Under the Influence – Charlie Kaufman

Kaufman is, far and away, one of the best and most original screenwriters of his generation, and one of my all time favourites. His influence on me comes through more in what I endeavor my writing to be more than what my writing would be on a page, which perhaps sounds redundant, but I feel it makes some sense.


I couldn’t think of a better image than the above one to show quite how original Kaufman can be. The image shows a scene from Being John Malkovich, which, along with Adaptation served as my introduction to Kaufman’s work. The scene is simple – John Malkovich travels through a portal into his own head, and everyone around him has his face, and can only say the word “Malkovich”. Yes, it’s slightly… Odd, to say the least, but it’s also staggeringly original, especially when compared to saturated studio fare that comes out with such frequency. Original writing is inspirational for a simple reason – it allows one to aspire to be original, which, as a writer, is one of the best things you can do.


In both Synecdoche, New York (left) and Adaptation (right), Kaufman explores metafiction. It’s a difficult concept to describe (having a story within another story I guess you could say), and even more difficult one to write. For instance, Synecdoche… tells the story of a playwright (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) writing a play about life. His life, everyone’s life, just… Life. And it’s done masterfully, the play is not just a subplot, but a reality, a fully fledged story of its own. And metafiction is inspiring for a handful of different reasons, it’s originality (something that’ll be revisited several times I imagine), its intelligence and such. It is also a testament to the skill of the writer in question, and Kaufman does so masterfully. For its breadth, complexity and countless reasons, metafiction inspires me as it simply gives a window to explore something else entirely through what it is that’s also being written.

Characters playing the writer

I’ll admit that it seems vain and, yes, narcissistic to be influenced by such a concept, but I can’t help but be fascinated it. After all, it’s been done before in films like  All That Jazz, and Kaufman captures it just as well as someone like Fosse does. With Adaptation, Kaufman presents a bizarre, almost semi-autobiographical account of his attempts to adapt The Orchid Thief with his (fictional) twin brother. However, where Fosse use an author avatar, Kaufman takes it a step further uses the author – literally. Charlie Kaufman is a character in Adaptation. I’ve already admitted its an arrogant point of influence, but I can’t help but wonder, hyperbole, false modest, arrogance and all of that aside – how would I write myself? Not an avatar of myself, but literally myself. Adaptation showed it was more than possible, so, only time will tell if I find myself as a character within a script of my own.



Filed under Under the Influence

2 responses to “Under the Influence – Charlie Kaufman

  1. Alex Withrow

    Ah I just love Charlie Kaufman’s work. It’s so original and confounding, yet I am undeniably drawn to it.

    One main hitch for me would have to be Synecdoche. I know part of the mystery there is not being entirely sure what is going on (or why), but that thing just had me lost from the get-go. It was well acted, but can it was well made? I dunno, I have to give it a few more run throughs.

    Regardless, Kaufman’s unique voice is something I’ll always seek out. Nice write up, Sam!

  2. I never really enjoyed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But Adaptation has to be a favorite of mines. He’s very…original, to say the least.

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