Adapting an original source to the screen has been a common use from the very beginnings of cinema. However, there has been no other film that bends the idea of adaptation than the film Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze. Based off The New Yorker regular Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, Adaptation is a unique case of cinema and adapted material. The film crosses the boundaries of truth and fiction and meshes the styles of Orlean and Kaufman to create a very intriguing film that will continue to incite debate and discussion on whether the film is an adaptation or an original work.

Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, a New York Times bestseller, told the true story of John Laroche’s legal battles with the State of Florida and the orchid industry. This historically accurate tale spoke of the many passions that Laroche had obtained for a variety of subjects, then simply brushing it off like it never existed. 

From turtles, to mirrors, plants, orchids and finally computers and pornography; John Laroche excelled and mastered all his crafts and would ditch them for another. Orlean originally wrote The Orchid Thief as a one-time article for The New Yorker under the name “Orchid Fever” in 1995. She was approached for the article to be adapted into a novel where she continued her investigations into the theft orchestrated by Laroche and several Seminoles, which would be a landmark legal decision and the possibility of riches for Laroche. She studied in depth the world of orchids, their evolution, their seekers and enthusiasts in order to understand the passion behind one of the most fascinating and evolving plants and why the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve in the Everglades was the most fertile ground for these marvelous plants. Orlean describes Laroche as a tall and thin man whose greed was fueled by his understanding of loop-holes and taking advantage of them. Orlean describes Laroche as the “most moral amoral person” she has ever known. While on trial, “Frankly, Your Honor”, Laroche said, “I’m probably the smartest guy I know” (Orlean 6-8).

The structure of The Orchid Thief is primarily chronological with flashbacks throughout time to describe early orchid enthusiasts and legal cases. Sometimes entire chapters are devoted to the orchid species and subspecies or the many people who have encapsulated themselves in this flower. However, every other chapter, Orlean returns to her mid-1990s adventure with John Laroche. This non-fiction book is segmented in order to have the reader slowly understand the passion some orchid botanists have, or just passion in general. We learn of John Laroche’s past loves with many subjects. From turtles, to anthropology, mirrors, fish; each time he losing interest in that particular subject after he masters it. These two aspects allow the book to be able to tell the world that there is such a bombastic creature as John Laroche—as crazy as he is—who fought the system to fight for his belief, his right to take advantage of others through loopholes. Then only wanting to close these loopholes to protect his own business and the Everglades. At the same time, we are given a history and botany lesson on orchids.

Orlean’s approach to The Orchid Thief is a romantic non-fiction book. She goes out of her way, literally, to search for the passion others have for orchids, to see what they see. She follows John Laroche and talks to many other orchid experts to learn why this passion is so extreme. She discusses how some orchid hunters in the past have gone through tremendous journeys, some never returning to find just one orchid (Orlean 55). She too begins to fall into the passionate trap that orchids have on the human species. In the final chapter she asks Laroche to escort her though the Fakahatchee Strand swamp to find and see the Ghost orchid for her own eyes. She unravels the mystery of orchids herself and later emits to having a few in her own home. This approach is famous of Orlean, to not just report the subject objectively, but to be a part of the subject. She writes from her own experiences and research to captivate the audience by inviting her readers into her past few years with orchids.

Orlean’s influence on the book is that of participating observer. She becomes engulfed in Laroche’s world, even learning in great depth to further her understanding of the passion behind orchids. The point of view switches from first-person narrative through Orlean’s perspective with certain chapters using omniscience to explain her research of the history and make-up of orchids. These points of view allows the reader to understand orchids more through the eyes of an orchid virgin, someone who at first did not understand the beauty and complexity of orchids. This point of view contributes to the vision of the story by introducing the world of orchid collecting to someone who has no prior experience or interest in orchids and further explain the romantic vision of orchids.

This book features both Latinate and Anglo-Saxon/Germanic diction. Since many chapters are discussing and reporting the many differences in each orchid sub-species, Latin words are used to provide their scientific classification. However, since Orlean follows John Laroche who, despite having a wide depth of knowledge and high vocabulary, he does not mask his personality behind the same Latinate words when he converses with Orlean candidly and uses many strict and strong Germanic words. The diction is very formal, as Orlean is has written for The New Yorker on several occasions. Slang is only used when Laroche is speaking. A large amount of word usage is botanist lingo.

Orlean’s descriptions are certainly not at all basic or short. She describes many plants and locations in depth to allow the reader to join her on her mission. Early in her book she described her feelings of Laroche’s case before she even stepped into Florida. She explained, “sometimes this kind of story turns out to be something more, some glimpse of life that expands like those Japanese paper balls you drop in water and then after a moment they bloom into flowers, and the flower is so marvelous that you can’t believe that there was a time when all you saw in front of you was a paper ball and a glass of water” (Orlean 6-7).

The diction of this book contributes to the story by providing both a scientific look at the world of orchids that surrounds the historical and legal battles that have surfaced. Orlean provides us with the fascinating life of John Laroche and the legal battle that he faces. In order to continue to unravel this mystery, she must discuss the history of orchids and previous legal cases.

The Orchid ThiefMuch like any bestseller, there was interest in her book in becoming a movie (Orlean xvi), and producers had explained that scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) was in the process of adapting her book, as seen in the film. He explains in the film Adaptation that he wanted to retain Orlean’s vision, a book about flowers and passion, rather than adding the sex and thrills of conventional Hollywood films. In the film he explains his vision of as “[wanting] the movie to exist, rather than be artificially plot driven” to the producer interested in the adapted material. Kaufman ultimately challenged himself to adapting the book in to a faithful representation on film.

One of the first challenges that Kaufman faced, was the extraordinary amount of historical and scientific fact in the book. One of Kaufman’s first attempts at a beginning for the script is by introducing life and evolution with a series of montages with the wax and wane of life. Dinosaurs are destroyed by an asteroid smashing into earth, rivers create canyons, animals die and are eaten away by insects, flowers bloom and die, and children are born. He uses this montage to answer his character’s own question of his mortality. Another challenge was the common business versus art aspect of filmmaking. Kaufman poses this question in a unique way, by having both the producers and his sex-crazed agent played by Ron Livingston, constantly begging for the script to be finished. All the while, he tries to retain his artistic vision in adapting Orlean’s artistic vision, so it could be produced and sold to make millions. He also writes himself into the script–struggling to adapt the book–along with a fictitious twin-brother who is inspired by Charlie to become a screenwriter. One of the last challenges is the simple fact that the book finishes without a proper Hollywood ending. Just Laroche and Orlean finding their car after being lost in the Fakahatchee swamp. With all these challenges stacked up for Kaufman, the ability to imitate Orlean’s style into script form would be a difficult task.

In real life, Charlie Kaufman is skinny, with a head full of curly hair and married with children. However, in Adaptation, he is a fat, balding, single and absolutely miserable, despite his success with writing Being John Malkovich, played by Nicholas Cage . He lives with his twin-brother, Donald, also played by Nicholas Cage. Donald is more outgoing, suave with the ladies and has gorgeous locks of hair. While Charlie must continue on with the hardships of adapting The Orchid Thief, his brother decides he too wants to begin a screenwriting career and enrolls into Robert McKee’s famous screenwriting workshop and purchases the book Story. Here Charlie and Donald are extreme opposites, a microcosm of Hollywood and cinema, of art and business, of intellect and ignorance, “technology versus the horse” as Donald explains. Charlie writes for the love of art and to expand his and others minds. Donald is simply in it for the money and extravagant lifestyle, and includes many famous and often used clichés to write his script, The 3. Donald constantly uses many of the principles that McKee provides in his book. Even discussing his uses of these elements and how Donald plans to implement them into his script with Charlie. All the while Charlie continues to struggle with his script with flowers.

Charlie begins the script with several false starts, but slowly begins to write the narrative of The Orchid Thief in a faithful manner. He writes the script and begins to understand the world of orchids, Orlean and Laroche while he struggles to interact with the many women in his life, particularly Amelia, failing miserably each time. Throughout most of the first half of the film, Kaufman uses voice-over narration to describe Charlie’s thoughts and Orlean’s word-for-word writings in order to move both plots along.

As Charlie continues to battle himself in writing the script, Donald finds women, friendships and the muse to allow him to complete his Hollywood thriller The 3. This increases Charlie’s frustration, sending him to New York to meet with Susan Orlean in person, only to cower away. He then attends the same Robert McKee workshop Donald attends. This sequence is when both Kaufman and Charlie end their voice-over narration in the script after Robert McKee explains, “God help you, if you use voice-over narration in your scripts, my friends. It’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voice-over narration, to explain the thoughts of a character.” The voice-over narration ends at that moment and so does any truth to plotline involving Susan or John. Charlie finally understands that screenplays require certain elements that would drive the plot forward for a coherent film, and a film about flowers or where nothing happens, is not a story. Charlie, as a last resort, asks Donald to help him with the script. At this moment, everything that Charlie worked hard to retain falls away as Donald’s viewpoint of writing scripts takes center stage.

Kaufman adds a love story between John and Susan even the use of drugs extracted from the Ghost orchid. This is a complete violation of Charlie’s initial idea not to artificially add these tired conventions when he discusses the book with his producer early in the film. Kaufman adds the story arc of Laroche being hired by the Seminoles to find and clone the Ghost orchid, to extract an ecstasy-inducing drug which is fictitiously a tradition in the Seminole tribes. The love story between Susan and John grows as Susan begins to abuse this drug and finding extreme sadness in John’s life, and emits pity for him.

Donald and Charlie find that John has been using Susan on his pornography website and the two head to South Florida to investigate their findings. Susan and John find Charlie sneaking around their house and capture him. They lead him to the Fakahatchee swamp where Charlie is saved by Donald, the two then escape into the forest where they hide until morning. During their hiding Donald and Charlie have an emotional discussion about their behaviors. Charlie reminds Donald of a time where Donald was being made fun of behind his back. Donald responds, “you are what you love, not what loves you”.

In the morning, Donald and Charlie head out of the swamp where John accidentally shoots Donald in the arm. The Kaufmans drive away until they hit another car sending Donald flying out of the front window to his death. Charlie then sings “Happy Together”, a song that has been referenced throughout the film to introduce a sense of comic relief, but Donald dies. Charlie runs into the swamp as Susan and John begin to chase him again. John, moments before shooting Charlie is attacked and killed by an alligator.

The film ends with Charlie and Amelia discussing Donald’s death, and Charlie finally gaining the courage to tell Amelia that he loves her. Kaufman/Charlie begin to use voice-over narration again in to describe that he has an idea how to finish the script; having Charlie know how to finish the script. He mentions that McKee would disapprove of his voice-over narration, but doesn’t care. The film ends with Charlie driving away and the camera descends down the middle of a busy downtown street with a planter with flowers. Slowly the frame-rate increases as the flowers blow in the wind, then faster as we see the changes of night and day, the flowers growing and responding to photosynthesis.

Charlie Kaufman’s style in adapting Orlean’s work is surreal and drastic compared to the book. Orlean’s book is a report on an interesting issue and a comment on loop-holes, flowers and passion. Kaufman’s adaptation becomes a satirical comment on Hollywood filmmaking in general and the use of conventions to hold a script and film together for an audience to enjoy. As Charlie sets down boundaries for his script, such as no sex, drugs, chase scenes and deus ex machina; he finds himself having to break these boundaries to solve a multitude of problems of adapting a non-fiction book into a coherent film.

In order to retain many of the facts and historical cases in the book, Kaufman and director Spike Jones use many fast-paced montages for several moments in the film. An example would be a montage of orchid hunters failing their missions to hunt orchids. Another would be flashbacks and back-story of Laroche’s life.

While the plot of Orlean researching Laroche for her story and book is still accurate, Kaufman took liberties with some events, but faithfully represented many of Laroche’s statements and mannerisms in the script. Kaufman even mentions and examines the book’s lack-luster ending as a New Yorker signature, but an inappropriate way to end a film. To combat this, Kaufman broke his barrier and began to include the many elements he originally wanted to stay away from, such as sex, chase scenes, romance and cheap thrills. He wrote a fat, bald and miserable version of himself into the script (as well as a fictitious twin brother, Donald), and his misadventures with romance and women.

In order to provide for a classic Hollywood-style ending, the real Kaufman added a drug and love story to the Orlean/Laroche plot. In the book, Laroche reveals that if the State allows the Seminoles to keep the ghost orchid that he found in the Fakahatchee swamp, he could clone it for mass production and make millions. In the film, and although false, Orlean stumbles upon the Seminoles using a green power extracted from the ghost orchid as a drug, to induce feelings of euphoria and love. Laroche was hired by the Seminoles to mass clone the orchid to extract this drug. Charlie and Donald Kaufman follow Orlean as she visits Laroche for weekends of sex and drugs. The film ends with Charlie and Donald being chased by Orlean and Laroche for uncovering their affair and scandal.

Essentially Kaufman, the real one, failed at faithfully replicating The Orchid Thief in the purists’ sense. However, he maintained the same themes and motifs or expounded on them. Passion was explained fully in the book as Orlean describes the industry of orchids. She lists several of the known deaths and disappearances of orchid hunters, and the many legal cases and urban legends and native myths about orchids. Kaufman and director Spike Jones use rapid images to incorporate many of the deaths into a tightly edited montage. This technique of using montage to express the division of space and time in narration is widely used in Hollywood filmmaking industry.

The successes of Kaufman’s script are the elements of love and passion. John Laroche, both in the film and the book has many passions that have come and gone. He wanted a place to belong and be loved. So attaining mastership in the subjects gave him knowledge and notoriety. He explains that when he had his nursery, some would come from all over to marvel at his flowers and of course, him. The death of his mother and his ex-wife leaving him, Laroche continued to look for something that would continually love him. Having expertise in whatever subject he chooses would suffice. In the film, his love affair with Susan is also adequate. Susan Orlean wanted to know what it was like to have love, passion and excitement for such things as orchids. In the film, she is portrayed as a wife falling away from her husband and becoming a drug addict with the Ghost extract.

Charlie wanted to be loved and complete the adaptation without the artificial elements to drive its plot. In the scene where Donald and Charlie are hiding from Susan and John, Donald says that “you are what you love, not who loves you”. This statement sums up the themes of both the film and the book. Having passion for something is what makes you who you are, a unique person. Charlie loved Amelia, although he knew she was not interested. He also loved challenges, such as writing the adaptation to The Orchid Thief. John Laroche loved many things which he wanted to engulf himself into each subject he attempted to master.

Just as Orlean’s book ends with Laroche and Orlean leaving the swamp behind and continuing on with their lives, Kaufman does a similar move, with Charlie driving away in his car, and the camera gracefully falling behind a planter of flowers. This shot is then given an ever-increasing frame rate where we see the flowers moving to the wind, reacting to photosynthesis from the daylight and night time. This ending shot represents the same ending paragraph the book, leaving of a previous love for the spontaneity of tomorrow. Leaving the past behind to experience the new. Laroche was done with flowers, he had a flowering pornographic website to maintain. Orlean wanted to move to her next subject. Donald was dead. Charlie, drives away with his first feelings of hope toward the future.

Although each character had their own fate, Kaufman had to break his own commitment in staying true to the book and self-referenced his adapting process into the script for Adaptation. Essentially, the film became a highly-fictionalized account of Kaufman’s struggle writing the adaptation. This poses the question: Is Adaptation a true adaptation of The Orchid Thief?

Kaufman uses Orlean’s narration and facts in its own plotline, however he deviates from truth to correctly finish the script. He includes a twin-brother, a drug and a love affair, all that do not exist in reality. All these elements were artificial in order to deliver a script that could be produced and exploited for profit, just like Laroche’s plan in cloning Ghost orchids in both reality and in the film.

Charlie Kaufman writing AdaptationDespite Donald not being a factual person, Charlie Kaufman included his name as a co-writer of the film. Adaptation was nominated Best Adapted Screenplay for the Academy Awards and won from several other institutions during the 2003 award season (Wikipedia). Each nomination included Donald Kaufman as a co-writer, and is considered the first fictional nominee that is not an alias for real person. It is debatable whether Adaptation belongs in the Adapted Screenplay category or if it should be included as an original screenplay. Since the script uses source information from Orlean’s book and includes its own fictional account, the solution is not clear and can go either way.

Essentially, Adaptation is a unique hybrid. It is one of the successes that Kaufman has created in his attempt at adapting The Orchid Thief. Charlie explained early in the film that writers should always have the “goal of reaching for something new. The journey into the unknown.” Kaufman expanded his style of scriptwriting into an unknown area and exited with an intellectual journey that takes us in and out of reality to form a new understanding of love and passion. In comparing the book to the film, the most faithful representation is the themes of love and passion, as this is also an important issue in Orlean’s book.



Works Cited

  • Adaptation. By Charlie Kaufman. Dir. Spike Jonze. Perf. Nicholas Cage, et al. 2002.
  • Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief. New York: The Random House Publishing, 2002.
  • Wikipedia, the free Encylopedia. List of fictitious Academy Award nominees. 7 October 2007. 5 December 2007