Thursday, March 22, 2007

Screenwriting 103(2) - Adaptation(ing) Vogler's Hero's Journey

So, to put Vogler's Journey into a full-on test, we shall look at Charlie Kaufman's "totally unstructured" Adaptation (purported to be an Arthouse movie because of that very reason) in respect to the Hero's Journey.

The Ordinary World
We actually begin in Kaufman's OW. He's on the set of Being John Malkovich, and quite literally doesn't seem to fit. He's in the way, feels awkward, is filled with self-doubt, and wonders why he ever came. We are in no doubt that this is our "hero" and this is his OW. Ironically this is where he is most comfortable in being himself.

The Call to Adventure
Kaufman is offered the script job to adapt The Orchid Thief. He is also called, by his brother, Donald, to learn Script-Legend, McKee's lessons. And finally, his Inner Conflict comes to bear on his wanted relationship with the Violinist. The call is to overcome his self-doubt in relationships, and to kiss the girl.

Refusal of the Call
Kaufman wants to drop the script - he can't adapt it. He bins McKee's list that his brother puts up on the wall, and he rejects the Violinist by dropping her back at home and not following up on her hints to go in with her. Finally she appears to reject him, but this is her response to a relationship she can tell is going to go nowhere.

Meeting with the Mentor
The film's mentor is clearly McKee, however, Kaufman doesn't meet with McKee until at least half-way through the film. McKee's presence in the first half of the film comes through Donald. Donald is Mentor-by-proxy, providing his brother with necessary support that Kaufman rejects.

Crossing the First Threshold
Kaufman finally picks up his dictaphone with inspiration, having listened to Susan Orlean's voice in his head. But his brother and his brother's girlfriend arrive, and he listens to them discuss Donald's own screenplay. Donald has commited himself, regardless of how Kaufman feels about the ludicrousness of it. However, after this, Kaufman commits to his own screenplay by writing himself into it.

Test, Allies, Enemies
Kaufman's biggest enemy is himself (Inner Conflict), but he comes across multiple people who may or may not be friendly, and the subplots begin to interweave - script, relations, McKee - there's the agent, the executive, the Waitress (with whom Kaufman fails), the Violinist, and the scene in which Kaufman looks at the many different women, analysing their types, as if representative of flowers, and finally we end with Susan Orlean.

Approaching the Innermost Cave
Kaufman goes to New York, to meet Susan Orlean - just as with the Matrix this uses an elevator - but Kaufman can't commit himself. Then, Susan Orlean turns up in the lift, and Kaufman slinks back from her, unseen. Although this is another rejection of the call by Kaufman, he is here, the closest point to his goal/nemesis/enemy.

Supreme Ordeal
Kaufman returns to his hotel room and gets a call from his agent. The agent gives him the news that Donald's script is going to be big and make a lot of money (a serious blow to Kaufman). At his lowest ebb - and remember this is the midpoint of the film - Kaufman finally goes to McKee's seminar. This is the destruction of his ego - the nadir if you will. He has rejected everything Mckee stands for, and now is confronting it.

Reward (Seizing the Sword)
After the seminar profoundly changes Kaufman's view of screenwriting, and also the way in which he wants to live his life, he takes McKee to the pub for a final questionning session - he's got a lot of new info, but now he's committing and he wants to prove that by consolidating his new knowledge. McKee tells him to find an ending for the screenplay. "Wow them in the end", he says, and the audience will love it.

Road Back
Kaufman patches things with his brother and invites him out to New York to look at his script. With McKee's aid, his ego is gone, and he knows where to look for help.

In a massive about-turn for the whole plot, the last half of the film descends into everything that Kaufman has been battling against in his own screenplay - everything that McKee and Donald embrace - it's as if Donald has taken over the script of Adaptation (and don't forget the imagiary brother co-wrote Adaptation - the first time an imaginary character was ever nominated for an Oscar).

We have drugs, car chases, sex, profound life lessons are learned (Donald's admitting that you are what you love, not what loves you, give Kaufman an epiphany), and finally we have McKee's last tenet - avoid all Deus Ex Machina - and the screenplay introduces and Alligator at the right moment to off La Roche and save Kaufman.

Return with the Elixir
Kaufman, now alone since his brother's death, commits to writing the screenplay the way we have just viewed it. He kisses the girl, despite the possibility of rejection, and then drives off into the sunset.

There are sub-heroes in Adaptation, and further analysis of Susan Orlean and La Roche would show their own Hero Arcs - albeit unfullfilled or twisted because of their anti-hero stances toward the end of the film. It's interesting however that Kaufman invested the time in these characters to generate the Hero's Journey on a smaller scale for them, but it does help us identify somewhat with these two.

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