In 2002, the book was the inspiration for the movie ‘Adaptation’, in which Meryl Streep plays Susan Orlean, Chris Cooper plays John Laroche , the poacher, and Nicholas Cage brings to life the twin characters of Charlie and Donald Kaufman; in real life, Charlie Kaufman has written the screenplay. The meta character of the film talks about Charlie’s challenges whilst trying to adapt the book for the silver screen, in that it is almost a semi autobiographical memoir of sorts.
The character of Laroche has many interesting shades; here is a man obsessive about creating a clone of the extraordinary Ghost Orchid, to reap rich benefits; the catch is that they grow in an elusive swampland which is Seminole (a Native American Tribe) Territory, the Natives use an extract from the flower for illegal drug use. John takes advantage of the Seminoles’ legal right to use their own ancestral property as they will - and ropes in members of the community to help him out.
His passion is evident when he asks Susan whether she knows why he likes plants:
“You know why I like plants? Because they're so mutable. Adaptation is a profound process. Means you figure out how to thrive in the world.”
Perhaps that sets the cadence for the film - the means of finding out how to succeed in the world. ‘Adaptation’ quibbles over the Darwinian principle of how to adapt, as opposed to how to evolve; it is extrapolated to the excruciating course taken to adapting The Orchid Thief into screenplay.
In the movie, Charlie assays the character of Laroche at great length, but is unable to find more ‘meat’ to adapt this character for the screen; he is also unable to represent the breathtaking beauty of the orchid visually. Since the book is more of reportage, it lacks the inherent drama required for a movie, and therein lies the challenge for Charlie, who suffers from a case of prolonged writer’s block.
Dealing with his own personal demons - depression, social phobia, self loathing - Charlie struggles to create an impact on Amelia Kavan (played by Cara Seymour; Hotel Rwanda, Gangs of New York), his own diffidence and insecurities act as a barrier, keeping him from her, although she is undoubtedly interested in him.
The opening voice over waxes eloquent about Charlie’s copious foibles - bald pate, lack of talent, least enviable body etc. His monozygotic twin Donald, also an aspiring writer, with far less talent yet tons more confidence, chooses to make Charlie the subject of his writing, fascinated with the sibling’s ‘chalk’ to his ‘cheese’ existence. The bi polar character he writes about has shades of the twins, except that it is a madman and woman, wrapped in one - to Charlie’s utter bewilderment, he wonders how Donald would get them together in the same scene - ‘when one has the other locked in the basement’. However, Donald’s “clichéd psycho-thriller” sells for a million bucks, as the ink starts to flow from Charlie’s end – unconsciously referring to his own life and times throughout the screenplay.
Charlie’s much thumbed copy of The Orchid Thief, resplendent with yellow post-its and neon highlights, gives him sleepless nights, not only because the gauntlet jeers at him, but also because he fancies himself besotted with Susan, whom he calls to mind in a state of euphoric self gratification.
These three characters are primary to the story line, the shades to their person, their anxieties, their joys and trials are what pepper the script-not the usual sex, action and car chases. However one may try and avoid the pitfall of ‘formula’- it is almost impossible. And when Donald, posing as Charlie meets Susan (the latter gets cold feet, and returns), he feels something is amiss. The two follow Susan to Florida, only to discover Laroche and her in the throes of Ghost Orchid-drug-induced passion.
A violent car chase ensues, with Donald getting killed and Susan being arrested, in case you’re wondering about Laroche - an alligator got to him before the police did. With Donald gone, Charlie picks up the pieces of his life, and writes the screenplay, with Gérard Depardieu in mind.
The film won nominations for Streep, Cage and Cooper at the 56th British Academy Film Awards; while at the 75th Academy Awards, Cooper was awarded in the Best Supporting Actor category. Interestingly, Donald Kaufman is the only fictitious character to have been nominated for an Oscar!