4. Adaptation in Reverse

The typical film adaptation is an exercise in streamlining. The work tends to involve taking a novel 200 to 300 pages in length (in some cases much longer), boiling it down to a script of 100 to 150 pages, with as little narration as possible, telling the story mostly with pictures and dialogue. If the book includes tricky internal monologues, they are often shifted into live conversations. Allusions to books or other movies are stripped out entirely. Subtext is avoided. Movies tend to be literal. No unreliable narrators or lengthy author digressions into philosophy and theory allowed.

Charlie Kaufman didn’t just ignore these rules when adapting Iain Reid’s book, he subverted them purposefully. Kaufman muddied up the story in places, dropped in numerous Easter Eggs to encourage multiple viewings and tied the entire project to the Rogers and Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma!” in a completely fresh and surprising manner.

Before we pick up the action from yesterday, I want to return briefly to the color scarlet in relation to the Biblical quote, just to point out that the janitor’s truck is also reddish in color, as is the clown logo on the Tulsey Town bag.

Back to the road trip, the discussion here is a major departure from Reid’s novel. The girlfriend’s internal monologue takes up much of the narrative in the book and when she talks to Jake, she does so in the form of long stories from her childhood, including a very lengthy anecdote about a driving instructor who believed himself to be the world’s greatest kisser. These pieces give us glimpses of the girlfriend but are ultimately less illuminating than what he hear on the drive in the movie.

Jake tells her that his parents are looking forward to meeting her, which send the girlfriend into an internal monologue where she describes her reluctance to go on the trip because of her feelings about ending the relationship. After a digression revolving around the Bette Davis quote “old age isn’t for sissies,” the girlfriend describes the positive aspects of going on this trip — Jake is a bit difficult to figure out and she believes meeting his parents might answer some question, the child being father of the man and all.

This is, of course, a line from a Wordsworth poem and Jake interrupts the internal monologue to ask her if she’s a fan of his. The girlfriend claims to not know Wordsworth’s poems. Jake says he been “thinking about him for some reason.” Jake wants to quote from a Wordsworth poem (one that re-uses the child being father of the man line as an introduction) but she informs him that she’s “not a metaphorical type of gal.” This is funny because the girlfriend later becomes a poet who quite obviously is a metaphorical type and almost certainly would have read Wordsworth.

We then get introduced to her first name — Lucy — the same name as a woman who was the subject of many Wordsworth odes. Jake tells Lucy that she too is ideal like Wordsworth’s Lucy … sweet, she answers, but more literally true than the audience knows at this time. The discussion is interrupted by one of the phone calls to her iPhone from herself, in this case coming from Lucy.

The calls are a major plot point in the book, but are handled with more subtlety in the film. I think a little bit about the calls go a long way. The language of the calls is virtually the same every time, but Kaufman cuts out a couple lines where the janitor explains that he is becoming less lucid. Kaufman prefers to keep us in greater suspense/confusion. I do find it interesting that Lucy must put on glasses to see the phone — red glasses, of course. This is not something a 30 year old woman typically has to do, close vision being something that typically declines with age. I imagine that the janitor probably has to put on reading glasses to see his cell phone.

The girlfriend then notices the swing set — looking exactly the same as the one the janitor saw when looking into his back yard at home — in front of an abandoned building. This is one of those brilliant Kaufman alignments. Instead of having the janitor say directly that he is becoming less lucid in a phone call, the movie drops a little cognitive blip into the narrative. If the entire movie is the janitor’s internal work of art, his inability to keep an artifact like the swing set in its proper place is a sign of his fading mental state. Jake’s embarrassment when discussing the swing set and inability to give a good explanation for it tends to support this interpretation.

Jake changes the subject to talk about the snow, leading the girlfriend to wonder if they should turn back. Jake answers, never fear, I have chains in the back. I have to point out here that while it might be perfectly normal for a New York driver to have tire chains in his trunk, literally no one in Oklahoma carries chains around with them. It simply does not snow often enough for people to use them and the terrain tends to be very flat, making it less necessary. The chains are not part of Reid’s book, they are Kaufman’s invention and more evidence that he’s probably never set foot in Oklahoma.

The girlfriend needs to get home because she has a paper due later in the week (meaning that she’s a student of some sort, I assume) about rabies. Jake of course knows the subject that his girlfriend raises and he pats himself on the back for it. This is the first of several careers that his girlfriend will have in the course of the film, and all of these are additions by Kaufman, Reid doesn’t even seem to be curious about the girlfriend’s career or intellectual life.

Kaufman’s focus on the girlfriend’s career and ambitions changes the nature of the character and helps illuminate exactly what Jake is hoping to get out of his anima. I will return in future essays to a more extensive discussion of the anima — which I devoted several weeks worth of analysis about in my Montaigne Project essays — but for now I’ll just say that he’s described her as an ideal woman, and Jake’s ideal woman clearly is someone who is his intellectual equal or superior. This makes her far more interesting, with quite a bit more agency, than the girlfriend in Reid’s book.

I’ll end at this point today. The girlfriend has an internal monologue next that explains what she likes about Jake. She mentions his intelligence, but also says he’s “cute in his awkward way.” While she is saying this, the film has cut to the janitor walking the halls of his school, one of the blonde girls we later see at Tulsey Town making fun of the way he lurches forward.

The janitor is very aware of his own weaknesses and deficiencies. To make up for them, he has created a pair of young human beings, alive in the same moment in time, who not only understand his experiences, they struggle to make the most of them and become better humans in the process. Reid’s novel is tragic, with a dark finale. Kaufman somehow finds an odd beauty in the janitor’s story. His internal work of art, while perhaps not Nobel worthy, gives him a dignity the high school students he sees daily deny him.

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