from "how to tell a true war story" by tim o'brien
You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let's say, and afterward you ask, "Is it true?" and if the answer matters, you've got your answer.
For example, we've all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.
Is it true?
The answer matters.
You'd feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it's just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen and maybe it did, anything's possible even then you know it can't be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it's a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, "The fuck you do that for?" and the jumper says, "Story of my life, man," and the other guy starts to smile but he's dead.
That's a true story that never happened.
Charlie Kaufman wrote Being John Malkovich. He then agreed to adapt Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief about orchid enthusiast John Laroche for the big screen. When he couldn't figure out how to adapt a book about flowers into a good movie, Kaufman wrote a screenplay about his struggles trying to adapt said book instead.
This is all true. Charlie Kaufman is an actual screenwriter who actually struggled to adapt The Orchid Thief, an actual book about actual orchid enthusiast John Laroche written by actual New Yorker writer Susan Orlean.
So now then.
Adaptation is the true story of a writer trying to write the movie you're watching, but the movie doesn't end with him finishing a screenplay, it ends at the end of the screenplay you're watching him write, so at some unspecified point in the movie, reality merges with fiction that is, real people suddenly become characters in a fictitious story.
To further complicate things, Kaufman includes in his real screenplay 1) his experience (real or fake we don't know) attending a real screenwriting seminar taught by real screenwriting teacher Robert McKee in which he learns that the key to good screenwriting is just to wow the audience at the end of a movie so they leave the theatre happy and 2) the presence of a fake twin brother of his, a typical Hollywood screenwriter who, in his real screenplay, helps him finish his real screenplay.
Are you still with me?
Adaptation completely falls apart during its third and final act. It's really bad. Total Hollywood nonsense, starring real people, no less. Thing is, did Kaufman (the real one) deliberately sensationalize the ending to wow the audience? Or is it supposed to be the part of the screenplay that his fake brother helped write? Or did it actually happen? Is it genius? Or mere incompetence? Does it matter? WHY IS SUSAN ORLEAN SNORTING POWDERED DRUGS AND HAVING SEX WITH A HICK?
Mindfuck of the year, I tell you. A true story that never happened.