Essays · Movies

The Art of the Unconventional Adaptation

Films like ‘Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters’ and ‘Adaptation’ prove that sometimes an unconventional journey from page to screen is the most interesting one.
By  · Published on March 23rd, 2018

Many of the greatest and most popular films of all time are adaptations of books. Some notable ones are Breakfast at Tiffany’s, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining, Gone Girl, Rebecca, Atonement, Gone with the Wind, the list goes on. Not to mention that movies like The Godfather and The Godfather Part II must make people question whether the book is always better than the movie. Either way, all of these movies are great examples of relatively faithful literary adaptations that successfully brought the written word to life visually.

But there is also another brand of adaptations out there that differentiate themselves from the bunch mentioned above; these are movies that question the nature of adaptation itself.  For example, the 2005 film A Cock and Bull Story,  a movie about trying to turn the book “Tristram Shandy” –which is a book about a man struggling to write an autobiography– into a movie. Excellent movies like this one, and others, namely Adaptation (2002) and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), make me wonder: could adaptations that are technically unfaithful to their source material make for movies that are, in a thematic sense, the most faithful adaptations of all?

On the surface, the films Adaptation and Mishima could not seem more different. However, in a sense, both films are unconventional adaptations of novels, and this fact unifies them. Among the many movies based on books in existence, these two stand out through the ideas they raise about adapting material for the screen.

Adaptation was directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman. Technically, this film is an adaptation of the 1998 non-fiction book “The Orchid Thief,” by Susan Orlean. The book tells the story of John Laroche, an American horticulturalists who had been arrested for poaching rare flowers. The book itself is an adaptation of a piece that Orlean wrote on Laroche for The New Yorker in 1995. Something about Laroche and his mysterious search for the rare ghost orchid flower made Laroche stay with Orlean, and so she explored the story at length in her novel.

In 1997, Kaufman was tasked with adapting “The Orchid Thief” in a movie. The adaptation proved to be a challenging one. After all, Kaufman needed to figure out how to prompt widespread interest in a movie that people would likely reduce to simply being “about flowers.” He was faced with writer’s block. What resulted was the aptly titled Adaptation. Instead of simply delivering the movie version of Orlean’s book, Kaufman wrote a script about a fictionalized version of himself grappling to adapt “The Orchid Thief.” Oh, and the movie also includes a fake twin brother for Charlie named Donald Kaufman, a fictional romance between Orlean (Meryl Streep) and Laroche (Chris Cooper), a dramatic shoot-out in the final act, and a healthy dose of Kaufman’s anxieties and insecurities to boot.

Then, there is writer-director Paul Schrader‘s film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. This movie doesn’t question the nature of adaption as overtly as Kaufman’s film does, but it brings up just as many interesting ideas on the subject. Technically, Mishima would likely be classified as a biopic rather than an adaptation. The film tells the story of famed Japanese author Yukio Mishima, portrayed by Ken Ogata. However, the movie is certainly still an adaptation. Mishima intersperses scenes from three separate plot lines throughout the film. The first is the day of his death by ritualistic suicide in 1970. The second is scenes from his past, starting in his childhood and charting the moments that led to his death. And the third is three mini adaptations of Mishima’s novels “The Temple of the Golden Pavillion,” “Kyoko’s House,” and “Runaway Horses”.

So, both of these films are unique adaptations but in very different ways. One is an adaptation that became about its screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, and the other is a biopic about Yukio Mishima that became an adaptation to best paint a picture of the author. The brilliant thing about these movies is that through the way in which they adapt their source material, they stay true to the themes envisioned by the creators of the original novels.

To elaborate on this point, the source material for Adaptation isn’t really about flowers. Yes, the book is about a man who steals rare orchids, but at the book’s heart, “The Orchid Thief” is about Orlean trying to capture something universal: a portrait of obsession and the beauty of finding a true passion. For Kaufman, a writer, the best way to portray this was by letting himself be consumed by the story to the point that he became part of it.

“I wanted to want something as much as people wanted these plants but it isn’t part of my constitution. I suppose I do have one unembarrassed passion. I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately.”

This line spoken by Orlean in the film is a perfect encapsulation of why Orlean is so interested in Laroche as a subject. Writing a movie about his obsession with writing a movie is the way that Kaufman was able to most faithfully bring this idea to life.

When it comes to adapting books, writers can’t simply include every aspect of an entire novel in a 2-hour movie. Instead, screenwriters are tasked with trying to find visual ways to capture to essence of their source material. In the 2017 film Call Me By Your Name, which is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Andre Aciman, the final scene is one of Timothée Chalamet‘s Elio weeping in front of a fireplace. This moment was not present in the book and was instead the invention of director Luca Guadagnino. He felt this was the best way to capture Elio’s inner turmoil over the film’s heartbreaking ending. After the film’s release, Aciman wrote a piece for Vanity Fair about how he could not have been happier with the way this scene came out. Even though this moment wasn’t technically faithful to his novel’s ending, Aciman felt that visually, this was the perfect way to capture the feeling the ending of his book tried to evoke. To put it simply, sometimes the most faithful way to adapt something is by adapting it unfaithfully.

Nothing proves this better than Adaptation. The movie takes this idea another level, and that’s probably an understatement. Adaptation leaves out a ton of the book’s contents and fabricates a lot of the plot. Kaufman entirely blurs the line between reality and fiction. He writes himself into the screenplay as a character, but he also includes a fictional identical twin brother. He also writes an extremely fictionalized version of Orlean, a real person, into the film, but fabricates a romance between her and Laroche.  While there was no romantic relationship between them in real life, a visual representation of them as lovers are, in a sense, an accurate way to capture her interest in the unorthodox horticulturist cinematically.

Adaptation Meryl Streep Chris Cooper

Orlean watching Laroche look at orchids

Instead of simply showing Laroche and his obsession with orchids, Kaufman also shows Orlean’s obsession with Laroche, and on top of that, his own obsession with trying to write about Orlean’s obsession with Laroche. We watch Laroche struggle with law enforcement. We watch as he treks through the great outdoors on the hunt for rare orchids. Then we also watch Orlean cope with dissatisfaction in her personal life and her marriage — a dissatisfaction which is derived from what she feels is a life devoid of passion. All of this is topped off with scenes where we get to watch the fictional Charlie Kaufman, portrayed by Nicolas Cage at his very best, struggle with screenwriting. In fact, he struggles so much that he ends up taking advice from amateur screenwriter and certified cliché machine Donald Kaufman. In the end, Charlie attends the screenwriting seminars he so despises as a last resort to rid himself of writer’s block. Through all of these intersecting storylines, Kaufman is able to capture the explosiveness of the passion and obsession that permeates the source novel. The film comes full circle to create one of the most original adaptations of all time.

Mishima does a very similar thing in a very different way.  If you were to isolate the scenes from Mishima that were adapted from Mishima’s novels, they would indeed seem like traditional adaptations. However, in the larger picture of the film, they’re extremely atypical.

For one thing, the film’s production design distinguishes the three different timelines in Mishima in an important way. The scenes from the day of Mishima’s suicide have a realistic and drowned out color palette. The scenes from his past and upbringing are in black and white, and the scenes from his novels are presented in a vibrant palette of surreal oranges, pinks, and golds. Also, the sets for the adaptation scenes appear fake. Rooms are suspended in black abysses, forests appear to be located indoors, and sunsets almost seem painted onto the skyline. In most movies based on books, the content of the book creates the truth of the film’s world. But in Mishima, these decisions establish that, in the world of the film, these stories are also fictions. This is similar to the way that the “The Orchid Thief” also exists as a book in the world of Adaptation. 

Then most importantly, also unlike in a standard adaptation, the goal of Schrader’s adaptations are not to create a visual representation of these three novels, but rather, to use these technically fictional stories to paint a better picture of their author. To understand this, you need to a know a bit about Mishima as a person. The author was born in 1925 in Japan, and he became an extremely popular writer, both in his home country and abroad. Apart from writing, Mishima was also involved in the military. He founded a small far-right militia with a nationalist ideology.  On November 25th, 1970, they shocked the country when Mishima and his militia entered the office of a military commander, of whom Mishima was a trusted friend, and held him hostage. Mishima then ordered the garrison be assembled outside the building so that he could deliver a speech. After which, he swiftly returned inside and committed seppuku, which is a form of Japanese ritualistic suicide often referred to as ‘harakiri’. He was 45.

Mishima was a private and mysterious person. His public suicide baffled everyone.  After his death, each person who knew him seemed to describe a different person when talking about Mishima. For one thing, Mishima’s sexuality was a subject of controversy. Schrader’s film was only able to briefly broach the subject of his relationships with other men since his widow forbade Schrader from exploring the topic. She denied him the rights to adapt one of Mishima’s novels that centered on a gay character, “Forbidden Colors”.  So how can you effectively tell the story of such a mysterious person? Well, even though the vast majority of his work is fiction, much of it is said to be autobiographical. All of his works are said to present different aspects of who Mishima was. So in reality, he may not have been that mysterious at all; he bore every aspect of himself in his writing.

In the film, Schrader eloquently weaves three adaptations of Mishima’s novels with his past and present to highlight what we can learn about the author from his work. The film uses “The Temple of the Golden Pavillion” to express Mishima’s obsession with physical attractiveness and the way he struggled with the overwhelmingness of unattainable beauty. “Kyoko’s House” is used to express Mishima’s romanticization of death and his ever-present desire to die young and beautiful. Finally, the film uses “Runaway Horses”  to express his will to truly act on these aspirations severely to unify his art and his actions.

Mishima A Life In Four Chapters

From one of the “Runaway Horses” scenes

Truly, there would be no better way to tell the story of Mishima than to blend his fiction and reality in the manner that Schrader does.  While Adaptation invents a a world where fiction and reality come together, Mishima uses adaptations to highlight one that already exists.  To elaborate, the film explores Mishima’s life lifelong desire to combine art and action –or, pen and sword as the author referred to it– at length. To Mishima, creating art wasn’t enough and his goal as an artist and as a person was to combine the two. Schrader’s film wants us to view Mishima’s public suicide through this lens. The act was Mishima’s final attempt at expressing what he couldn’t in words. To this end, using adaptations could not be more fitting. By using Mishima’s work to tell the story of his life, Schrader has granted him his wish and therefore, created the most faithful adaptations of his work possible. He didn’t want to be someone who created art, but rather, to be one and the same with his art. And, evidenced by how Schrader draws out the aspects of Mishima’s identity from within three of his novels, he may have achieved just that.

The film culminates in an arresting final act where all four storylines come together: Mishima’s own suicide by seppuku, Mizoguchi’s suicide by immolation in “The Temple of the Golden Pavillion”, the murder of Osamu by his older lover and her subsequent suicide in “Kyoko’s House” and Isao’s suicide, also by seppuku, in “Runaway Horses”.

“Men wear masks to make themselves beautiful. But unlike a woman’s, a man’s determination to become beautiful is always a desire for death.”

In a sense, this portrayal fulfilled Mishima’s ultimate dream: to have his work inextricably linked to himself and his actions.

Adaptation and Mishima perfectly illustrate the way that sometimes, the ideas surrounding adaptations can be more interesting than adaptations themselves. The act of translating artwork between mediums brings up all kinds of questions about the line between fiction and reality and between artists and their art. By exploring these things in new and inventive ways, Kaufman and Schrader both created unforgettable testaments to human creativity with these films.

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Enjoys watching sunrises and sunsets, but prefers watching the Richard Linklater trilogy.