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  • The Implicit Soul of Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation
  • David L. Smith

I don't know what else there is to write about other than being human, or, more specifically, being this human. I have no alternative. Everything is about that, right? Unless it's about flowers.

—Charlie Kaufman 1

There are some things that cannot be observed directly, even in principle: a single quark, the present moment, ones own eye. What Richard Rodriquez calls the "one subject" of literature—"What it feels like to be alive" 2 —is perhaps another one of those things. A writer struggles to be true to something central about life—to catch it on the fly, to get it right. Some have reified this "something" as "the soul" or "the human spirit." Today, though, we mainly rely on placeholders: "it," for example, as in "do you get it?" or "what's it all about?"—a usage that flirts with the vanishing "it" of "it is raining," implying a source or substance behind phenomena in which we do not really believe but without which we cannot do justice to experience. In any case, the writer's attempt to represent this elusive heart of things is typically frustrated, done in by the slipperiness of words, the cludginess of the conventions of communication, and the waywardness of the imagination. Writing inevitably falls short of its deepest aims.

Nevertheless, there is something deviously affirmative in this state of affairs. For if life is a thing that refuses to be observed, then isn't the very failure of literature, if consciously acknowledged, a way of staying true to it? Isn't the writer's disappointment an especially telling feature of "what it feels like to be alive?" Emerson, more clearly than most, understood how this trick is turned: "We grant that human life is [End Page 424] mean; but how did we find out that it was mean? What is the ground of this uneasiness of ours; of this old discontent? What is the universal sense of want and ignorance, but the fine innuendo by which the soul makes its enormous claim?" 3 As noted above, "the soul" is a disposable term here. If you prefer, say simply "the human," "life," or "it." The point, in any case, is that the elusive subject which cannot be stated or represented directly may nevertheless be implied. If the human cannot be caught in a formula, it may be embodied or enacted in the ongoing work of creation.

Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation is both an argument for and an example of this implicit realization of the human in art. Many viewers and even reviewers might see it as a poor candidate for humanistic interpretation along these lines. Most, in fact, have seen the film as little more than a clever postmodern puzzle-box, albeit one with great acting, deft direction, and a generous sense of humor. Its theme, after all, is the representation of representation. A book is being rewritten or adapted to become the film we are watching. The subject of that film is its own author's struggle to create it. The film further calls attention to its own artificiality by changing the rules of representation on us midway through. Its tone, style, and basic genre conventions shift when the author/protagonist begins to rethink his original purposes, undermining the credibility of all representational schemes in the process. Adaptation, in short, seems to be what the graduate-educated a decade ago might have felt comfortable calling "an endless play of simulacra," a text absorbed in its own textuality, a snake that eats its own tail. 4

All of this is true enough, but it is not the whole story. The point of Adaptation, I will argue, is not simply the pleasure it takes in playing with issues of representation, but its clear sense of the human issues at stake in that play. Adaptation, that is, is not only about the way words tend to float free of the world. Rather, it is also a demonstration of the way a writer's basic goal can survive the wreck of her intentions, or the way that failed attempts to be true to life...


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pp. 424-435
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