Adapted from: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
Sometimes it pays to be original. Many of the great films in cinematic history (including my personal favourite Sunset Boulevard) arose from the depths of a screenwriter’s imagination. In many ways it takes a great deal of self-confidence and intelligence to be able to produce something that is truly original.
Since looking at adaptations is going to be a recurring segment on TAR the choice of the first pick was humungous. Should I tackle a film that tore apart a much beloved book? Should this look at a play that was able to successfully replicate the magic of a TV series? A glance across anyone’s DVD library or bookshelf demonstrates the almost limitless possibilities.
Anyway, all trains of thought aside I decided that to start us off it would be a great idea to actually look at an example of an adaptation that is in its own way extremely original and, in the light of a better word, meta. The fact that the film in question shares its name with what this feature is about just sweetens the deal.
The Source Material
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean is a profoundly interesting book. If you have seen the film Adaptation without having read this you will know that in the mid-nineties this was a fairly popular work of non-fiction which really had a lot to offer a film adaptation.
In a very brief summary, the book is about the journalists own experiences with orchid hunter John Laroche as they go on the hunt for the rare ghost orchid (so called because it’s beautiful white flower hangs from the branch in such a way that it just appears to be floating in the Everglades). As a premise, I’ll openly admit, it sounds really dull. If anything it sounds like the botanists equivalent of Eat, Pray, Love but Orlean never attempts to make this sound like a self-help book.
On the contrary to this the book itself is never really about Orlean, since in the most part she deftly maintains her role as the journalist who is observing this world of orchid fanciers as she becomes more and more included in their inner-circle.
Within these yarns concerning the lengths undertaken by botanists to win orchid shows (the fact that an award winning orchid can affect how orchids are bred for the next decade was shocking to me) she interposes interesting facts about the history of orchid collections. Stories of professional orchid explorers who would haphazardly pack thousands of rare orchids in crates for shipment only to have a few hundred survive their trip from the East Indies back to the United Kingdom (colonialism don’t cha know). Human lives lost, species crate-packed into extinction and forests set on fire so rival orchid collectors would not be able to gather similar specimens.
In the end this book is not necessarily about passion but more about obsession. The central figure of John Laroche was not always obsessed with orchids but rather it was the latest in a long line of collections. In many ways a lot of us can relate to this and that is the take home message of this book. If I was not so sure that would kill it I was really close to buying an orchid after reading this.
One thing that sets Adaptation apart from many other adaptations of source material is that the script is more inspired by The Orchid Thief rather than being a direct adaptation for the big screen. In fact the film is actually about the trials and frustrations of adapting the book. Did I mention this was by Charlie Kaufman? If that name rings a bell it is very likely it is because of his work on the genre-defying Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
In terms of cinema the works of Charlie Kaufman will not be to everyone’s taste; something that is as out of the leftfield as his work tends to divide public opinion whilst simultaneously receiving much acclaim from the critics. Now that this film has been built up the question that hangs there is “what makes Adaptation such an unusual film?” For the first part Charlie Kaufman has written himself into this as a screenwriter struggling to write a script for an upcoming film based on The Orchid Thief (which is actually a true story) which is juxtaposed with his fictional twin Donald (both played by Nicolas Cage) and a rather manic affair between Orlean (played by Meryl Streep) and Laroche (an Academy Award winning turn by Chris Cooper).
From this synopsis it sounds like Adaptation made little use of the source material and instead The Orchid Thief was used as a springboard into making a rather strange film. In some way this is true, but it takes the key component from the book and runs with it rather expertly. It touches on the obsessions of the eponymous ‘orchid thief’ Laroche. It tells the story of the obsession the fictional version of Orlean. Most of all it details Charlie Kaufman’s growing obsession and wilting self-confidence as he attempts to adapt a book which, having read it, is very hard to envisage as a successful feature film.
In determining whether something has been a successful adaptation there are a number of things that need to be considered. Does it use the source material well and, related to this, does it remain faithful? Is it an enjoyable adaptation that is able to capture the original’s essence?
To be honest Adaptation is not faithful, but that God for that. The Orchid Thief would have, if anything made for a really interesting Panorama or 60 Minutes special but not a thrilling addition to the realm of narrative-driven cinema. In extracting the book’s emotional backbone and somehow using it to create a film where he lives with his fictional twin and receives death threats from fictional incarnations of Orlean and Laroche… well you get the picture. It’s little wonder that after 2002 (the year the film was released) Kaufman decided to stick to his own ideas and steer away from adaptations.
Page written by Mulholland.
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