A Regression from Deleuze’s Time-Image to the Movement-Image in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation

by Morgan O’Reilly

‘Adaptation’ is a film about the writing of its own screenplay, which was meant to be an adaptation of a book called ‘The Orchid Thief’. As the main character, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, attempts to adapt this presumably un-adaptable book he eventually decides to place his self as the main character within the screenplay. Choosing to look outside of the book for the story that will turn ‘The Orchid Thief’ into a movie, the film transitions from the modern idea of the ‘Time-Image’ as defined by Deleuze in Cinema 1 and Cinema 2 into the classical Hollywood ‘Movement-Image’ falling victim to almost every known cliché. Deleuze described the transformation that occurred over the course of WWII resulting in a cinema that reflected life more closely saying, “These are the five apparent characteristics of the new image: the dispersive situation, the deliberately weak links, the voyage form, the consciousness cliché, the condemnation of the plot. It is the crisis of both the action-image and the American Dream.” Within the film ‘Adaptation’, however there is a regression from the ‘Time-Image’ to the ‘Movement-Image’ according to Deleuze. This transition can be verified in the film by the change from a dispersive situation to an all-inclusive one, the switch from weak linkages to obvious linkages and finally by the loss of cliché consciousness. The film’s radical contradiction of itself is purposeful and ultimately comments on the Hollywood industry and the way it rejects reality.

As ‘Adaptation’ opens we are immediately placed into the self-loathing mind of Charlie Kaufman, the neurotic screenplay writer, whose extra-diegetic voice analyzes the state of his life. When awarded the project of adapting Susan Orlean’s book ‘The Orchid Thief’, a non-fictional story about an offbeat orchid poacher named John Laroche and the flowers that are so desperately sought after, Charlie proceeds to explain his intentions to stay true to the novel and to life, proposing a movie “simply about flowers.” As the story of the Orchid Thief and the story of its adaptation simultaneously unfold Charlie’s insecurities and neuroses interfere with his writing abilities as well as his personal life as he cowers from the chance to express his feelings for a woman named Amelia. Charlie wallows in a barren Hollywood house while his upbeat live-in twin brother Donald obliviously asks his advice about writing his own screenplay; a glowing example of every Hollywood cliché there is. Intermittent flashbacks take the viewer back to when Susan Orlean originally wrote ‘The Orchid Thief’ slowly revealing the story of her encounter with John Laroche and her desire to see a Ghost Orchid. Charlie finally breaks through his writer’s block choosing Susan Orlean herself as the subject that will bring depth to his adaptation, but fearing a meeting with her then decides to insert his self as the main character. The screenplay becomes trapped in a cyclical self-referential pattern that Charlie decides to break by going to New York to meet Orlean. With the unexpected success of his brother’s hack screenplay, Charlie, to his dismay, decides to ask Donald’s help in actively pursuing a story. With Donald’s direction Charlie’s internal battle becomes a real one as events unfurl quickly hereafter. Orlean and Laroche are discovered to be drug-addicted lovers who then chase Charlie and Donald into a swamp in order to kill them. Shots are fired, Donald is hurt, a car chase ends in tragedy as Donald is thrown from the car and killed. Laroche in a final attempt to kill Charlie is attacked and killed by an alligator, and Orlean is left sobbing pathetically. Charlie, bereaved by the loss of his brother is also somehow freed from his self-consciousness by his brother’s wisdom, and finally summons the courage to kiss the now unavailable Amelia. As he’s driving home he decides how he will end his screenplay.

Between the first and second portion of ‘Adaptation’ the transition from the ‘Time-Image’ to the ‘Movement-Image’ is made obvious as the film switches from a dispersive situation to one that could be considered complete. In the initial part of the film, which is bound by the limits of ‘The Orchid Thief’ we are lead to believe that Susan Orlean never gets to see a Ghost Orchid. The extraordinary powers of John Laroche fade as he leads her lost through the swamp. Her longing for understanding passion, is unfulfilled. Charlie’s quest, in this first part of the film, reflects Susan’s. His character and the screenplay he strives to write hold no hope of developing. He continues to fall victim to his neuroses and to cower from the women he admires. With an unexpected turning point, the situations of the authors collide and both make a radical switch from reflecting the incomplete quality of life to embracing Hollywood’s most common strategies of bringing everything together. Susan finds her Ghost Orchid and falls in love with Laroche and the drug he harvests from the rare flowers. Charlie inspired by his brother becomes suddenly brave and after a dangerous encounter with Orlean and Laroche, he finds both the story he has been looking for as well as the courage to kiss Amelia. This transformation from dispersive to all encompassing is essential to the understanding of the shift from Deleuze’s ‘Time-Image’ to the classical ‘Movement-Image’. The viewer is taken off guard and left to ponder the unfortunate power of Hollywood.

In reference to the ‘Time-Image’ Deleuze wrote “Linkages, connections, or liaisons are deliberately weak”. As Charlie Kaufman encounters the subject of his screenplay, this characteristic of modern cinema is lost. Previous to Charlie’s meeting Susan Orlean and John Laroche, his relationship with the subject of his struggling screenplay is abstract and completely susceptible to his interpretation. The viewer is therefore unsure of whether the actual Susan Orlean is being presented or the Susan Orlean of Kaufman’s imagination. The first half of the divided film is laden with cinematic devices, which are used to blur the line between Kaufman’s mind and his actual life. His fantasies about women are integrated seamlessly, tricking the spectator multiple times. Frantic montages and serene images of orchids and insects in isolation evoke the sense that a story is being told and perhaps it is being understood through the mind of Kaufman as he reads ‘The Orchid Thief’. After encountering Orlean and Laroche however, Charlie becomes part of the story and the viewer is thrust into a more standard perception of the film with nothing between them and the characters to cloud their understanding. The cinematic tactics of the first half do not continue into the latter half, as the realm of the ‘Movement-Image’ leaves little room for subjectivity. This transition is in part defined by the loss of “weak linkages” and is essential to the film’s critique of Hollywood.

According to Deleuze, the only way to escape a cliché is to make the characters aware of it. At the outset, the main conflict in ‘Adaptation’s’ narrative is Kaufman’s understanding of the cliché and his internal struggle to resist it. In the opening narration Charlie self-deprecates saying, “Life is short. I need to make the most of it. Today is the first day of the rest of my life. Huh. I’m a walking cliché.” In his first meeting with the producer of the proposed film Charlie expresses his intentions saying, “I’d want to let the movie exist rather than being artificially plot driven… I just don’t want to ruin it by making it a Hollywood thing…Why can’t there be a movie simply about flowers?” Discouraged by the success of his twin brother’s blockbuster thriller Charlie, gives up on the simplicity of a story that reflects life and gives into the expected. This forfeit is made clear when he hands power over to his polar opposite cliché driven twin brother who then leads them to an action packed cliché eruption. Love, drugs, guns and car chases carry the remnants of the film to a Hollywood happy ending completely inconsistent with the film’s starting point. This shift from a film about a writer who is alert to the dangers of the cliché to a film about a writer who is completely engulfed by the Hollywood cliché causes the ‘Time-Image’ to regress and become the ‘Movement-Image’. The effect pulls the spectator outside of the film providing an insight into the agony of creative freedom in a cliché driven industry.

This strange paradox of viewing a movie about the writing of the movie that is being viewed allows the writer’s self-criticism and his criticism of the film industry to be conveyed very effectively. The viewer is allowed to experience a shift between a film that embodies Deleuze’s ‘Time-Image’ to one which falls completely into the realm of the ‘Movement-Image’, while at the same time understanding the intentions of the writer and watching as they are abandoned. This shift can be understood through the recognition of a dispersive situation becoming all inclusive, weak linkages becoming unrealistically strong and finally with the awareness of the cliché being lost. While the film itself seemingly relents under pressure and indulges the classical narrative, this change can also be understood as a modern device used to push the viewer to criticize the Hollywood cliché and its distance from modern life.