ADAPTATION: The Rhythm of Rewriting

ADAPTATION: The Rhythm of Rewriting

By Jacob Krueger

Today’s podcast will be a special treat for those of you who did not get to attend our screenwriting retreat in Costa Rica this year. This is an excerpt from one of my retreat lectures about Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation screenplay and what it can teach us about rewriting and adapting our own screenplays.


Here’s a fun thing to note about Adaptation that is also an example of how Charlie Kaufman pushes the edges of his own control: Adaptation is an adaptation of three different source materials.

ONE: it’s an adaptation of a book called The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, which is a beautiful book that Charlie Kaufman loves.

TWO: it is an adaptation of Story by Robert McKee. No one has ever attempted to do a movie version of a screenwriting book before.

It is an adaptation of Story by Robert Mckee, which is a book that he hates… Even if Robert McKee does say, “As featured in Adaptation” on his website.

THREE: Adaptation is an adaptation of The Three by Donald Kauffman, which is a script that does not exist. In fact, in the original draft of Adaptation, the movie ends with a supertitle of this monologue from The Three:

“We’re all one thing, Lieutenant. That’s what I’ve come to realize. Like cells in a body. ‘Cept we can’t see the body. The way fish can’t see the ocean. And so we envy each other. Hurt each other. Hate each other. How silly is that? A heart cell hating a lung cell.”

– Cassie from The Three

This is Charlie Kauffman’s little key – which the producer’s cut – to what this movie is really about. This movie is really about archetypes. This movie is about the fact that inside of Charlie Kaufman, “the genius who can’t write” is the sellout brother, Donald. Inside Charlie Kaufman, “the genius who can’t write” is Susan Orlean, the New Yorker writer. Charlie Kaufman, “the genius who can’t write” is Laroche, the guy who’s so passionate about one thing.

This is a script about multiple personality disorder. This is a script about fractured personalities and mirrors. This is a script about a bunch of characters who are all the same thing. This is a script about how orchids are women and women are orchids. This is a script about mistaking an orchid for a lover. This is a script about not understanding the difference between you and others. This is a script about how to write a script.

How do you write a script? You don’t write a script by applying a bunch of principles. You write a script by looking inside and finding the piece of you that you’re not inviting to the table. At least that’s one way to do it.

So, in the case of Adaptation, the thesis is Charlie. This thesis is about purity, real life, not being a Hollywood sellout. What’s the antithesis to that? Donald Kaufman via Robert McKee. And you breathe life into that Donald inside of you. There is no real Donald Kaufman, but you breathe life into the Donald inside of you because we are all one. You also breathe life into the Susan Orlean inside of you.

Now, here’s what’s really interesting, which ties into what Mirtha asked about about backstory today. So, I want to show you this. This section of the script gets cut, but it was in the original draft:

Kaufman paces with his mini-recorder. Off-screen laughing and chattering from Donald and Caroline.


We see the little girl [Susan Orlean] writing in her journal. Her drunken mother enters, sits on young Susan’s bed and cries. We see the loneliness of her childhood, her mother’s disappointment at life, and how it forever scars the little girl.

In fact, earlier in the script, he actually plays out this scene. He actually dramatizes little Susan Orlean’s life. He dramatizes the waitress – who serves him the pie and is in love with orchids – he dramatizes her childhood. He dramatizes the childhood of Laroche, collecting turtles with his mother – the first day he got a turtle.

All of this got cut. He didn’t write it because the movie needed it. He wrote it because he needed it. He tried to make it work in the movie. Eventually it got cut. And, actually, the movie is better than the script. But it survived all the way up to the shooting draft. This is the rhythm of rewriting.

Rewriting does not stop. There is always something that can be changed. There is always something that can be added. But what we’re really doing with rewriting is we’re trying to whittle it down. We’re trying to whittle it down so that as much of it can be about that one thing as possible. We whittle it down so that we can remove the things that are distractions from that one thing. We whittle it down to allow ourselves to focus and to allow our audience to experience the purity of that one idea. That does not mean your script has to be simple.

Kaufman starts off this movie saying, “I want to try something new in my writing. I want to try something simple.” He totally failed in that because that’s not his voice. This was his first script where he played with the idea that we’re all one person. Actually, Being John Malkovich is a little bit of that. This is not his first script about this. It is his second script where he plays with the idea that we’re all one person.

In Synecdoche, NY, he actually takes that idea even further. In this script, he is making fun of his own ideas, just as we make fun of our ideas sometimes. When Donald brings up an idea and says, “he’s a serial killer and he has multiple personalities.” Charlie says, “that’s the most boring concept I’ve ever heard.” And then he does it and he makes you forget that it’s trite.

What he’s really proving to you is that any idea can work. And any idea can not work. You can have Robert McKee give a half page long speech and it can work. And you can have Robert McKee give a half page long speech and it can not work. You can use voice over and it can work. You can use voice over and it can not work. You can have multiple characters and it can work. You can have multiple characters and it can not work. This only works and not works in relation to that one true thing – that one thing that you’re truly passionate about.

So, what we’re doing in each revision is we’re trying to whittle it down. And there are really only two ways we can whittle things down: The first is that we cut stuff that has nothing to do with it. And, actually, if you read this draft, you’ll see a lot of stuff that was good but it didn’t really build the main thrust.

The other way you can whittle it down is for you to push the themes further. So, if you start off with a character who says to Donald, “that’s not writing, Donald.” If at the end of act two you have a character who says to the brother, “we share the same DNA. Is anything lonelier than that?” Well, what’s the furthest you can take that character? It’s Robert McKee’s decree that “If you don’t know this, than you don’t know anything about life.” You can take that character to a place where Donald Kaufman/Robert McKee (he’s multiplying characters and Donald and Robert are actually the same character) takes that thesis and crushes it into the ground.

Here’s that full monologue in all it’s glory:

MCKEE: The real world? The real fucking world? First of all, if you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you’ll bore your audience to tears. Secondly: Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day! There’s genocide and war and corruption! Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else! Every fucking day someone somewhere makes a conscious decision to destroy someone else! People find love! People lose it, for Christ’s sake! A child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! Someone goes hungry! Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman! If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know much about life! And why the fuck are you taking up my precious two hours with your movie? I don’t have any use for it! I don’t have any bloody use for it!

And Kaufman says, “Okay, thanks.”

So, you see what happens here? Does Charlie Kaufman agree with Robert McKee? No. Charlie Kaufman despises Robert McKee. But there are millions of people who believe everything Robert McKee says. There are millions of people who think exactly like Robert McKee. If you want to make an argument, if you want to show people a way to think, you don’t want to preach to the choir.

Jessica Hinds [studio instructor] and I watched this movie and we laughed the whole time. We smiled the whole time. Because we already agree! Those are not the people you need to bring along. They’re already in your fan club. The people you want to bring along are the people who disagree with you.

When I wrote “The Matthew Shepard Story,” one of John Wierick and my big conversations was “who’s it for?” We were both straight men, so we were pretty sure that it wasn’t for a gay audience because, honestly, we were not the right writers for that. We didn’t think that we could bring dads. We didn’t think that we could change dads because we didn’t think dads were watching TV movies. But we thought we might be able to bring moms around. The audience for our movie was moms. And we didn’t start writing the character of Judy Shepard as a bad mom – of course she’s not a bad mom, she’s a great mom. But we didn’t start Judy as a stereotypical mom. We started Judy as a mom who sees herself as a great mom. And it was easy for us to do it because it was true. She was a mom who loses her son and has to face the fact that she doesn’t know him.

We didn’t think we could end hate crimes because…I don’t know if anyone can end hate crimes. We didn’t think we could do that. But we thought we might be able to get mom to pick up the phone. And that was our one thing that allowed us to whittle our script down and understand what Judy’s journey needed to be and what needed to happen.

So, if you want to bring people around who think differently from you, then you have to meet them where they are. You want to infuse your antagonist. Don’t let your antagonist just be a jerk. Let your antagonist be brilliant. Your antagonist thinks he’s the hero! Robert McKee doesn’t show up saying, ” man, I’m toxic and I’ve just destroyed so many young, talented writers.” Robert McKee showed up and said, “you know what? I just helped a stadium of people today.” Robert McKee, in Adaptation, believes he’s the hero.

You want to charge the antithesis as strongly as you can. And you want to take your character to a point where whatever they most believe – whatever you most believe – where you are actually shaken to your core.

There’s a great moment in Network where the main character says, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” And he has a nervous breakdown on the air and all of America thinks, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” And you, at home, think, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Then the writer marches that main character into the network CEO’s office. And the network CEO gives a monologue that starts with, “you have meddled with the forces of nature!” And at the end of that monologue, the main character says, “I have seen the face of god.” That main character gets shaken to his core. That’s Paddy Chayefsky purposely trying to attack his own beliefs with everything he’s got in order to see if they can withstand that argument.

The truth of the matter is that if doing the right thing always led to happiness, everyone would always do the right thing. If generosity always led to a returning of the favor, then everyone would always be generous. It’s because we fear that we’re wrong. It’s because we fear that we might not get to where we hope to get to. It’s our concern that maybe our beliefs won’t work that stops us.

Now, Charlie Kaufman’s craft is amazing. He knows that he could fake it and not go through all this and have Donald’s life. This is a pipe dream, if you’re not already Charlie Kaufman. But, once you are Charlie Kaufman, the truth of the matter is that he could have done that. Famously, when he turned in the script for The Orchid Thief, what he said to that executive was, “I know you need to fire me, but this is what I made.”

Now, one last thing that’s really beautiful about this is that when you have good source material, you have to trust it. How do you know you have good source material? You know you have good source material if you read it and it’s truthful. That’s called good source material, even if it’s a mess and doesn’t work and nobody gets it. If it’s not truthful, it’s called bad source material. In which case, we need to create some good source material and we can then ignore that bad source material. But if it’s truthful, it’s good source material, even if you’re not sure why.

If you’re adapting a book or historical figure and you connect to the book, you love the book, or you’re moved by it, that’s good source material. You’re moved by this true story? That’s good source material. When you have good source material, you want to run toward the truth.

There’s a saying that bad executives always say, “the truth sucks, you gotta make it up.” It’s the advice that Charlie Kaufman gets in the movie: “You’re the best in the world at making stuff up!” And he says, “No, I don’t want to do that. I have a responsibility to this writer because she wrote a beautiful book and I don’t want to disappoint her.” If you have good source material, you run at it.

Now, sometimes you’re going to be working from bad source material. If you guys have read The Reader, you’ll know that it’s a beautiful script but terrible source material that is written by a lawyer who basically missed the story. He was so obsessed with the ins and outs of Nuremburg law that he missed the story underneath the surface of a guy who falls in love with a girl who turns out to be a Nazi. That’s an amazing story. It’s there, but he missed it. Some executive – a smart executive – saw it and thought “underneath this really boring, unreadable book is this one beautiful thing.” And when you watch David Hare’s adaptation, David Hare ignores almost everything in the book. He takes that one good thing, throws the rest out and builds around that one true thing.

If you have lousy source material, don’t worry about what the source material does. If you’ve got great source material, you want to let the source material guide you, even if it guides you in a bizarre way.

So, The Orchid Thief started as that sprawling New Yorker stuff. It started as a New Yorker article. And what truly happened is that Susan Orlean was hired to adapt that article into a book. And she didn’t have enough story, so she started jamming it full with stuff about Darwin, flowers, the history of orchids, the history of orchid exploration…hold on one second! Do you see how this is exactly how Charlie Kaufman built this movie? He started jamming it with extra stuff about flowers. In fact, in this draft, Darwin is in there even more than he is in the shooting draft. Kaufman built it like she built it. Susan Orlean is a character in The Orchid Thief, the novel. So, he stuck himself into this script.

Remember that hilarious scene where Donald decides to interview her? And he tells Charlie, “these are all pat answers. She’s lying.” Well, at the end of The Orchid Thief, there’s a question and answer section with Susan Orlean where she gives nothing but the most pat answers. And one of those questions is “were you attracted to Laroche?” And she basically says, “Well, you know, in journalism there’s always an interest between journalist and subject.” And you read it and you think, “Well, that was a pat answer.” Even that crazy notion of the love story grew out of the book. Why were those questions and answers in the book? Because it was too short, even with all the stuff she jammed it with. So, they put that in to add length to the book.

Charlie Kaufman had an inadaptable book and he ran right at the thing that made it inadaptable. And the only thing he didn’t do, he didn’t create (except for that fake love story) an arc for Jean Larcohe that didn’t exist in the book. He didn’t do the one thing that every executive wanted him to do: “create more of a journey for Laroche. Just let Laroche do more shit. He’s such a fascinating character.” That was the only thing he rejected. You know why? Because that’s not what the book did.

If you’ve got great source material that you’re adapting, trust the source material. Run right at all the fucked up things about it. You’ve got great source material, so you may as well let it guide you. And because adaptation and revision are basically the same thing, if you’ve written source material that’s truthful and it’s a mess, you can trust that all the answers are already there. All you need to do is keep looking at it, pushing at it, trying it this way, trying it that way, moving it here, playing around with this, expanding from here.

Somewhere inside what you already wrote are all the answers you need to bring this film to completion and to write something that truly nobody else could write. Because rather than depending upon somebody else’s answers, you’re depending on your unique voice, your unique theme – the unique thing that is meaningful to you and makes you feel passionate. Your structure is not just attacking some idea that other people hold. Your structure is attacking something that is so deeply felt in you that writing the story shakes you to the core, makes you question who you are, and makes you look at your own beliefs in a slightly different way.


I hope you enjoyed this lecture excerpt. And if you’d like to join us next year in Costa Rica, we’ve just announced our dates: June 10 -19. Hope to see you there!


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