Before Tina Brown left her top editing spot at The New Yorker, she sent writer Susan Orlean to Florida to follow the strange case of John Laroche, a plant dealer arrested in 1994 along with three Seminole Indians for trying to steal rare orchids from Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. The Orchid Thief became a national bestseller and understandably drew the attention of writer Charlie Kaufman and Propaganda Films, the powerhouse multimedia company that helped launch director Spike Jonze’s career. Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire, called The Orchid Thief a “horticultural page-turner,” no doubt referencing Orlean’s uncanny ability to evoke the allure and elusiveness of orchids. How does a screenwriter adapt something so alluring and elusive itself, a novel whose most dynamic chapter consists of Orlean’s description of the different kinds of orchids found in Florida’s swamps and the strange ways with which these plants cross-fertilize?
Adaptation. tells the story of Kaufman’s struggle to adapt The Orchid Thief for the screen. Kaufman attacks the novel at its very root, drawing head-trippy comparisons between the creative process and a species of plant Orlean describes as being “swamped by incongruity and paradox.” Orlean viewed the shrewd Laroche’s desire to capture and clone the orchid plant as a romantic struggle, a stringent desire to own, contain and exploit a piece of wilderness for profit. “[Laroche] said he admired how adaptable and mutable they are, how they have figured out how to survive in the world,” says Orlean in her book. Just as Orlean “wanted to want something as much as people wanted these plants,” Kaufman wanted to conquer his own creative process, which comes to resemble the very ghost orchid Orlean describes in her book: “wonderful to imagine and easy to fall in love with but a little fantastic and fleeting and out of reach.”
In Adaptation., Charlie (Nicolas Cage) gives himself an alter ego in the form of a twin brother named Donald. Charlie struggles to churn out a cut-and-dry adaptation of The Orchid Thief while Being John Malkovich is still in production. Donald aspires to be a screenwriter but he’s only concerned in making cheap Hollywood thrillers. He makes for a fascinating Frankenstein, a reminder to Charlie of what he never wants to become. But as the film moves on, Charlie discovers and subsequently embraces the distance between an independent spirit like himself and a supposedly Hollywood hack like his brother. Just as amazing and mysterious as the details behind an orchid’s destination in a Florida swamp is the process with which someone like Charlie Kaufman can become someone like Donald Kaufman.
During one of Adaptation.’s purest moments, Charlie is noticeably taken aback by the “sad, sweet insights” of Orlean’s book. Anyone who has read The Orchid Thief can understand the challenges Kaufman must have faced in trying to adapt a novel of insights for audiences looking for something less abstract and more immediate. Adaptation. is a film for artists by artists and the action is at once cloyingly self-conscious and remarkably true. The film itself should be approached as an analogy of sorts, as a series of relationships between authors and subjects (some real, some imagined): Donald Kaufman is to Charlie Kaufman as Charlie Kaufman is to Susan Orlean as Susan Orlean is to John Laroche. What better way to comprehend Kaufman’s fear of stasis and his obsessive desire for creative evolution?
In The Orchid Thief, Orlean describes the divine moment when Laroche becomes something more to her than a story. It was at precisely this point that the novel became more about Orlean’s creative process than Laroche and his orchids. There’s an overwhelming sense in both the novel and the film that Orlean would have knocked her front teeth out if it meant she could be happy. In researching orchids, Orlean discovered that the plants—what with their vigilant need to guard themselves against self-containment—were not unlike humans themselves. When Charlie learned to research Orlean and not her book, he was able to find a portal into her world of flowers and one straight into his own brain.
Some critics have said that Adaptation., like Being John Malkovich, loses itself as it moves along but it actually seems to grow more transcendent as it moves slowly toward its uncertain conclusion. The struggle between Charlie and Donald is far more interesting to watch than the one between Orlean (Meryl Streep) and Laroche (Chris Cooper), who don’t really come alive until Adaptation. suddenly and mysteriously takes a cue from Donald’s heightened view of reality. Adaptation. is the last film you’d think would embrace a “Hollywood ending” but the film’s final rhetorical shift fabulously exaggerates both Orlean’s and Charlie’s first-person struggles to become something more than just the authors of their own works.
The real-life Kaufman pares The Orchid Thief down to its most important elements and contemplates what would have happened had Orlean and Laroche become lovers. The wackiness with which Orlean and Laroche chase after the Kaufman brothers invokes subjects revolting against their authors; their actions certainly aren’t too far off from the kind of behavior that drove countless hunters and explorers to their deaths in search of elusive orchids. The film’s Hollywood ending is effective not only because it’s deliriously self-conscious but because it truly feels like a natural extension of everything that transpires prior. Kaufman rightfully believes that these kinds of Hollywood endings have to be earned. Adaptation. makes for a very rocky experience but watching it evolve into something profound, if not entirely complete, is certainly beautiful to behold.