Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Adaptation: The Self-Proclaiming Rhetoric of Charlie Kaufman and of the Apostle Paul

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Adaptation: The Self-Proclaiming Rhetoric of Charlie Kaufman and of the Apostle Paul

Article excerpt

Matthew Anderson, Department of Theology

Concordia University, Montreal


In his screenplay Adaptation, Hollywood screenwriter Charlie Kaufman took the inventive step of writing himself by name into what would become a hit movie. By so doing, he escaped the virtual anonymity that characterizes even the most successful movie writers and ensured his name, his "branding", and the reception of his future writings. Yet the very nature of Kaufman's movies–Being John Malkovitch, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation–show that as an author he is less concerned with realism or accurate autobiography than with narratives that sometimes blur the lines between fact and fiction. This paper argues that, for all its novelty, Kaufman's approach echoes the ancient rhetoric of Paul. Paul also literally "wrote himself into scripture" as the pre-eminent Apostle to the Gentiles, and despite his lack of official credentials, successfully styled himself as the main mortal character in his story– eventually, everyone's story–of how God was creating a new people among the Gentiles, a people who would become the Christian church.


"I have become all things to all people." (Paul: 1 Cor 9:22) [1]

"Who's gonna play me? I think I should play me." (John Laroche)

[1] Every retelling of a story is, by necessity, also an adaptation. Christians know this, and have a long and colourful history–right up to Mel Gibson's pious Passion–of adapting the basic message which gave rise to the church, the story (Mark calls it the Gospel or the good news) of the life and death of the Christian Messiah. This process of adaptation did and does not happen by chance. The very kerygma of the earliest Christians was biographical, but in a narrative still left manifestly "open" by the delay of the final act of Jesus' return. [2] Thus Paul could repeat what sounds like a fragment of very early teaching, and yet add his own twist, in perhaps the oldest preserved creedal statement in the New Testament: we "wait for [God's] Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead–Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming (1 Thess 1:10)." Action, plot, character, denouement, climax–they are all there; personalized for the congregation in Thessalonica, and in its present context already tailored by the apostle to his and their pastoral needs.

[2] In 2003, the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovitch, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation) was included in Premier Magazine's annual "Power 100" listing, the only writer to make the list. It was yet another sign of the success that Kaufman has had in the film industry of the first years of this century. His idiosyncratic films have captured public imagination and ensured commercial and critical success for those films identified with his name. Yet the very idea of a film being identified in the public mind with a particular script writer's name is a novelty. For most of Hollywood's brief history, screenplay writers–whatever their importance–have been "behind-the-scenes" figures, virtually anonymous. Kaufman has managed to ally himself with his writing in a new and unique way, and this most effectively in the movie Adaptation, where the film's protagonist shares the writer's name. In effect, Kaufman has adapted someone else's work–in this case, the book "The Orchard Thief" by Susan Orlean–by writing himself into his narrative. It succeeds as an adaptation and is at the same time a brilliant example of personal "branding."

[3] Kaufman's strategy unconsciously parallels the rhetorical practice of Paul, who also successfully "wrote himself into" his narrative. By means of a closer look at how each writer uses perceptions of their weaknesses, and includes himself selectively and rhetorically in the ongoing action of the respective narratives, this paper will show that Kaufman, like Paul, becomes inextricably bound to his story in a way that ensures both his and its success. …

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