Kaufman Unstuck in Time

article published on August 14, 2013.

Adaptation and Charlie Kaufman. Synonymous with one another since 2002 thanks to the writer’s unique take on Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, a script that transcended its source, jumped down the rabbit hole of Kaufman’s creative process, and was rebranded, simply (appropriately), Adaptation.

Over ten years have passed since Kaufman was nominated for an Oscar alongside his fictional twin brother Donald (a character in the film who was also given a writing credit, testament to the work’s playfulness), but the writer still hasn’t been tempted into tackling another adaptation. Until now. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro recently indicated that Kaufman is set to adapt Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. He told the Daily Telegraph: “Charlie and I talked for about an hour-and-a-half and came up with a perfect way of doing the book. I love the idea of [being] ‘unstuck in time’.”

Anybody familiar with Adaptation and its autobiographical elements will likely understand why Kaufman has stuck so exclusively to original screenplays since. The film explores in perfect painful detail the angst of writer’s block and the frustration associated with trying, and failing, to create something great out of existing material. But the screenwriter’s experiences working on another adaptation may have also contributed, and possibly more so, to this decade-long adaptation-aversion. George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was released around the same time as Adaptation, and the grievances between Kaufman and Clooney in adapting Chuck Barris’s book have been well documented. This would’ve no doubt brought into sharp relief the potential problems in collaborating to adapt existing work, problems that ultimately all stem from diverging interpretive visions of one original source, problems that pretty much disappear when the screenwriter is the source.

Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five certainly seems ripe for a big-screen adaptation, and it’s hard to imagine a screenwriter more appropriate than Charlie Kaufman to shepherd the story – meta-fiction, time travel, existential dilemmas and all – towards production. The novel has seen celluloid once before, in 1972, under George Roy Hill’s direction and based on a Stephen Geller script. The film won the Cannes Jury Prize, was highly commended by Vonnegut and critics alike, but failed at the box office. Its this final element that Universal Studios will inevitably be keen to get right, and the pairing of del Toro and Kaufman certainly seems to be a good start, particularly in the wake of numerous time- and mind-bending success stories – Inception, Looper, Source Code (to a lesser extent), etc.

Regardless of its commercial strength, after more than a decade since Kaufman’s last attempts at adaptation, and with those attempts resulting in either the airing of creative struggles in public or the weaving of private creative struggles into the core narrative of the work itself, Kaufman’s adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five – the final film and the process itself – will be one to watch. Interesting doesn’t even begin to cover it. For now it’s enough to know that whatever was blocking the way between Kaufman and adaptation has, after almost eleven years, finally cleared. The screenwriter that gave us perhaps the quintessential adaptation has become unstuck, in time. So it goes.


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