May 28, 2008

"The Orchid Thief" vs. "Adaptation" -Jeremiah

The journey from a book to the silver screen is a dicey one. Oft times it leaves fans of the book totally alienated, while other times it's a rousing success all-around. Yet, amongst the pantheon of books adapted to film, the case of Susan Orlean's “The Orchid Thief” is a curious one, as well as one of, if not the, most unique adaptation. Charlie Kauffman (whose task it was to effectively adapt the book for the multiplexes), with the help of a previous collaborator (director Spike Jonze), broke all the rules of adaptation and, in the end, made a masterpiece.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Susan Orlean's “The Orchid Thief” is a passionate, journalistic expedition through the lives of passionate people and their various passions. One could say that the theme of the book is, well... love. It's people focusing on their obsessions in order to scale down this vast and complex world into a more manageable and more personal place. In a lot of ways, Orlean's book bears a strong resemblence to Kerouac's work in the sense that there is no real story. But that doesn't mean they're not about anything or that we don't feel for the people who live on those pages.

“You know, now that I think about it, I guess we're a family of ailments and pain.” - John Laroche
It is safe to say John Laroche is the reason for Orlean's opus. His court case was what started her interest in orchids. The case alleged that “...Laroche and three Seminole assistants had illegally removed more than two hundred rare orchid and bromelaid plants from the Fakahatchee...” and, in turn, “...they were accused of criminal possession of endangered species and of illegally removing plant life from state property, both of which are punishable by jail time and fines.”

This case, while a huge deal for Laroche, is barely one fifth of the book. There are chapters about Laroche's past and his past loves of tropical fish, turtles and ice age fossils. There are many others that deal with Bob Fuchs, Martin Motts, the history of Orchid collecting and the cut-throat lives of those men brave enough, or simply carrying that crazy itch, to be orchid hunters. There are others still, about the ever-amazing, ceaseless Florida eco-system. Orlean's charm is that she introduces you to facts and trivia about things you never knew you wanted to know.
“Spooky places are usually full of death, but the Fakahatchee is crazy with living things.” - Susan Orlean
As I hinted in the previous paragraph, the other character -- and, in some ways, the more interesting character -- is the Florida eco-System. Specifically, the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. This amazing piece of nature is a deadly, unforgiving, indomitable part of Mother Nature.
“The Fakahatchee looks utterly wild, but is in fact a corrupted wilderness. It has been meddled with and invaded. For a while, people cleared and plowed parcels of its wet prarie and tried to grow oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, tomatoes, mangoes, and winter vegetables. The swamp made for lousy farming. The farmers eventually left, but their produce lingered. Even now you can still see crop rows under the native grass and a few weather-beaten citrus trees amid palm and cypress. Melaleucas and Brazilian peppers and Australian pine trees, non-natives, have roamed into the strand and multiplied. So have walking catfish, who swam in through the sinkhole lakes and stayed.”
Amid all the facts about orchids and the people who hunt and collect them, all the interesting facts about Florida's preserve and Laroche's life, Orlean has crafted a book that is almost impossible to put down. It is the most engaging and informative book about things I never thought would be interesting but, to my delight, turned out to be absolutely absorbing.

With that being said, we now come to the movie adaptation, aptly titled “Adaptation,” penned by whiz-kid Charlie Kauffman ("Being John Malkovich," "Human Nature," "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," "Confessions of A Dangerous Mind"). It was directed by Spike Jonze, this being their second collaboration -- the first being "Being John Malkovich".

Firstly, let us look at the movie on it's own terms.

“Adaptation” is a movie about many, many things. Starring Nicholas Cage as Charlie Kauffman and also as his twin brother Donald Kauffman (non existent). As previously stated, Charlie is been hired to adapt Susan Orlean's book (Orlean herself is portrayed by Meryl Streep).

Just as Charlie gets the job, Donald decides that he will follow in his beloved brother's footsteps and be a screenwriter too. To show his dedication to his brother he tells him that he's taking a class on screenwriting, taught by the infamous Bob McKee (Brian Cox).

While that is going on, we see Orlean interview John Laroche (Chris Cooper) about his court case and his passion for orchids. Orlean is introduced to the amazing world of orchids and those passionate people who lust after them.

Back with the Kauffmans, Charlie is suffering writer's block while Donald is coming up with a wonderfully ridiculous plot for a serial killer thriller. Charlie can't seem to find a way to adapt Orlean storyless novel. “It's that sprawling New Yorker shit!” Meanwhile Orlean and Laroche develop a platonic relationship that hints at more.

Now we come upon the genius of “Adaptation.” Charlie Kauffman goes on numerous diatribes about suffering for his art and about art itself, constantly trashing his brother's attempt to craft something as formulaic as a serial killer flick. The movie spends so much time distracting us with criticisms on entertainment for the masses, the relationships of the brothers and of Orlean and Laroche and on the writing process that we almost fail to realize that the movie is slowly evolving into what it spent the first half railing against. In fact, the term ”adaptation” has a double meaning: the adapting of book into movie and our adaptation as human beings. It's about how we, as humans, spend our lives adapting and getting used to change, because life won't stop no matter how hard we wish it to.

To go even deeper, there is a scene that sums “Adaptation” perfectly. Donald is telling Charlie how he has come up with his thriller plot, how it was inspired by a tattoo his girlfriend has -- a snake eating its own tail. Ouroboros, as it called. This revelation comes about the time in the movie where Charlie has written himself into his screenplay adaption of the book, and is a perfect summary of what the movie becomes.

The multi-level genius of "Adaptation" is astounding when you consider that it addresses writer's block (which is what it was born of), frustration on how to adapt and stay truthful to the source material (another birthplace of the film) and that Kauffman split himself in half, one representing the childish-yet-shallow side, the other being the artistic and mature side, yet both sides complementing each other. It's really touching as you realize, towards the end, how much Donald idolizes his brother Charlie and as Charlie realizes how much he envies and loves his brother.

So does the movie stay faithful to the book? Of course not. How could it?

There's no arc of any kind to the book. Nobody really changes or learns any real life lessons and there's almost no drama. Yet the movie was true to the underlying theme of Orlean's masterpiece. There's a line in the movie when Charlie and Donald are hiding in the swamp and Charlie relates a time when they were both in high school. He tells Donald of an incident where he witnessed Donald flirt with a girl, a girl that Donald remembers to this day: “God I was in love with her,” he remembers wistfully. Charlie goes on to tell him that, after Donald left, the girl of his dreams made fun of him, and how that angered Charlie. Donald reveals that he heard her as well, but that it didn't matter. “You are what you love, not what loves you back.”

That right there is the core of Orlean's epic: people who are in love with a nearly indestructible, intelligent and unique specimen of botany. Donald loves his brother, although his brother does not often return that love until the end. There's the love of art and of movies, Laroche's love for orchids and for Susan... Everyone in the film loves something or someone that does not love them back. Even Charlie, who loves almost every girl that he meets, and fantasizes about them, though they all reject him.

“Adaptation” is the most original and bizarre adaption in the history of adaptations. Susan Orlean's book is as marvelously unique as the screen counterpart. Orlean can be proud that the movie was intrinsically faithful to her novel, while Kauffman has cemented himself as a genius with what is, quite simply, a contemporary masterpiece... one which will most assuredly adapt itself into a classic masterpiece.

Book and movie 5 Hayeks.

Yours Until Hell Freezes Over,



Anonymous said...

yeah, good article but I hate people who put white text on a black background!!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a very thoughtful analysis of this film. Quite frankly, it's the best one I've read, and I've read a lot of them.

Anonymous said...

Decent movie though I haven't read the book yet...probably won't.

I like your review too but I must say that, overall, the movie just wasn't nearly as good for me as it was for you.

I think Kaufmann was right when he called it narcissistic in the film. And that is OK because it works but I think to call the film genius is overkill.

If that were truly genius than it cheapens the word....for me anyway.