The screenplay is based on a true story. After the success of his screenplay for Being John Malkovich, Kaufman was hired to write a screenplay based on Susan Orlean's book, The Orchid Thief. However, he soon realized that the book simply couldn't be filmed. As he came under increasing pressure to turn in a screenplay, the "adaptation" became a story of a screenwriter's attempt to write a screenplay about a book that can't be adapted into a screenplay. Kaufman handed the script to his employers in the firm belief he would never work again. Instead, the backers enjoyed the script so much they decided to abandon the original project and film Kaufman's screenplay instead.
The film is self-referential, in that we see the creative process behind the movie we are watching. At one point, Charlie is unable to think of a satisfactory ending for the script, and asks his brother Donald (also played by Cage) how he would end it. At that moment, the style of the movie changes to Donald's style of scriptwriting, with intrigue, sex, drugs, car chases and guns replacing abstraction and angst.
Throughout the course of the film, Charlie writes or dictates ideas for his script of The Orchid Thief that are in fact used in this movie itself, such as the rapid timeline of Earth's development, or even of himself sitting there talking into a tape recorder. As well, virtually all of the things Charlie tells the producer that he doesn't want his script to turn into (a 'typical' Hollywood movie, where characters fall in love, or it turns out to be about drugs, or somebody unexpectedly dies) each occur after Donald "takes over" the writing of the movie. The forced inclusion of "Happy
Together" as a meaningless pop-culture reference such as are used in movies
Charlie criticizes creates yet another self-referential satire.
The self-referential nature of the film raises questions as to Donald's existence: that is, whether he is a real person, or merely an embodiment of one aspect of Charlie's personality (as he is in real life). Blurring the lines between fact and fiction, Donald is not only credited as a co-writer for the film, but the movie's end credits feature a dedication to his memory (implying that, if he is indeed an existing individual, he died during the writing of the screenplay). In addition, The Three is assumed to be an existing screenplay, and an excerpt from it is also featured in the credits. Another reference to Donald and his film can be found on the DVD release in the filmography section on the disc. It includes a page for Donald, listing his works as Adaptation. and The Three.
An ironic aspect of the film's post-modern self-referencing is the appearance of Robert McKee (Brian Cox), a real-life host of screenwriting seminars. McKee is renowned for warning his students about the technique of the deus ex machina. In the film, Kaufman represents McKee as the deus ex machina, as he gives Charlie the
solution to his problematic situation. The movie talks about the "Holy Grail", but all of the characters' quests in the story either fail or turn out to be futile:
- Charlie Kaufman wanted to write a movie just about flowers, and to impress
Susan Orlean. He failed on both counts. Also, he failed in writing a screenplay
wherein nothing much changes, as in "real life", seeing as his character
prevails and finishes his screenplay.
- John Laroche wanted to be a leader in many different and obscure fields.
Whenever he accomplished this, however, he would abandon his hobby for a
completely new one. Susan Orlean wanted desperately to see the Ghost
Orchid and care passionately about something. When she saw the Ghost Orchid, she was disappointed. When she found passion, she devolved into a hopeless addict.
- Donald Kaufman didn't really want anything out of life but he lucked into
all the things his brother Charlie was desperate for and wrote a hit script
called The 3.