Adaptation (film)

Adaptation. is a 2002 American black comedy-drama film directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman. It stars Nicolas Cage as Kaufman and his fictional twin brother Donald, Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean, and Chris Cooper as John Laroche, with Cara Seymour, Brian Cox, Tilda Swinton, Ron Livingston, and Maggie Gyllenhaal in supporting roles.

Theatrical release poster
Directed bySpike Jonze
Screenplay byCharlie Kaufman
Donald Kaufman[lower-alpha 1]
Based onThe Orchid Thief
by Susan Orlean
Produced by
  • Jonathan Demme
  • Vincent Landay
  • Edward Saxon
CinematographyLance Acord
Edited byEric Zumbrunnen
Music byCarter Burwell
Distributed bySony Pictures Releasing
Release date
  • December 6, 2002 (2002-12-06) (United States)
Running time
115 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$19 million
Box office$32.8 million[2]

Kaufman based Adaptation on his struggles to adapt Orlean's 1998 nonfiction book The Orchid Thief while suffering from writer's block. It involves elements adapted from the book, plus fictitious elements, including Kaufman's twin brother (also credited as a writer for the film) and a romance between Orlean and Laroche. It culminates in completely invented elements, including versions of Orlean and Laroche three years after the events of The Orchid Thief.

Adaptation was praised for its direction, screenplay, humor, and the performances of Cage, Cooper and Streep. It received awards at the 75th Academy Awards, 60th Golden Globe Awards, and 56th British Academy Film Awards, with Cooper winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and Kaufman winning the BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. A British Film Institute poll ranked it one of the thirty best films of the 2000s.[3]


Self-loathing screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is hired to write the screenplay adaptation of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief. He struggles with anxiety, social phobia, depression, and low self-esteem. His twin brother, Donald, has moved into his house and is freeloading there. Donald decides to become a screenwriter like Charlie and attends seminars by screenwriting guru Robert McKee.

Charlie, who rejects formulaic scriptwriting, wants to ensure that his script is a faithful adaptation of The Orchid Thief but comes to feel that the book does not have a usable narrative and is impossible to turn into a film, which leaves him with a serious case of writer's block. Already well past his deadline with Columbia Pictures and despairing of writing his script with self-reference, Charlie travels to New York City to discuss the screenplay with Orlean directly. Too shy and socially awkward to speak with her upon arriving at her office and after he received the surprising news that Donald's spec script for a clichéd psychological thriller, The 3, is selling for six or seven figures, Charlie resorts to attending McKee's seminar in New York and asks him for advice. Charlie ends up asking Donald to join him in New York to assist with the story structure.

Donald, who is confident socially, pretends to be Charlie and interviews Orlean but finds her responses suspicious. He and Charlie follow Orlean to Florida, where she meets John Laroche, the orchid-stealing protagonist of her book and her secret lover. It is revealed that the Seminole wanted the ghost orchid to manufacture a mind-altering drug that causes fascination. Laroche introduces the drug to Orlean. After Laroche and Orlean catch Charlie observing them taking the drug and having sex, Orlean decides that Charlie must be killed to prevent him from exposing her adultery and drug use.

Orlean forces Charlie to drive to the swamp at gunpoint, intending to kill him. Charlie and Donald escape and hide in the swamp, where they resolve their differences. Laroche accidentally shoots Donald. Charlie and Donald drive off but collide head-on with a ranger's truck. Donald is ejected through the windshield and dies moments later, but Charlie is saved by the airbag and runs into the swamp to hide. There he is spotted by Laroche, who is killed by an alligator before he can kill Charlie.

Orlean is arrested. Charlie reconciles with his mother as he calls to inform her of Donald's death. He later tells his former love interest, Amelia, that he loves her. She responds that she loves him too. Charlie finishes the script, which ends with him announcing in a voice-over that the script is finished and that for the first time, he is filled with hope.


Nicolas Cage portrays Charlie and Donald Kaufman through split screen photography.

Tom Hanks was originally set for the double role of Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Cage took the role for a $5 million salary,[4] and wore a fatsuit during filming.[5]

Streep expressed strong interest in the role of Susan Orlean before being cast,[4] and took a salary cut in recognition of the film's budget.[6] John Turturro was approached to portray John Laroche.[7] Cooper strongly considered turning down Laroche, but accepted it after his wife urged him to.[8] Albert Finney, Christopher Plummer, Terence Stamp and Michael Caine were considered for the role of Robert McKee, but McKee personally suggested Brian Cox to filmmakers.[9]

Litefoot and Jay Tavare have small roles as Seminole. John Cusack, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich, Lance Acord and Spike Jonze have uncredited cameos as themselves in scenes where Charlie Kaufman is on the set of Being John Malkovich, which he also wrote. Additional cameos include Doug Jones as explorer Augustus Margary, director Curtis Hanson as Orlean's husband, and David O. Russell as a New Yorker journalist.


The emotions that Charlie is going through [in the film] are real and they reflect what I was going through when I was trying to write the script. Of course there are specific things that have been exaggerated or changed for cinematic purposes. Part of the experience of watching this movie is the experience of seeing that Donald Kaufman is credited as the co-screenwriter. It's part of the movie, it's part of the story.

—Charlie Kaufman on writing the script[10]

The idea to do a film adaptation of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief dates back to 1994.[11] Fox 2000 purchased the film rights in 1997,[12] eventually selling them to Jonathan Demme, who set the project at Columbia Pictures. Charlie Kaufman was hired to write the script, but struggled with the adaptation and writer's block.[13] Kaufman eventually created a script of his experience in adaptation, exaggerating events and creating a fictional twin brother. He put Donald Kaufman's name on the script and dedicated the film to him.[1] By September 1999, Kaufman had written two drafts of the script;[14] he turned in a third draft in November 2000.[15]

Kaufman said, "The idea of how to write the film didn't come to me until quite late. It was the only idea I had, I liked it, and I knew there was no way it would be approved if I pitched it. So I just wrote it and never told the people I was writing it for. I only told Spike Jonze, as we were making Being John Malkovich and he saw how frustrated I was. Had he said I was crazy, I don't know what I would have done".[16] He also said, "I really thought I was ending my career by turning that in!"[17]

Adaptation went on fast track in April 2000, with Kaufman making some revisions.[18] Scott Brake of IGN gave the script a positive review in June 2000,[19] as did Drew McWeeny of Ain't It Cool News in October.[20] Columbia Pictures committed to North America distribution only after Intermedia came aboard to finance the film in exchange for international distribution rights.[21] Filming started in late March 2001 in Los Angeles and finished by June.[7] The "evolution" fantasy sequence was created by Digital Domain, while Skywalker Sound handled audio post production services. The makeup effects (the Nicolas Cage double, Chris Cooper's teeth, and the alligator attack) are by makeup effects designer Tony Gardner and his effects company Alterian, Inc.


Columbia Pictures at one point announced a late 2001 theatrical release date,[7] but Adaptation opened on December 6, 2002, in the United States for a limited release. The film was released nationwide on February 14, 2003, earning $1,130,480 in its opening weekend in 672 theaters. It went on to gross $22.5 million in North America and $10.3 million in foreign countries, for a total of $32.8 million.[2]

Home media

Adaptation was released on DVD and VHS by Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment in May 2003. Image Entertainment released a bare-bones Blu-ray in 2012, which was followed in 2020 by another release through Shout! Factory.


Critical response

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 91% based on 211 reviews, with an average rating of 8.2/10. The site's critical consensus reads: "Dizzyingly original, the loopy, multi-layered Adaptation is both funny and thought-provoking."[22] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 83 out of 100, based on 40 critics, indicating "universal acclaim."[23] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "C" on an A+ to F scale.[24]

The performances of (left to right) Nicolas Cage, Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep garnered critical acclaim and were nominated for Academy Awards, with Cooper winning.

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars, writing that it "leaves you breathless with curiosity, as it teases itself with the directions it might take. To watch the film is to be actively involved in the challenge of its creation."[25] He later added the film to his "Great Movies" collection.[26] At the end of 2009, Ebert named the film one of the best of the decade. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone also gave the film a four-star rating, writing, "Screenwriting this smart, inventive, passionate and rip-roaringly funny is a rare species. So all praise to Charlie Kaufman, working with director Spike Jonze to create the most original and outrageous film comedy since the two first teamed on Being John Malkovich, in 1999."[27] Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe wrote, "This is epic, funny, tragic, demanding, strange, original, boldly sincere filmmaking. And the climax, the portion that either sinks the entire movie or self-critically explains how so many others derail, is bananas."[28] David Ansen of Newsweek wrote that Meryl Streep had not "been this much fun to watch in years",[29] while Mike Clark of USA Today gave a largely negative review, mainly criticizing the ending: "Too smart to ignore but a little too smugly superior to like, this could be a movie that ends up slapping its target audience in the face by shooting itself in the foot."[30] Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic wrote, "Adaptation is almost juvenile showing off—daring to make a film that is in search of a script".[31]


Award Category Recipient Result
Academy Awards Best Actor Nicolas Cage Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Chris Cooper Won
Best Supporting Actress Meryl Streep Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman Nominated
British Academy Film Awards[32] Best Adapted Screenplay Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman Won
Best Actor Nicolas Cage Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Chris Cooper Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Meryl Streep Nominated
Golden Globe Awards[33] Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy Nominated
Best Director Spike Jonze Nominated
Best Screenplay Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman Nominated
Best Actor – Musical or Comedy Nicolas Cage Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Chris Cooper Won
Best Supporting Actress Meryl Streep Won
Screen Actors Guild Awards Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture Nicolas Cage, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Cara Seymour, Meryl Streep, and Tilda Swinton Nominated
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role Nicolas Cage Nominated
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role Chris Cooper Nominated
Visual Effects Society[34] Best Performance by an Actor in an Effects Film Nicolas Cage Nominated
Belgian Film Critics Association[35] Grand Prix Nominated

In a 2005 survey, the Writers Guild of America named Adaptation the 77th best movie screenplay ever written.[36]

Response from Susan Orlean

Having been submitted the screenplay for approval, Susan Orlean was strongly opposed to the making of the film; she ended up reluctantly approving its production, and was ultimately very impressed with the final result. In 2012, she said, "[reading the screenplay] was a complete shock. My first reaction was 'Absolutely not!' They had to get my permission and I just said: 'No! Are you kidding? This is going to ruin my career!' Very wisely, they didn't really pressure me. They told me that everybody else had agreed and I somehow got emboldened. It was certainly scary to see the movie for the first time. It took a while for me to get over the idea that I had been insane to agree to it, but I love the movie now."

Orlean called Streep's portrayal of her "one of my favorite performances by her" and appreciated that her version of the character was based not on the real Orlean but on how Streep imagined Orlean based on The Orchid Thief. Despite the film's fictional parts, Orlean praised its fidelity to the book's spirit: "What I admire the most is that it's very true to the book's themes of life and obsession, and there are also insights into things which are much more subtle in the book about longing, and about disappointment."[37]

See also


  • Identity (2003), a film starring John Cusack containing plot elements similar to The 3, the fictional script by Donald Kaufman's character.[38]
  • Three (2006), a film (based on Ted Dekker's eponymous novel), which bears a distinct resemblance to the plot of The 3.[39]
  • List of films featuring fictional films


  • Levinson, Julie (Spring 2007). "Adaptation, Metafiction, Self-Creation". Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture. 40: 1.
  • McKee, Robert (1997). Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting.
  • Orlean, Susan (1998). The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession.


  1. Kaufman is credited as "Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman", despite Donald being a fictional character created for the film.[1]


  1. Claude Brodesser (November 10, 1999). "Scribe revisiting reality". Variety. Retrieved April 5, 2008.
  2. "Adaptation. (2002)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 8, 2008.
  3. "Sight & Sound's films of the decade". British Film Institute. Archived from the original on March 22, 2019. Retrieved December 14, 2016.
  4. Claude Brodesser; Charles Lyons; Dana Harris (August 23, 2000). "Cage has Adaptation. inclination". Variety. Retrieved April 5, 2008.
  5. Stax (May 3, 2001). "Hey, Fatboy!". IGN. Retrieved April 5, 2008.
  6. Claude Brodesser (September 6, 2000). "Streep eyes Adaptation.". Variety. Retrieved April 5, 2008.
  7. Greg Dean Schmitz. "Greg's Preview — Adaptation". Yahoo!. Archived from the original on May 18, 2007. Retrieved April 13, 2008.
  8. Claude Brodesser; Jill Tiernan; Geoffrey Berkshire (March 23, 2003). "Backstage notes". Variety. Retrieved April 8, 2008.
  9. Lynn Smith (November 3, 2002). "Being Robert McKee, both on screen and off". Los Angeles Times.
  10. Spence D (December 5, 2002). "Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman Discuss Adaptation". IGN. Retrieved April 5, 2008.
  11. Bill Desowittz (August 18, 2002). "Development players make personal choices". Variety. Retrieved April 5, 2008.
  12. Oliver Jones (December 17, 1999). "Cruise in tune with Shaggs project". Variety. Retrieved April 5, 2008.
  13. Jonathan Bing (February 26, 2001). "Lit properties are still hottest tickets". Variety. Retrieved April 5, 2008.
  14. Charlie Kaufman (September 24, 1999). "Adaptation.: Second Draft" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on April 7, 2008. Retrieved April 16, 2008.
  15. Charlie Kaufman (November 21, 2000). "Adaptation.: Revised Draft" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on April 7, 2008. Retrieved April 16, 2008.
  16. Michael Fleming (November 14, 2002). "What will follow film success for Eminem?". Variety. Retrieved April 5, 2008.
  17. Stax (March 13, 2002). "Charles Kaufman Talks Shop". IGN. Retrieved April 5, 2008.
  18. Michael Fleming (April 6, 2000). "Brothers in a Conundrum; Rat Pack lives". Variety. Retrieved April 5, 2008.
  19. Scott Brake (June 8, 2000). "Script Review of Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation". IGN. Archived from the original on February 17, 2009. Retrieved April 8, 2008.
  20. Drew McWeeny (October 10, 2000). "Moriarty Rumbles About Adaptation, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Catch Me If You Can!". Ain't It Cool News. Retrieved April 17, 2008.
  21. Charles Lyons (June 18, 2001). "Helmers let out a rebel yell". Variety. Retrieved April 5, 2008.
  22. "Adaptation (2002) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved May 7, 2020.
  23. "Adaptation. (2002): Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved April 8, 2008.
  24. "Find CinemaScore" (Type "Adaptation" in the search box). CinemaScore. Retrieved April 14, 2021.
  25. Roger Ebert (December 20, 2002). "Adaptation". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved April 11, 2008.
  26. Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" essay about Adaptation.
  27. Peter Travers (December 6, 2002). "Adaptation". Rolling Stone. Retrieved January 12, 2016.
  28. Wesley Morris (December 20, 2002). "A revolutionary look at the evolution of creativity". The Boston Globe. Retrieved April 11, 2008.
  29. David Ansen (December 9, 2002). "Meta-Movie Madness". Newsweek. Retrieved April 12, 2008.
  30. Mike Clark (December 5, 2002). "Cage's Adaptation? Sorry, Charlie". USA Today. Retrieved April 12, 2008.
  31. Adaptation reviews
  32. "BAFTA Awards: 2003". Internet Movie Database. Archived from the original on April 23, 2008. Retrieved April 12, 2008.
  33. "Golden Globes: 2003". Internet Movie Database. Archived from the original on April 23, 2008. Retrieved April 12, 2008.
  34. "1st Annual VES Awards". visual effects society. Retrieved December 20, 2017.
  35. Pluijgers, Jean-François (January 12, 2004). "L'UCC s'offre une cure de "Gioventu"". La Libre Belgique (in French). Retrieved October 26, 2012.
  36. "101 Greatest Screenplays List". Writers Guild of America, West. Archived from the original on August 13, 2006. Retrieved August 26, 2015.
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  38. Lim, Dennis (April 29, 2003). "No Exit: Hell Is Other People". The Village Voice.
  39. Bailey, Jason (January 4, 2012). "The Worst January Film Releases of Recent Memory". The Atlantic. Retrieved August 23, 2016.
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