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The Better Script, the Better Life: Adaptation

November 22, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Better Script, the Better Life: Adaptation

            Life as art, can be viewed as life as a story, or a narrative. The movie Adaptation (directed by Spike Jonze, and screenplay written by Charlie and Donald Kaufman) is a meta-narrative, a sort of “copy and paste” story, where we as the audience have to piece it all together, as there is constantly flashbacks, and returns to the present.  Julia Annas, in her book, The Morality of Happiness, describes “the process of making sense of one’s life…involves reflecting on one’s life story…you need to know if it is coherent – if it makes a story or if it is just random events.”  Adaptation shows life as art through the process of finding it, in this case by composing a script, and agrees with Wayne Booth’s principles that life is a narrative and that some are morally better than others.

            The movie begins with the main character, Charlie Kaufman, asking those common questions that every philosophy class analyzes: “What am I doing here? Why do I even bother to come here today?  Nobody even seems to know my name.  I’ve been on this planet for 40 years, and I’m no closer to understanding a single thing.  Why am I here?  How’d I get here?”  One’s life is like a narrative, and in order to answer these questions one must look back on one’s life to figure them out.  For Charlie Kaufman the answers do not come until the end of the movie.  Self analyzing himself, Charlie clearly does not like who he is, is not self-confident, and is very self-conscious.  He is a tall, pale, balding man, and as a screen writer; his next task is to write a script about orchids, but he is suffering from writer’s block.  Charlie has a twin brother, Donald.  Donald is spunky, talkative, happy, most confident, and has no problem whipping out an action script; quite the opposite of Charlie.  The character of Donald seems to be a sort of counter-character to that of Charlie’s – there to fill in all the personality he does not have.  What Charlie will not recognize until later in the movie, is that Donald will be the answer to his awakening on his own life.  At this point, Charlie’s life seems to have no meaning and no order.

            Then there is the New York Times journalist, Susan Orlean.  The script that Charlie is writing is based on the book she wrote about “the ghost orchid,” and John Laroche.  Her story helps Charlie in the development of his own.  In interviewing John Laroche, Susan says that she wants to see the ghost orchid herself.  Her reasoning for this is that she just wants to see this thing that people are drawn to, if it does indeed exist.  This fits along the lines of understanding theism, or more specifically, God, when you do not understand it yet.  People need to see to believe, even if so many are drawn to something, such as God or religion, if you have never experienced it before, you may need to see it to understand it.  Susan says that plants have no memory, and that for people, adapting is almost shameful, like running away.   This could be said for not only herself, but Charlie as well.  Susan starts to adapt to the life of John Laroche; she develops a secret love life with him when he introduces her to the “high” effect you get from grinding up the ghost orchid.  She of course hides this secret life of hers because it is a shameful one, and she is running away from her regular ordinary life with her husband and her demanding job.  Charlie can not seem to adapt to any life; and in trying to do so he loses what he is doing and struggles with his script, until, with the help of his brother, Donald, finds himself, and when he finds himself, is then able to crank out a script.  

In part of the process of writing his script, Charlie starts to use a voice recorder to collect all his thoughts.  He spews out ideas, such as in one case he says, “Journey of Evolution.  Adaptation.  Journey we all take.”  Here he is comparing the lives of everyone, how we are all linked, and how he can use that to grab people’s attention. Charlie simply needs to tie history together for his script; put it in a narrative, make it a story, and then the meaning and interesting aspect of the script will be brought together.  When Charlie actually goes to Donald about his struggle with the script, Donald tells Charlie that “We all write in our own genre,” and that he would not be able to write the sort of things that Charlie can write, because of this. “Though our stories are unique, they fall into “genres” that are obviously not infinite in number.” (Booth, p.289).  This goes along saying that every character in the movie has their own genre, their own way of writing, but also their own way of writing their life.  Each artist has his own way of painting, the way he strokes his brush is different then any other artist, just like the way we write on a piece of paper, our lettering has a unique trait about it characterized only to ourselves and no one else around us.  The same can be said for how we live our life.

  Charlie, after coming up with different ways of starting his script, ends up writing himself into it; he becomes self-indulgent.  Donald tells Charlie, “You’re an artist,” and indeed Charlie is.  His form of art, his way of interpreting his life, is within a script.  He paints his life in the form of words and story telling. It is all put into perspective for Charlie when Donald and he are stuck in a rut, and everyone’s lives crash together, when Susan and Laroche are hunting them down.  Charlie reminisces to when Donald and he were younger and Donald was chasing this girl that he was in love with, and even though he knew she did not love him, it did not stop him.  Donald said it is because “You are what you love, not what loves you.”  After Donald is killed, remembering this, Charlie is finally inspired to sit down, begin, and finish his script the right, compelling way. 

            In Charlie’s journey to write his script, and in his struggles, he takes his brother’s advice and goes to see this speaker who taught him all he needed to know to write his script.  The speaker, McKee, touches on how to write, and tells Charlie that if you write a screenplay without conflict, that you will lose the audience.  One of Wayne Booth’s ideas is that you sort of take on the character’s perspective, and that you have to have something to grab them to watch and follow.  If the lives of Susan and Laroche, and Charlie and Donald did not eventually collide together, the movie would have been a dull story.  Every story has a motivation and rise, a conflict and climax, and then an outcome and denouement.  Without the conflict it would have nothing to come back down to.  Piecing a few things from Professor McAteer’s lecture:

For Aristotle, the highest potential of a human being is rational action, so true
happiness for a human being is the life lived according to reason.  Aristotle does not separate reason from emotion the way Plato or the Stoics might.  Here we can apply Booth’s idea of “hoping to build a life-plot that will be in one of the better genres.” (Booth p.268).  In other words, we want our life story to be a comedy, not a tragedy.

For Charlie, his life seemed more of a tragedy:  he could not get women or tell them how he felt; he was invisible; he could not write a script, then he follows this journalist, with his brother tagging along; they are being chased by two people who want to kill them, and then in trying to escape, Donald gets killed.  Charlie’s twin brother, Donald, was the complete opposite of Charlie, and his life was more of the comedic type that Charlie wanted to be: he was always happy, had a girlfriend, was able to enjoy a party, wrote an action script and got over a million dollars for it.

            Booth argues that the self is social and is only found in relationship to other. (pp. 235-240).  Charlie was not a very social person.  He often felt invisible, and was not confident when it came to women. It was not until he really started listening to Donald – his later- ego, hits opposite, whom he wants to be more like- that he started to realize certain things about himself and his life.  It was not until this interaction with his brother that he was able to really write his script, and what would be the end product.  If your life is seen as a story, and is coherently structured, then it will aim at a single end, according to teleological action theory.  From reading Booth’s The Company We Keep, you get from it how our lives can be seen as stories and how fictional narratives (also movies) can help us to create better life stories.  When Charlie analyzes his life as a story, it is only then that he is able to successfully write his script, which becomes his own life story. 

            Some stories are morally better than others.  Booth wants to figure out how to judge that one story is better than another; and if so then we can say some life stories are better than others. (Prof. McAteer, Lect. 3).  Coduction, the idea of Wayne Booth, says that we need to accept some values and beliefs in order to critique other values and beliefs.  “You develop these virtues/vices by imitating the narrator’s way of thinking and feeling about the narrator’s way of thinking and feeling about the world until it becomes habitual, even when you’re not reading the book (or watching the movie).” (Prof. John, Lecture 7).  Susan was having an affair with Laroche, and the two of them were doing drugs and out trying to kill people.  All three of these are considered to be immoral in law, society, and rationally.  In order to judge them and their characters as the “bad” guys, I, as the viewer, had to first somewhere in my life accept values that their actions are wrong, and thus can critique them to my values.  The character of Susan could say the same; she hid this lifestyle of hers, because the society she grew up in told her that these were shameful, wrong things to do. 

            Booth says that some life stories are morally better than others, and he wants to figure out how to judge which ones are better.  In Adaptation it may be hard to tell which characters live better lives than other characters. “We have a vision of the good life implicit in the actions that form our lives.  Aristotle calls this highest good happiness.” (Prof. McAteer, Lect. 5).  “Every rational action is aimed at some apparent good, and these goods are hierarchically structured, aiming ultimately at one Final Good (or collection of goods) that constitutes the agent’s conception of happiness.” (Prof. McAteer, Lect.8).  Each character has a different definition of what they think will make them happy, or that will make their life better.  Susan may seem to have it all; she is wealthy, married, she is successful and well-known, has a good career as a New York Times journalist, and as an author.  She is at the top of the chain from all the other characters, but this is only if you were to look at it from a first impression.  Deep down she has a yearning to escape it all; a life most would kill for, she is taking for granted.  She slowly starts to create a “bad” life by having an affair with John Laroche, perhaps implementing that she is not happy with her husband, and then she starts using drugs.  She becomes involved in murder and attempted murder.  Even if there was no God to implement rules or ideas that things such as these were morally bad, we as humans have that moral anyways.  Her break from a moral life causes her to break down at the end, showing what seemed to be a happy life, become a tragic one.  She even cries out later that she wish she could go back to her old life.  What she thought would make her happy in the end, ended up being the destruction of her.  Laroche seemed to be a sort of free spirit, a rogue.  It looked as if he was a bum and did not give a care about much.  But you come to find that he is actually a scientist.  Once specializing with fishes, and then completely forgetting about that, then having a healthy nursery, John does not know how to stick to one thing.  It seems as if he lives his life not caring about much at all, other than doing drugs.  You come to find however that his life was quite the tragic one and that he lives his life because he is probably psychologically torn from the incident when his mother and his wife died in a car accident.  Both Susan and Laroche’s lives clash together to fulfill what each of them are lacking, and fulfilling a longing for another’s intimate company (of course with the help of drugs).  In the end Laroche dies as it all comes back to bite him, metaphorically and literally.

            Then there is Charlie Kaufman; he seems to be a dull person that has nothing going for him; his life is meaningless.  He thinks in order to be happy he has to get a woman to love him, has to be successful in his writing, and be recognized by others.  It is not until he finds happiness and meaning that he can write a successful piece of work.  He actually has a great job but he finds it meaningless.  Lots of people would kill for a job as a screenwriter, yet he does not know why he even bothers to show up for work.  In the end, his life comes together and he ends up living a happy life that he had wanted all along.  His script becomes a great success in the making of the movie on it, and he rides off with the girl he loves right next to him, in the end.  His dull life took him on an adventure, where he learned so many valuable things, and ended up the richest of them all.  As for his brother Donald, although he had the most tragic ending, he had the best life as I could see.  He lived each day happy, confident, and without much worries.  He was always happy and positive, and because of this and his confidence, he became a successful person.  He was able to get a girlfriend, and write an action movie, which gained him wealth.  Again, the twins are being shown as opposites:  Charlie lived a tragic life and in the end gained a happy one; Donald lived a happy life and in the end received a tragic one.  So it would seem that the lives of Laroche and Susan are the opposite of Charlie and Donald.  The first two live an immoral life, which results in the destruction of their lives.  Charlie and Donald end up with the morally better lives, but not just morally, but intrinsically.  Each person had a different genre for what made them happy.

            “Writing is a journey into the unknown.” (Adaptation).  A journey into the unknown can make for a good story and a good story can make for a great work of art. The film’s vision is helpful for living a good, happy, and virtuous life.  Those who decided to live an immoral, “bad”, and what they thought was a happy life, ended up with a tragic ending.  Susan and Laroche thought these virtuously wrong things were making them happy, but it was just a temporary thing.  For Donald and Charlie, they found something to fulfill their lives and make it a good one.  Even though Donald died in the end, he still had a good, happy, and virtuous life, and even up to the end had a good humor about life, even the fact that he was shot.  The movie portrays for the audience a good view of how you should not take life for granted and how you should make the most of it and how living it the “right” way, or the virtuous way, well in the long run prove to be the best option for having a better life. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Booth, Wayne C.  The Company We Keep: And Ethics of Fiction.  Berkeley and Los Angeles,

            California:  University of California Press, 1988. Pp. 34-37, 70-77, 235-240, 268, 289.

                                    -34-37: Judgment/ ethical criticism

                                    -70-77: coduction

                                    -235-240: The Social Self

                                    -289: life as a genre

Jonze, Spike.  Adaptation.  2002.  Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman. 

            Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. 

McAteer, John.  Philosophy 003-Ethics and the meaning of Life.  Fall 2006.  University of

            California, Riverside, CA.  Lectures 3, 5, and 8.

                                    -Lecture 3: Julia Annas’ quote.

                                    -Lecture 5: Aristotle-happiness.

                                    -Lecture 8: Aristotle and Booth; Booth ideas.

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