The Orchid Thief is a novel written by Susan Orlean that follows her real-life experiences with Mr. John LaRoche, an eccentric and very intelligent man whose passions often border on the obsessive. The book documents the arrest and subsequent trial of Mr. LaRoche in response to his involvement and orchestration in “orchid poaching” which he committed so that he may clone the flowers for resale to collectors. The most prominent themes throughout the novel include the rediscovery of passion in the world, and the notion of one’s obsessions. These themes are seemingly intertwined with one another as one’s obsessions can merely be a heightened sense of passion and passions may often move closer to obsessions; the distinction is highly subjective.
The film Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze, is one that falls under the category of a “meta-film” as it relays the tale of a screen-writer’s efforts to adapt Susan Orleans The Orchid Thief into a film. The movie stars Nicholas Cage as Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation’s actual writer) as he struggles with the concept of translating Orlean’s narrative onto the silver screen. It should be noted that the film serves as a sort of satire to the adaptation process in creating a film from a book as Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) refuses to subscribe to the Hollywood methods that he sees as being overly simplistic, and strives to make his product as faithful to the book as possible. Jonze rapidly cuts between different perspectives which include Susan Orlean’s New York, the Kaufman brothers’ Los Angeles, and John Laroche’s Florida which affords the audience a look into three different settings; each supporting the film’s themes. Adaptation, like Orlean’s original novel, has a reoccurring theme of “passion” which shows itself through the original narrative involving LaRoche as well as in Kaufman’s strife in putting out a flawless product (which proves to be an impossible task).
Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of The Orchid Thief is an effective translation in that it maintains (albeit loosely) one of the major themes from the novel: passion. In addition, Kaufman’s rendition of Orlean’s work takes a subtle page from her book (so to speak) by working himself into a story which, at a glance, would have had little to do with him. However, the parallels between the book and film end there as what was supposed to be a collective effort between a satire of the film-making process and the themes of the novel became a product that drew heavily from one and sparingly from the other. Adaptation is predominately a satire on the process of “adapting” books into different mediums and shares close to nothing with Orlean’s narrative aside from the characters and settings.
3rd Party Sources
- A. An interview between About.com’s Ed Saxon and author Susan Orlean about the process leading up to the movie and her feelings on Kaufman’s Adaptation.
- B. An in-depth summary of both Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation that summarizes both while including commentary (mostly regarding the film) about the difficulties faced by Kaufman when attempting to adapt such an information-heavy novel into a Hollywood film.
- C. A blog entry detailing (and compiling) analyses and theories about the character of Donald Kaufman and what role he truly plays in the film as well as what Charlie Kaufman’s ultimate intent was in including his fictional twin into the film.
- C. This blog entry, written by Scott Myers of “Black List” gives some very insightful analysis as to what Charlie Kaufman’s intent was in including his “twin” (Donald) in the movie. Aside from serving as a sort of foil to Charlie in that their personalities are practically polar opposites, Myers brings forth the theory that perhaps Donald represents a side of his personality/ creative being that he has recently come to terms with. Myers, as well as a number of contributors in the comments section, suggests that Donald may represent a side of Charlie Kaufman that, in writing Adaptation, Kaufman learned to embrace. In the words of Jack Benjamin in the comments section, “Charlie is seduced by Donald’s structured, safe, rote writing style and in the end he succumbs to it”. Given Charlie’s aversion to said writing style (as introduced during McGee’s seminar), Donald would serve as his perfect foil in a narrative sense. Gaining this perspective, viewing the film while viewing Donald and Charlie as two sides of the same coin can grant the audience access to a rather subtle theme as introduced by Kaufman in his writing.
In many ways, the line between fantasy and reality is blurred in Adaptation. Give an example or two of this, and make a case about whether this blurring makes the film more, or less, of a cohesive and compelling work of art.
Within Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, there are a number of instances that call into question what is real and what is merely a perception of Charlie’s that he projects onto the world, creating a sense of consistency with the rest of Kaufman’s writing. An example of this is Charlie’s initial perception of Susan Orlean which he forms from reading The Orchid Thief. At first, his expectations of Orlean seem borderline whimsical which, at a glance, causes the audience to join in his sentiments that paint her in a fantastical light. The reality, unfortunately, is not nearly as endearing as is often the case and viewers are “brought back down to earth”, so to speak. This “blurring” between fantasy and reality, in my opinion does not take away from the film’s status as “art” at all. In fact, one could argue that this plot device adds depth to the film in the form of an additional theme: shallow expectations. Charlie bases his opinion of Susan solely from her writing which results in an overestimation of her character whereas his very low opinion of his own brother, Donald, misses the mark yet again being that his twin turns out to have a bit more depth than he initially thought.