“The Orchid Thief” (1998) is a novel by Susan Orlean. The novel is based on the time Orlean spent in Florida investigating the arrest of John Laroche. Laroche and a group of Seminole Native Americans were poaching orchids; Orlean found true passion in Laroche’s obsession with the orchids. Additionally, the novel deals with the odd dichotomies in Florida, such as the distinction between wild and urban. The novel is classified as creative nonfiction, utilizing a more innovative writing style and voice. The line between artistic literature and a straightforward story is blurred. This style makes the transition from novel to cinema much more difficult, or as some may say, almost impossible.
Similar to other nontraditional “novel to cinema” transitions previously studied, “The Orchid Thief” was adapted to the big screen in an unconventional way. In 2002 Spike Jonze released “Adaptation,” a film that uses the back story of “The Orchid Thief” to examine the topics of art, depression, and the filmmaking industry. The story itself transitions between Meryl Streep portraying Susan Orlean in her study of John Laroche and Nicholas Cage as a screenwriter struggling to bring Orlean’s story to the big screen. The theme of “adaptation” is intertwined into all of the different stories, as Charlie (Nick Cage) tries to adapt his conception into a melding of art and film, Laroche adapts to his changing lifestyle as you learn more about his life, and Orlean adapts to a new life mentality that she learns through Laroche. The film transitions between Charlie’s thought processes and the actual plot, literally showing his mental adaptations to the world around him. The viewer can witness the arguments he has with himself before he actually reacts. The relationship between Charlie and Donald represents the tension inherent in writing for a mass audience.
In terms of being an actual adaptation of “The Orchid Thief,” the film makes a great effort to create a separate entity from the book. Orlean’s writing style transcends typical narrative styles; her approach is idiosyncratic and artistic. In order to translate the themes that she goes through, the filmmakers used the characters of Charlie and Donald to contemplate what the meaning of beauty should be in a big-budget film. This parallels the idea of finding beauty that someone else may not understand, as Streep’s character often questions Laroche about his obsession with flowers. Some critics felt that the film did not truly grapple with the themes of the book, stating that it is impossible to bring books to the screen. Rather, if we hope that the book lines up with the exact purpose of the author, there will always be disappointment. This film takes on the themes of the novel while creating its own identity as a film itself. The film may not answer questions around the tension between films and beauty because there isn’t an answer. Rather than criticizing the film, it should be applauded for bringing this to the attention of the audience. This film does not attempt to be a documentary, it is an emotional journey and examination that is distinct from the novel and other films.
Meryl Streep was quoted to be a huge fan of the script itself, praising its “ambition and its inventiveness. IT’s very densely written. It’s dense visually, but also in terms of its ideas and its emotions…it’s not like a straightforward story. “ Additionally, she purposely did not intent to meet Orlean before portraying her in a film, maintaining a distance that helps make “Adaptation” its own creation. Additionally, the real-world Charlie Kaufman states that he hoped to make the character a separate person, intentionally creating his apprehensions in a specific way. He also stated that he was worried that the film may have never been shot for its satire of the film industry, but they surprised him. The studio stated that “they connected to it (the film). They read it and saw that it was true to somebody they related to, in terms of struggling to do something you believe in. They respected that. Their concern was that it was so complicated structurally that it might not work emotionally. That was their biggest concern.” What is interesting about this film is that it is so emotionally driven that the studio considered that off-putting. That adds an interesting spin to the desires of film companies, there are expected character relations and any film that doesn’t meet those outlines is deemed as potentially un-filmable. Peter Rainer from New York Magazine discusses the purpose inherent in “Adaptation;” the film “picks apart the myth that nothing good ever domes out of Hollywood.” The film reverts to themes of disconnection; characters like Charlie and Laroche do not adhere to societal convention yet are so identifiable.
Some claim that using voice-over narration in a film is a “cheap” gimmick, a technique used when a filmmaker doesn’t know how to deal with intimate emotions. However, “Adaptation,” uses the technique to better understand Charlie’s insecurities. Additionally, by having a “professional” screenwriter in the film deny the technique, the filmmakers are showing us that trying to define what is “good” or “bad” filmmaking can not be defined. It is all about context. There are times in which a voice-over may seem cliché or unnecessary, but in a film like “Adaptation,” it works.