Susan Orlean: “There are too many ideas and things and people. Too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something, is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.”
The film I have chosen to turn you onto in this, my latest installment, is Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s loose adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief, entitled Adaptation. To properly introduce such a sprawling, inventive, and enigmatic movie, I will attempt a brief explanation of the structure. I won’t go too far into the details as unpacking the configuration of the script as you watch is a large part of the enjoyment of the movie, but the fact of the matter is that this movie, which is in essence an adaptation of a book about flowers, blooms into a film about the creative process of adaptation in general.
We are shown multiple layers of characters in a variety of different story lines. We have Charlie Kaufman, the actual person, adapting the book, his twin brother and all of the people in his circle (his agent, publicist, girl friend etc.), and we watch as he struggles with such a complex and original adaptation. Then we also follow Susan Orlean, John Laroche, and all of the other satellite characters involved in the book he is adapting. The fun of the film is the fact that as the plot develops the worlds of the two begin to merge and levels of fiction seep into the story to the point where it is the viewer’s task to either give into the developing story or try to decide where the lines of fact and fiction are blended.
One of the reasons I fell completely head over heels for this film is the brilliant way in which Kaufman (the writer not the character… or wait both I guess) has woven these two story arcs based in reality, where almost no immense action happens into one overblown and immense film experience. Early in the film the character of Charlie Kaufman is speaking to his publisher about the adaptation and the possibility of a love interest: “Okay. But, I'm saying, it's like, I don't want to cram in sex or guns or car chases, you know... or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end, you know. I mean... The book isn't like that, and life isn't like that. You know, it just isn't. And... I feel very strongly about this.” The battle of creating a story that is true to this statement is in essence the main focus of the film. However there is a very surprising and climactic ending lurking in the wings (but I won’t go too far into that…).
While the plot, characters, and dark comedic wit are the main focus and what truly makes this film one that I can enjoy over and over, there are certainly other reasons I can pull in an attempt to turn you on to Adaptation. if you aren’t hooked already. Charlie Kaufman (who also wrote Being John Malkovich (1999), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and wrote and directed Synecdoche, New York (2008)) wrote the film and his work is always infused with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. Spike Jonze (known also for directing Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are (2009), Her (2013) and countless amazing music videos) then took the script and directed it into the amazing amalgamation it is. On top of these two creative masterminds the always-stunning Lance Accord then shot it – you may remember my ruminating on the magic of his eye in my essays about Marie Antoinette (2006) and Buffalo ’66 (1998). So the people behind the lens are incredibly well chosen. Then on top of this the acting is fantastic. Nicolas Cage luminously pays both of the Kaufman brothers (I know: Nicolas Cage! I’m as surprised as you!), Meryl Streep is fantastic (as usual) as New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, and Chris Cooper perfectly embodies the perplexing character of John Laroche. So those working in front of the lens are equally adept.
In a brief review and conclusion as to why you should buy and watch (re-watch) this film: the plot is imaginative and inventive, the direction and cinematography are spot on, the acting raises the bar of the story, and just to reiterate I cannot stress the fun and excitement of the story development. Watching this movie again in prep for this essay I was again immediately enveloped in the worlds of the story and couldn’t pull myself away from the screen. So give it a shot and if you hate it you can come in and find me to tell me why – but that’s not going to happen. You’ll love it.
- Edward Hill