Colonel: Raiden, turn the game console off right now.
Raiden: What did you say?
Colonel: The mission is a failure. Cut the power right now.
Raiden: What’s wrong with you?
Colonel: Don’t worry, it’s a game. It’s a game just like usual.
Rosemary: You’ll ruin your eyes playing so close to the TV.
Raiden: What are you talking about?
Colonel: Raiden. Something happened to me last night when I was driving home. I had a couple of miles to go. I looked up and saw a glowing orange object in the sky. It was moving irregularly. Suddenly, there was intense light all around. And when I came to, I was home. What do you think happened to me?
Colonel: Fine, forget it.
-Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
Adaptation is a postmodern deconstruction of the difficulties faced by the screenwriter in adapting a work from one form to another and even the act of screenwriting in general. It’s a truly bizarre little film in which the screenwriter himself is a character tasked with writing a script which he writes to be the movie that you, the viewer are watching. It really does make sense in context and it works brilliantly…except when it doesn’t.
My problems with Adaptation, as a film, begin when Charlie Kaufman, our screenwriter and protagonist, begins to call out the very act of deconstruction. It’s entirely possible to deconstruct a genre or the act of making a movie itself (see Singin’ in the Rain for a pop culture example) without pointing out that you are doing just that. Again, I’m not against deconstruction or lampshade hanging or exposing tropes. What bugs me is when you point at it and say, “Hey, look at how clever I am here!”
Kaufman’s arc through the movie is one of insecurity and struggle as he tries to find a way to turn something that would otherwise be unfilmable without “Hollywoodizing” it and an honest portrayal of the often pointless and uneventful nature of life as it is. In fact, that is also a central theme to Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, the book which Kaufman was charged in real life (and in the movie) with adapting. At a loss with how to proceed with his screenplay, Kaufman attends a “hacky” seminar recommended by his twin brother (who exists in the film, but not real life) where real life screenwriting instructor Robert McKee systematically tears down everything that the movie has done to this point. It’s not the most subtle moment in the film, but it’s still not as bad as when Kaufman deigns to ask a question asking if a pointless, non-event driven film could be successful (never mind that Seinfeld already proved in the 90s, without a shadow of a doubt, that non-entertaining entertainment was equally viable). When Kaufman highlights what he’s trying to do in the film is precisely when I stop being interested in it. I don’t want him to usher me along, I want to cleverly figure out the parallels he’s drawing.
There’s another similar scene at the end where he is speaking in voiceover and he explicitly calls out how McKee would hate this. We already got it, Kaufman. You didn’t have to do that. Let us earn our payoff.
I will also submit for your consideration the bad joke that is pointed out as such. Sure, comparing an issue of Spider-Girl to a film by Charlie Kaufman hardly seems fair, but within its pages we have Anya crack a joke at an enemy that is marginally bad only to have the Hobgoblin mock it and call it terrible in the next panel. Pointing out how terrible it is doesn’t make it funnier and the enjoyment derived from laughing at a joke being not funny will never equal laughing at a joke that is funny. The gains end up being less than what you’d expect, plus future jokes, regardless of quality, will seem worse to the reader because the narrative states that the hero is not funny.
All I’m saying is that pointing out what you’re doing or pointing out that something is not very good undermines the effectiveness and the humor of the media. It’s cutting yourself off at the knees and it reeks of insecurity and a lack of confidence. It is assuming that you’re not talented enough to get your point across effectively and asking your audience to forgive you for it.
I don’t know Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty‘s script top to bottom, but there is a brilliant piece of art that doesn’t outright tell you what it’s doing. It is a game that actively derides the player and insults him for playing it, which is bizarre, and it withholds everything the player wants from it. After the prologue, the character is forced to control pretty boy Raiden instead of series hero Solid Snake. Raiden is generally whinier, has an annoying girlfriend, and was trained to do his job by video game simulation rather than practical experience. When faced with a task, Raiden seems to succeed, but often his efforts are a waste of time, at best, or a complete failure, at worst. At one point the game even strips Raiden of his clothing and equipment and all he can do is a melee attack.
The game widely cites meme theory and the propagation of media while simultaneously telling you that it is a video game even to the point where it addresses the player and asks the player to turn it off and do something else. It gets precariously close to approaching the outright, “Hey! This is a deconstruction!” territory that Adaptation inhabits, but the key difference is that it never does. Where Adaptation readily admits it’s a movie about writing a movie and has Kaufman and his twin brother talk about naming a serial killer “The Deconstructionist” in Donald’s screenplay, Metal Gear Solid 2 only says, “I am a video game,” but doesn’t stretch to “whose purpose it is to deconstruct the player/narrative boundary.”
Maybe I’m the one missing the point here. Maybe there is a sublime art to deconstruction where everything is fair game. If breaking the rules of cinema is the point of your movie, shouldn’t it be ok to break every rule, including “show, don’t tell”? Am I just angry that I can’t pat myself on the back for figuring all this out because Charlie Kaufman already told me it was all true? In any case, here I am some 900 words later writing about this movie and maybe propagating the desire to see it to someone else.