing itself, the intimate, the personal, will be. The Commonplace is that which becomes 'the ultimate support of [one's] being' -- Charlie Kaufman would never be able to write without realizing this reinvigorating value of the Commonplace, both in bringing forth his personal weak self and in granting the kitsch the respect due to it. The inspiration comes to him the moment he resigns any claims to inspiration as a supreme sentiment and stoops to 'identifying with the place of the symptom', with his insufficiency, his weakness, his ''pathological' singularity' -- only then does he 'recognize the element that guarantees [his] consistency'.
Charlie's brother Donald is very good at 'identifying with the symptom', even though he would never use the term, of course. He doesn't care about terms. What he cares about is the real stuff -- the reality? Or, as smart (post-)modernists would say, that which marks the illusion of reality? He does not waste time groping in the dark for what he should say, or write, or how he should act. He goes for the final product -- Mr. McKee's 'commandments', for the perfect marketing strategies and the ideas nicely packaged. He is lucky in that he has no fear of facing up to his weakest points -- a total inability to write anything of artistic value, a lack of tact and good manners -- and of submitting to the Commonplace, both inside himself and outside.
The motif of the 'double', like so many other things in this film, parodies itself through its very obviousness. And here is a glaringly commonplace interpretation of the motif of the 'double': 1, Donald does not really exist, he is Charlie's 'alter ego'. He is that which Charlie strives to become -- until he is finally able to incorporate both sides of his personality in his writing. Then, Donald is no longer needed as 'the other' -- he is made to die. 2, The symbolic death of Charlie's 'alter ego', that so thoughtlessly goes for the Commonplace, is a condemnation of the capitalist marketing logic, which, according to the creators of the film, has no right to exist, and hence Donald is made to die.
Doesn't this reading sound logical? It certainly does. It is too obviously logical, which means -- it's probably nonsense.
Alexander Genis lists the four well-known stages of the evolution of the image, according to Baudrillard: 1, the image, like a mirror, reflects the reality surrounding it; 2, the image distorts reality; 3, the image masks the absence of reality; and 4, the image becomes the 'simulacrum', a copy without an original, which exists independently, with no connection to the reality.  To this scheme, one can add: then, the image creates its own reality.
This is exactly what happens in the film, except that there, the scheme is even more complex than that of Baudrillard/Genis. The reality surrounding the image, that is, the reality in which the film and its characters/creators exist, is the reality of a simulacrum, a fake, a Hollywood illusion sustained by endless copies of itself. At the first stage, in the beginning of the film, there is, indeed, a relatively direct reflection of this Hollywood reality of the simulacrum: in this way one can read Charlie's meeting with the agent and her suggestion that he right a screenplay that would answer the expectations of the public. At this point Charlie is unable to accept this reality of the simulacrum and produce anything that would accord with it. At the second stage, the image (of Charlie Kaufman in the film) distorts the reality of the Commonplace. This happens when Charlie inscribes himself, with all his weaknesses and deficiencies, into his own screenplay. At this point, the Commonplace stops being a pure banality, and becomes dissolved in the real person's being. At the third stage, Charlie gradually acknowledges that it may be possible, after all, to write about oneself within the constraints of the world according to Hollywood. The right of this Hollywood reality to existence is affirmed; the absence of reality not grounded in simulacrum is masked, and thus, justified. The more 'about' layers there are, the stronger is this 'masking effect'. At the fourth stage, as the film comes to its end which, as per Mr. McKee's recommendations, should work as the strongest part of the movie, the creation of a simulacrum, i.e. a copy without an original, is carried out faultlessly. The end is a replica of the endlessly multiplied Hollywood thrillers which do not have much in common with life outside of the Hollywood shooting locations. 'While in the beginning', Genis writes, 'the image copies the reality, in the end it does not need it at all -- the image 'devours' reality'.  And finally, the image/simulacrum does, indeed, create its own reality: the Hollywood film is incorporated into the (real) marketing campaigns for both the (real) book and the (real) script-writing strategy, which the movie ruthlessly takes apart.
V. Marov writes that 'the commonplace in rhetoric has been traditionally connected to an orator's ability to appeal to the confidence of the audience'.  The film awakens the interest and wins the trust of its audience by demonstrating its awareness of, and an ability to comply with, the politics of the Commonplace. The film is exceedingly tautological, with all its devics of doubling and copying, and I must agree here with Elias Canetti who said that 'only tautological sentences are perfectly true'.  _Adaptation_ is just like that -- the more 'about' layers there are, each in some way repeating the previous one, 'adapting' itself to it, the more distant it becomes from the original, the 'truer' it is in that it produces a reality of the Commonplace, recognizable, predictable, and welcomed into the world outside the movie theatre, which, in its turn, 'adapts' itself to the reality of the film.
We seem to have forgotten the question from which we began -- what is there inside our cabbage, or our onion? What is the original? What is this first Real Thing from which everything began? The flowers seem real, pure enough in their primievality. The orchids. Even though . . . even though they, too, adapt themselves, and they do this even better than people, as 'Susan Orlean' (in the film) remarks. And it is exactly in this ability of the original to adapt itself to that which imposes itself upon it from the outside that the sad truth of the Commonplace is hidden: the orchids are but potential drugs. Of course, in order to become drugs, they must first undergo a certain chemical process -- they must be transformed into something that can adapt itself to the shameful, illegal desires of the human body. This body, very much a real thing, and the orchids, another real thing, merge together so that the person can 'be fascinated', as 'John Laroche' says (in the film). 'That's what it does to you -- it makes you fascinated' -- these are his words. Not fascinated *by* something -- just fascinated. Is the drugged Susan -- childish, funny, vulnerable, fascinated -- more true to herself than the Susan without drugs? After all, when she takes the drug, she does give in to her weakness, to the drive of her secret enjoyment -- to her symptom, in other words. And is the fascination she experiences -- this pure, non-object-oriented fascination -- real or faked, because it is drug-induced?
I don't know. And I don't think there is an answer in the film. Somehow I feel that even if there is an answer, 'the story won't tell. Not in any literal, vulgar way' (Henry James's _The Turn of the Screw_ seems to be just the right text to quote here).
But it is certainly a pity that the orchids are drugs. So banal. Such a commonplace. So disappointing.
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
1. Zizek, _The Ticklish Subject_, p. 59.
2. Genis, 'Luk i kapusta', p. 225.
3. Zizek, _The Ticklish Subject_, pp. 89-90.
4. Linetzky, 'O poshlosti v literature, ili Glavnyi paradoks postmodernizma', p. 47.
5. Zizek, _The Ticklish Subject_, p. 59.
6. Zizek, _Looking Awry_, p. 137.
7. Genis, 'Luk i kapusta', pp. 230-231, with reference to Baudrillard's _Simulations_.
8. Ibid., p. 231.
9. Marov, 'Pokhvala obstchim mestam', p. 9.
10. Elias Canetti, quoted in Baudrillard, _Fatal Strategies_, p. 34.
Baudrillard, Jean, _Fatal Strategies_, trans. Philip Beitchman and W. G. J. Niesluchowski, ed. Jim Fleming (London: Pluto Press, 1999).
Genis, Aleksander, 'Luk i kapusta' ['The Cabbage and the Onion'], in _Rassledovaniya -- Dva_ (Moskva: Podkova- EKSMO, 2002) pp. 219-259; translation in the text is mine.
Linetzky, V., 'O poshlosti v literature, ili Glavnyi paradoks postmodernizma' ['On the Commonplace in Literature, or The Main Paradox of Post-Modernism'], _Ritorika_, vol. 1 no. 3, 1996, pp. 38-55; translation in the text is mine.
Marov, V., 'Pokhvala obstchim mestam' ['In Praise of the Commonplace'], _Ritorika_ vol. 1 no. 3, 1996, pp. 5-22; translation in the text is mine.