Adaptation by Charlie Kaufman and Donald KaufmanFull Title: Adaptation: The Shooting Script
Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman
Publisher: Nick Hern Books (2002)
Number of Pages: 135
How long it took me to read: 1 day
Where I got this book: World of Books (Amazon Marketplace seller)
ISBN: 1-85459-708-6

Like a Moth to a Flame

And so I venture on into the reading list for my next module, which is all about screenwriting. This is a massive departure for me: up until now, the course has concentrated on prose writing, and though I have experience of playscripts from my earlier education, I know from the samples I’ve already seen that screenwriting is a very different medium with very different objectives. There are many questions I need to answer before attempting to write one myself, such as: how much control can a screenplay exert over actors and directors?; how much authority can they claim over mechanics such as camera shots?; do screenwriters simply provide the set up for a scene, so that others can caress/hammer them into shape? I’ve chosen Adaptation as my first script to read, because it’s the one film on the list I know well enough to visualise, which should allow me to make a reasonable comparison between the text and the end product. It’s also a story that reveals more depth each time I watch it, so experiencing it in a different medium will hopefully be illuminating rather than monotonous.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:



 “You see that nectary all the way down there? Darwin hypothesized a moth with a nose twelve inches long to pollinate it. Everyone thought he was a loon. Then, sure enough, they found this moth with a twelve-inch proboscis. Proboscis means nose by the way.”


“I know what proboscis means.”


 “Hey, let’s not get off the subject. This isn’t a pissing contest.” (p.23)




“McKee is a genius! And hilarious. He just comes up with all these great jokes, and everybody laughs. But he’s serious, too, Charles. You’d love him. He’s all for originality, just like you. But he says we have to realize that we all write in a genre, and we must find our originality within that genre… My genre’s thriller. What’s yours?”

Kaufman sits. Donald waits for a response, heaving with excitement. No response from Kaufman.



“You and I share the same D.N.A. Is there anything more lonely than that?” (p.43)



“You want to make it into a movie?”


“Into a movie.”



“Oh, God! Oh, that’s really…”


“How does that sound?”



“That’s very exciting.”




“It’s just comical. I mean, I hadn’t thought of it. I’ve never written a screenplay before, so –“


“Oh, don’t worry about that. We have screenwriters to write the screenplay. You needn’t worry about that.” (pp.48-9)



(calling to Kaufman)

“Hey, my script’s going amazing! Right now I’m working out an Image System. Because of my multiple personality theme, I’ve chosen the motif of broken mirrors to show my protagonist’s fragmented self. Bob says an Image System greatly increases the complexity of an aesthetic emotion. Bob says –“


“You sound like you’re in a cult.”


“No, it’s just good writing technique. Oh, and I made you a copy of McKee’s Ten Commandments!” (pp.51-2)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…



“Who am I kidding? This is not Susan Orlean’s story. I have no connection with her. I can’t even meet her. I can’t meet anyone. I have no understanding of anything outside of my own panic and self-loathing and pathetic, little existence. It’s like the only thing I’m actually qualified to write about is myself and my own self –“

His eyes light up. (p.58)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: Seminole (noun)

Definition (Source: 1) a member of any of several groupings of North American Indians comprising emigrants from the Creek Confederacy territories to Florida or their descendants in Florida and Oklahoma, especially the culturally conservative present-day Florida Indians; 2) either of the Muskogean languages spoken by the Seminoles, comprising Mikasuki and the Florida or Seminole dialect of Creek
Origins: earlier Seminolie; Creek simanó·li; ‘wild’; ‘runaway’; alteration of earlier and dialect simaló·ni; American Spanish cimarrón
As in: “It was after reading a small article about a white man and three Seminole men arrested with rare orchids they’d stolen out of a place called the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve.” (p.6)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

Charlie Kaufman’s knack for externalising and distorting reality extends even to the authorship of the script: he lists Donald Kaufman, his fictional twin brother in the film and an extension of the naïve, rambunctious yet socially acceptable side of his own psyche, as co-writer. I find this disorientation comforting; I’m already at home with his writing style before opening the cover.”

“One difference between prose and screenwriting that strikes me very early, on page 6, is the explicitness with which character can be revealed: ‘We lose ourselves in her melancholy beauty.’ Imagine such a direct description appearing in a novel or short story. It’s the kind of statement modern prose writers strive to avoid, to reveal implicitly through action and dialogue, not overtly provide to the reader. Yet in a screenplay, perhaps, it is not only acceptable, but practical—it provides a template of the character for filmmakers and actors to work towards, that they might find their own means of framing when committing the moment to film. I don’t know how long it will take me to adapt to this, or if in doing so I could damage some of the valuable understanding I’ve formed of prose writing. It’s difficult, without yet having attended any classes and only having read half a textbook on short film writing, to know what is expected from a script compared to what Kaufman is attempting, but at the very least I am noticing differences and preparing myself for this change of style. If nothing else, it will absorb some of the shock that might await me in class.”

“The script reads, for the most part, like a true blueprint for fiction. It provides the ‘what’ of the story, the ‘why’ of the plot, but not the full ‘how’ of the final film. There are few suggested camera shots, and only occasional references to audio. In prose, this ‘how’ would be the narrative form: the point of view, the tense, the structure. Some of this is still present: the scenes play out in their expected final order, rather than chronologically, with captions indicating time and location. ‘We’ (the point of view is always voyeuristic, that of the audience) are provided with basic scene setup (e.g. INT. L.A. BUSINESS LUNCH RESTAURANT – MIDDAY), dialogue, monologue, some very specific details of action: ‘A rivulet of sweat slides down his forehead,’ and even, occasionally, suggested motion: ‘We move in until we are on the Earth’s endlessly barren and lifeless surface’. In my current ignorance, I’d guess that the aim of the writer is to present any images in their imagination as efficiently as possible so these can be easily recreated; to communicate the key visual elements of their story without dictating the details of how to achieve it.

“Having already seen the film, I think I interpreted the camera movement of this evolution montage similarly to how the director, Spike Jonze, created it, but there is no reason why another director shouldn’t interpret them differently. When Kaufman writes ‘we move in’, he doesn’t determine whether it’s a tracking shot, a zoom or even a series of freeze frames. The aim of this movement, in story terms, is to magnify the Earth to a microscopic level, presenting the miniscule origins of life and adaptation on its surface. It’s a huge relief to find that this is indeed part of a screenwriter’s purpose. The few ideas I have already formed for the start of my own screenplay hinge around the moving image, rather than dialogue or action.”

“While I was struggling with notions of auteurship in screenwriting, I somehow overlooked the reason that this screenplay appears on the reading list: it’s not just an excellent example of how to write a script, the story itself is all about screenwriting. The main character struggles with similar problems of isolationism vs. interaction, auteurship vs. negotiation, which collide with and reflect his personal life. I have no idea how that escaped me until now, but it shows my own inner-Donald is always capable of exerting his influence.”

“A nauseating wave of vertigo just washed over me. I’m learning about writing screenplays from the screenplay of a film about a screenwriter writing the screenplay for a film that characterises both the author and subject of the book on which both real and fictional films and screenplays are based. It’s a good job I was prescribed some strong antacids by my doctor last week.”

“Somehow, reading the text energises the themes of the story far better than watching the film. Or maybe that’s because I’m now earnestly searching for ideas about screenwriting, of which this story provides plenty in both its mechanics and its fiction. Or maybe it’s because I find myself free from the constraints of time imposed when watching a film. I can more readily explore passages over and over again, than when forced to rewind and replay sections on a DVD. Writing is a uniquely flexible medium, particularly for the student. Imagery at one point can be directly married with dialogue at another with the slight flick of an eye or turn of a page. If I wanted to, I could read the entire screenplay backwards, one word at a time. Nowadays, with technology such as software movie players, film is easier to navigate in this way, but I know from painful experience just how sluggish and inadequate these can still be for finding specific moments. To experience the film laid out in text form is fascinating, particularly when the story is about screenwriting. This is probably why reading it feels even more deeply vertiginous, more layered, than watching the film.

“This is the raw material over which Kaufman struggles in the plot—the end product of that struggle. The film is just additional decoration. But perversely, another issue is that I adore the illusion of film too much, and engage more with it emotionally and physiologically than I ever could with writing. I have never been driven to tears by writing, but the right juxtaposition of music and image never fails to swell my throat and cause my eyes to strain. Having to break off in the middle of a film is upsetting, and the thought of dissecting that fantastic illusion, utterly distressing.”

“A less fascinating aspect of reading this screenplay is the many typos. At one point (p.71), KAUFMAN’S BEDROOM ‘hugs’ Bob McKee and proclaims ‘Oh, Mr. Mckee’. I have to hope that this is just an error with this particular edition, and not one that made its way to the director in the original script. If it did, then Jonze at least chose to overlook it. I don’t remember any rooms getting their own dialogue in the film. Mind you, this is a Charlie Kaufman script, so I’m only assuming it’s a typo from the context of the scene. You’ll just have to take my word for it.”

“Something really depressing just occurred to me. Somewhere out there, in the wilderness of modern-day human urbanity, someone probably watched this film and (without owning the language to know what they were doing) formed the value judgement that Laroche has to die because he is the ‘baddie’; an orchid-smuggling drug addict. I’m willing to bet that happened. And then, as the credits rolled (if they made it that far), they probably turned to their partner/friend/drinking buddy and said ‘What a dumb movie.’ Because that’s life: entirely subjective, entirely dependent on the machinery you’re given to experience it and the environment in which your life plays out. Worse still, there’s no satisfaction to be gained in judging them for this failure to comprehend, no higher ground to claim from having a broader understanding. All they are is different, and without difference, without diversity, the life that any of us experiences could not exist.”

“I find myself so deeply engrossed in this screenplay’s layered exploration of the definitions of ‘adaptation’, and how Kaufman’s confessed subjectivity and ‘need to survive’ turns his experience of both the writing form and scientific theory into an exploitative thrill ride of sex and drugs, that I decide to watch the film again, for a true comparison. From the outset, I am shocked at how fast it moves from one scene to the next; how much meaning seems stripped out, or changed, with the emphasis placed firmly on the personal yearnings of Kaufman and Orleans. It took me seven hours to read through the screenplay, and though I’d been purposely taking it slowly, re-reading, comparing sections, and taking notes, I’d realised that the film would have to be pared down a little. The real shock is the extent to which my imagination had taken the visual memory of my previous viewings and reshaped them to the screenplay whilst reading. I’d been convinced I was recalling scenes and dialogue from the film that, in reality, hadn’t made the cut at all. Even some of my favourite quotes (above) are fumbled or thrown away in the film, as if unimportant. Unlike the screenwriters of most films, I suspect Kaufman might have had a reasonable amount of input during production based on his own reputation (despite what the script itself suggests, when we see him ignored and belittled on the set of Being John Malkovich). It must take great strength of character for a writer to hand over their work to filmmakers, and trust them to interpret it with sensitivity.

“In the introduction to this edition of the screenplay, the real Susan Orleans, (author of The Orchid Thief, which Adaptation takes as its source material) writes ‘I’m not tortured by the thought of someone handling my material. I’m a writer, not a moviemaker. I am not an unrequited screenwriter, director or actor.’ But for the screenwriter, particularly one seasoned in other forms of writing, it must be a cruel labour to know their finished product is just the start of a process that will see them left out in the cold while their brainchild is ripped apart, muddled around and rebuilt by a gang of total strangers.”

Gareth Long

You might also like…

Leave a Reply