The following review was first published with the Shout! Factory Blu-Ray release of the movie.
What does it mean to be truthful when adapting a piece of nonfiction? Is a project only considered worthwhile if it is completely faithful to the real-life events? Or can honesty be achieved through a thorough examination of the emotions behind the project? When you have a writer as inventive as Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) adapting your story, you can expect something a little less than straightforward. Originally tasked to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief as a straightforward feature, Kaufman took his extreme writer’s block and crafted a meta-script that tackled his struggles adapting the book into a film. While this may seem like an interesting exercise that would never see the light of day, Adaptation miraculously got made and became a critical and box office success, earning Oscar nominations for all three leads and a Supporting Actor win for Chris Cooper.
The film begins with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) struggling to be comfortable with himself and his success as his debut feature Being John Malkovich starts production. Despite his obvious talents, Kaufman is filled with anxiety and self-loathing, especially when it comes to his weight and thinning hair. When he is hired to write a screenplay adapting Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, Charlie struggles mightily to craft a straightforward narrative. Stifled by writer’s block, Charlie often devolves into obsession over his professional and sexual shortcomings. In this film, the real-life Kaufman provides the movie-Kaufman with a fictional twin brother, Donald, who is also hoping to become a screenwriter. Donald approaches life a bit differently; he does not suffer crippling social-phobia or self doubt like his brother, and he is more interested in writing puddle-deep thrillers that are considered to be hack by the high-minded Charlie. Cage gives one of the great performances of his career in the dual roles, each with their distinct personalities. Charlie might turn up his nose at his brother’s work, but he could use some of his creative spark to get his assignment completed.
Although Adaptation serves primarily as a fascinating look at the creative process, the film unlocks all of the potential of an adaption of The Orchid Thief through Charlie’s struggle. Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) is a New York Times writer tasked with profiling John Laroche (Chris Cooper), the eventual subject of the book known for stealing rare orchids from remote Florida swamps. Laroche is a bit of a character that at first presents as a bit of a kook, but soon reveals himself to be a man of great intelligence and emotional connection to the world around him. As more is revealed about his tragic backstory, Orlean draws closer to him while confronting some of her own unhappiness. Their relationship is incredibly moving and poignant even through Kaufman’s creative lens. Streep and Cooper are otherworldly good and natural in these roles. In the final stretch of the film, Kaufman eschews facts in favor of something that feels emotionally honest to his experience. The film is an engaging dissection of the relationship between authors and their subjects; between the real-life Orlean and Laroche, as well as the dreamed-up dynamic between Kaufman and Orlean.
Kaufman is in his comfort zone when he is making your head swim in confusion. The line between fiction and reality can be hard to parse, but you never feel like you are being cheated out of anything genuine. Through the evolving relationship with Donald, Charlie is able to confront some of his own biases and self-righteousness in a healthy manner. Armed with an intense self-awareness, it is only appropriate that Kaufman embraces his full Donald ethos and goes for broke with a wildly fictional ending that serves as the perfect extension of everything that came before. Few films have captured the struggle of creative expression with such emotional honesty and nuance as Adaptation does. It is only through breaking free from convention that the film can serve up something groundbreaking. Director Spike Jonze continues to be the perfect creative partner for Kaufman, taking his heady, layered script and transforming it into one of the most emotionally satisfying films of the early 2000s.
Adaptation makes its slightly unexpected 4K UHD Blu-Ray debut with a stunning 2160p Dolby Vision transfer newly remastered in 4K from the Original Camera Negative which allows the film to look better than it ever has. When compared to the previous Blu-Ray from Shout! Factory, this disc offers strong improvements across the board. This new release of the film retains a lovely amount of natural film grain that allows this movie to shine and gives so much pleasing texture and detail to the transfer. When you look at the clothing, there are ridges that are more distinct than ever. The improvements in contrast and overall clarity are outstanding, especially when you look at the interior of the apartment Charlie and Donald share or Laroche’s house. For the first time on home entertainment, you can clearly see specific text and minute details of the production design that were too unclear to capture before. Environmental elements are also given much more depth which makes for a much richer experience.
The UHD disc contains very deep, nuanced colors throughout which stay more natural to the environment rather than amping up the vividness. The Dolby Vision presentation allows the film to appear more refined than ever. Elements taking place around Charlie are relatively devoid of bright colors, but there is a crisper quality to the mundanity. The film comes alive more so in the Florida swamps with the bright foliage making an impression. White levels offer a greater stability without veering into blooming. Black levels are extremely deep and allow the picture to maintain an excellent amount of depth and detail in darker environments. Skin tones appear natural and the clarity of the transfer gives you a great amount of facial detail including the sweat pouring off Charlie from nervousness. While this might not be the first title that comes to mind when it comes to an A/V showcase, Sony has thankfully taken the time to make sure it looks the best it ever has.
This 4K UHD Blu-Ray comes with a new Dolby Atmos track along with original theatrical DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track and a DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track to suit all needs. The original 5.1 track does not sound too different from the previous Shout! Factory disc which was pleasant enough, but the new Dolby Atmos track gives the film’s reserved soundscape a real vitality and immersive quality. There is a major emphasis on the front channels for a good portion of the sounds, but activity extends to the surrounds, rears and overhead speakers to make the world feel more robust and lived-in. The sounds up above are not constant, but they are present enough to keep the listening experience quite engaging. These channels really come in handy during scenes taking place in crowded restaurants or out in nature.
The film really satisfies when it comes to the music, as the score from Carter Burwell washes over you in an enveloping way. Dialogue is crisp and clear without ever getting lost amongst the music or environmental effects. The low end effects from the subwoofer give certain moments a much-needed extra weight that are not to be spoiled here. Atmospheric sound effects are rendered appropriately within the mix so that directionality is never an issue. Adaptation is more of a wordy drama than an action film, but the expanded audio track allows the film to feel more powerful and precise than ever. The film includes optional English and English SDH subtitles, along with a wide range of additional languages too numerous to list out completely.
- The Three Trailer: A fake two-minute trailer is provided for the movie Donald comes up with featuring some really fun vocal cameos.
- Behind The Scenes In The Swamp: A two-minute look at the swamp shoot including safety precautions, setting up shots, on-set bonding and more. The highlight of the piece is interactions with Cage, but it really would have been nice to get something more in-depth.
- Theatrical Trailer: The two-and-a-half-minute trailer is provided here which does an excellent job of selling the film without giving too much away.
Adaptation is an inventive film that folds in on itself in the pursuit of creative truth. This twisty exercise results in one of the most rewarding films to come out of the early aughts and standout performances from all involved. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has given this one a new 4K UHD Blu-Ray which features a terrific A/V presentation and a few brief special features. This never seemed like a title that a company would opt to give a 4K UHD presentation, but now that we have it we could not be happier. Fans of the film should not hesitate to pick this one up. Recommended
Adaptation is currently available to purchase on 4K UHD Blu-Ray.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the 4K UHD Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.