Monday, October 26, 2009

Book Vs. Film: The Orchid Thief / Adaptation

Continuing in the grand stylings of The Onion AV Club (as previously seen here):

SPOILER WARNING: Book Vs. Film is a column comparing books to the film adaptations they spawn, often discussing them on a plot-point-by-plot-point basis. This column is meant largely for people who’ve already been through one version, and want to know how the other compares. As a result, major, specific spoilers for both versions abound, often including dissection of how they end. Proceed with appropriate caution.

This summer I read The Dangerous World of Butterflies, and the book's promotional material all drew strong ties to Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief. When I ran across the book at a rummage sale, I thought I'd read it for comparison, and I'd already seen Adaptation., the award-winning film based on the book. I didn't get to read Thief until later in the summer, and it became my 'in-between' book, reading in short bursts between starting other books, so I only finished it recently.

Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, starts her book with a description of her titular Orchid Thief, horticulturalist and jack-of-all-trades John Laroche: tall, thin, slouching, handsome, and toothless. Unlike Butterflies, whose chapters bounce from one place to ahoter, Orlean focuses her book around Laroche and his Florida stomping grounds, rather than all things orchidy, so while they both have a foothold on endangered beauty twisted for man's enjoyment, Orlean find a unified theme by sticking to Laroche and his schemes. She first meets Laroche at his trial for orchid poaching, which he defends by having the Seminole Indians, who retain rights to the wildlife in the Fakahatchee swamps, do the actual poaching, hopefully protected by the shield of their legal status. As the book progresses, Orlean delves deeper into Laroche's psyche, unraveling what makes him tick.

In fact, there is one character in the book who appears far, far more than John Laroche. Author Susan Orlean, whether you're counting words or measuring influence, is the star of the book. Laroche comes and goes, his presence and absence each as startling as he is disinterested in the whole story, but Susan Orlean is present throughout. The "new journalism" style of George Plimpton and Hunter Thompson relied heavily on the writer's experience — whether truthful or not, provided the essence remained true — to tell the story. Under New Journalism, the writer wasn't content to research and report, printing interviews in the third person. The writer doesn't just compile statistics and anecdotes of gang culture, they live as a gang member for a month. Orlean doesn't immerse herself to that extent, but when Laroche is at an orchid show, she is there with him, he is speaking to her and she is responding, written in a very fictional style. I also don't doubt Orlean actually did everything in the book, and that personal experience is what makes the book so engaging; the woman at the rummage sale didn't take note of any of the other books I bought, but singled this one out to let me know how good it is: as a book about poaching endangered species, it would barely have resonated with readers as a dry treatise of statistics and third-person description of events. It also smoothly moves in and out of the two styles, adopting a more straightforward journalistic tone when covering the failed Florida swampland developments or the history of orchid collecting.

Laroche's scheme which ends up with him in court, identifying himself as 'the smartest man he knows', is a plan to breed a hardy strain of the Ghost Orchid, a rare and elusive strain of the infinitely-varied orchid line. The plant rarely blooms and is extremely picky in seed germination, which makes them extraordinarily rare and desirable to the obsessed collectors. Laroche intends to breed them, harden them up, and then there won't be a reason to poach them, so everybody wins. Orlean spends the entire book in search of the ghost orchid, including venturing into the dark swamp itself, and ends the book not ever having encountered one. The book is a lesson in desire and passion, both largely unrequited, and the drive in people's hearts to try and satiate those primal drives.

The Orchid Thief ends on that note: Laroche has utterly and completely moved on, opening an online porn business and getting rid of the entirety of his flora projects, while Orlean returns to New York without having attained anything but the heartbreak of missing out on what she never had the chance to experience. This is deeply layered in more than just flower collecting, pressing the orchids between pages in a book of human experience.

To begin...how to start.

I'm hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think.

But I should write something first and reward myself with coffee.

Coffee and a muffin. — Charlie, Adaptation.

It is a very good book, which explains Charlie Kaufman's initial urges to do the story right in his adapted screenplay. The film Adaptation., in turn, presses the book The Orchid Thief between the pages of a screenwriter's notebook. The film points out, very early on, that Orlean's The Orchid Thief lacks the cohesive storyline and logical progression that a movie requires. Film producer Valerie Thomas suggests that Kaufman add a love story, with Orlean and Laroche falling for each other. Kaufman discounts that immediately, saying he doesn't want to add anything artificial to the story to make it fit Hollywood conventions. His adaptation would be true to the book without artificiality.

His twin brother, Donald Kaufman, is the sort of hack writer that Charlie sincerely does not want to become. The two are, clearly, two parts of a Fight Club mirror here, with the antisocial and awkward Charlie needing to learn something about himself from the embodiment of his suppressed self, manifest as Donald. Charlie can't bring himself to start a relationship with the attractive women he meets, while Donald has no problem with the ladies. Donald is social and tells bad jokes; Charlie can barely bring himself to speak in groups. Donald, much to Charlie's chagrin, is writing a formulaic and absurd thriller screenplay where all of the characters are really the same person. It, of course, sells for big bucks, while Charlie struggles to pull his Sisyphean task together.

While The Orchid Thief wraps a book about Florida orchids in the perspective of Orlean's experiences writing the book, Adaptation. is Kaufman's experiences writing the film. Kaufman expertly draws on that theme, making his film about a screenwriter writing about book about a woman writing about writing about an orchid thief. Meta and recursion are where Kaufman (the real one) excels, and the film doesn't miss a beat. Amazingly, much of Kaufman's script is word-for-word from Thief, focusing on the Orlean-Laroche interactions. He covers the high points of the book during his struggles, and by the time he has exhausted the prime thematic elements of The Orchid Thief, his fictional alter-ego has also spent his time learning how to give the book that necessary story arc: add in guns, murder, drugs, sex, car crashes, animal attacks, and a life-changing epiphany. Nicholas Cage plays both Charlie and Donald, and he has a love scene with nearly every woman in the film: Judy Greer, Tilda Swinton, Maggie Gyllenthal, and Meryl Streep. Charlie Kaufman must really owe Cage for something. Every single one, however, is fantasy in Charlie's head, either directly or through Donald, and as the movie moves along, the fantasies appear less in Charlie's head and become more 'real' to the film. The movie finally gives up on the reality of the book at the point where Kaufman gives in and attends a Robert McKee seminar, sending the film spiraling off into absurdity more likely coming from the pen of Donald Kaufman. As the movie draws to a close, Donald dies, but not before giving Charlie his epiphany, appropriate to the book: to love something is a personal thing, and the views of others, even the one loved, is irrelevant. In those last moments of the film, Charlie takes on Donald's characteristics and moves forward, completing his screenplay, admitting his love to a woman, and driving off into the sunset the way any good film should end.

As an adaptation, Adaptation. isn't a very good conversion of the book; I'm sure the film left some of Orlean's fans a bit stumped. But, as the new Where the Wild Things Are film and The Iron Giant have proven, a film adaptation that maximizes the film medium while playing to the original work's strengths is the ideal combination. Kaufman's Adaptation. stands well on its own, even if The Orchid Thief didn't exist, but the grounding in reality forces the viewer to know that nearly every person in the movie is a real person somewhere, but their puppet strings moved by Kaufman, restraining himself at first in deference to verisimilitude, but tugging strings more and more as he needs to make the story happen.

Book Or Film? In this case, the book and the film proceeded down two different paths, which happened to cross one another a curiously large amount of times. Adaptation. is a film of a struggling writer, The Orchid Thief is a book on orchid obsession, and the distinct merits of each are widely separated. Both should be experienced, but with the understanding that there's not a 1-for-1 correlation; I saw the film first and didn't feel I missed anything, although reading the book first does give the film viewing some greater insight.

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