I didn’t see Adaptation when it came out, because I thought it was some Invasion of the Body Snatchers freak fest. I’m not sure I would have gotten it at the time.
After reading halfway through Robert McKee’s book, the movie makes sense. McKee is actually a character in the movie, and he mentions that fact on his website. (I think that shows well on his sense of humor.)
Adaptation is antiplot, with its time sequence cutting in the primordial soup with three years ago and now; with Charlie Kaufman a more passive protagonist (up until the third act) than Woody Allen. The biggest “rule” (OK, principle) they broke was the viewer’s empathy with the characters, and they did that by their inconsistent realities. By setting up a couple of dream sequences earlier in the film, by the time they came to the third act, I kept wondering when Charlie would wake up. He never did.
Presumably, the third act was supposed to have happened, within the context of the film, but everything in the first two acts was supposed to have happened, was pegged to outside events that the audience would know about: The Orchid Thief, The New Yorker, the Brothers Kaufman, the Story Seminary, Robert McKee; the story opens on the Being John Malkovitch set, with John Malkovitch shouting instructions to the cast and crew.
It was only on reflection afterward, the I realized that the whole movie was an elaborate joke, with the third act as the punchline. Charlie Kaufman gets desperate enough to attend a Story Seminar and talks to Robert McKee afterward. McKee advises him that if he writes a good third act, it will make up for all the mistakes in the prior two acts. So he calls his brother and–
The third act they write is exactly what Charlie Kaufman insisted he didn’t want his screenplay to be: car chase, drug running, gratuitous sex and a facile resolution to the protagonist’s problem.
OK, I guess you had to be there. I wasn’t either. I was left scratching my head until I thought, “Oh. It’s a joke. Huh. That’s funny.” Provided that your definition of funny doesn’t require actual laughing.
Anyway, the reason I think Robert McKee must have a good sense of humor (unless it’s just appreciation for the publicity) is that what McKee inspired (within the story) was this “Hollywood” third act that lacked all sense of reality, especially after the actions that went before. In reality, McKee doesn’t say that it takes car chases or drug running to make a good movie. It just takes conflict.
I can see why writing a screenplay about The Orchid Thief would be hard; there probably isn’t much conflict in it. Kaufman kept saying he wanted to write about the beauty of flowers.
So the conflict came in Kaufman’s autobiographical(?) attempt to adapt the script, which had plenty of conflict, because he had to do something and didn’t have the gumption to do much of anything.
Adaptation really is a good joke. Just not the laugh-out-loud kind.