Many-Leveled Narratives in all their gloriousness
October 29th 2008 @ 11:05 pm Uncategorized

Like many in our class, my first academic exposure to Adaptation was in Don’s screenwriting class. We examined the unconventional structure, and how it still broke into McKee’s blessed three acts complete with arcs and climaxes. Each act, sequence and scene had its turn, and we went through the process of figuring out exactly how it was accomplished. 

Watching it for the second time in a narrative context was, surprisingly (and unsurprisingly), a completely different experience. I know what we’re talking about this week is authorship, and I really should be blogging about the imbedded author, but I must digress. What really struck me this time around was the multiple levels of narrative structure in the film. Beyond listing all the things he doesn’t want in a screenplay, and then doing exactly those things to arrive at closure, Kaufman creates narrative connections that only work retrospectively over the whole body of the film. He shows us the evolution of the world far before he explains why we had to suffer through those elementary graphics. We don’t understand the whole film to be the real Kaufman’s musings on writing the screenplay about writing the screenplay about flowers until near the end. I may have been slow in this regard, but it wasn’t until these sorts of meta-connections spanning the film began to fall into place that the narrative made any structural sense. 

Jump with me now to television. Adaptation‘s structure reminds me, in a way, of Boston Legal. Within single episodes of the series, characters will refer to themselves as such. They will comment on the show as a show designed for television. Last week Alan Shore complained about being the star but not getting any credit when a walk-in client didn’t request him for the case. During their usual closing chat on the balcony, Alan and Denny have complained that they didn’t get to see each other much during that episode. Earlier this season, Alan and Denny brainstormed what crazy things they should do, because it is Boston Legal‘s last season on the air. Moments like these form a sort of meta-narrative of real actors, writers and directors joking with real viewers about the status of the show. The creators clearly designed these moments break the fourth wall and poke fun at how seriously TV narratives tend to take themselves, but more than that, these moments form another level of story. 

So back to Adaptation, and full circle, as such things must be. For me, during this second viewing with different priorities, there were two levels of narrative. One was Kaufman, the character, and his trials and tribulations writing a script about the glory of the orchid. And one was Kaufman, the screenwriter, making fun of McKee and screenwriting for Hollywood in general by planting seeds in the script that we only recognized retrospectively. It may be simple point, but I didn’t realize it the first time around. Which begs the question, how great an effect do viewing priorities have on a “reading” of a film? Could it be said that I “missed” some of the meaning of the film my first time around? 

-Leslie Stonebraker
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