Sunday, May 9, 2010

#21: The Orchid Thief

There is an inherent danger in adapting any book into a feature-length film. This is doubly true when the book's subject is flowers. So when Charlie Kaufman transformed Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession into a screenplay (and, eventually, into a film directed by Spike Jonze), naysayers had plenty of reason to be skeptical. That movies rarely live up to the books on which they are based is one of the most pervasive truisms in both literature and film; but where tradition dictated one trajectory, Kaufman took the road less traveled.

2002's Adaptation was, alternately, a narcissistic endeavor of self-absorption by a screenwriter who failed both to appreciate the book's subject matter and translate it into a compelling narrative, or a revelatory piece of meta-fiction, in which the film itself appears to be an unfolding work in progress even as the viewer watches it. Middle ground is scarce when it comes to Adaptation (and, more generally, Charlie Kaufman as a creative artist); it may be revered or loathed, but rarely dismissed.

Notwithstanding the ubiquitous axioms, I never believed the book would live up to this particular movie. And well before I had actually finished reading The Orchid Thief, it was quite clear that comparing the two is a near impossibility. Adaptation is as much concerned with orchids as The Orchid Thief is with, well, its adaptation, even though John Laroche, the thief of the book's title, plays a major role in the movie as well. Nevertheless, it must be stated that, bucking historical trends, the movie beats the book.

It is unclear why someone thought it would be a good idea to turn a meandering reflection on Florida, Seminole Native Americans, eccentric white men with loose teeth, and a shared passion for orchids -- hunting orchids, buying orchids, selling orchids, naming orchids, growing orchids, cloning orchids -- into a 114-minute movie. Contemporary cinema tends to adhere to narrative arcs, comprehensible characters, and plausible events (at least within the context of the film's universe, whether that be modern-day New York or a galaxy far, far away). What it generally shies away from are stories with no real ending and whose meatiest content is reserved for fastidious descriptions of orchid flowers and lengthy digressions into the history of their commercialization.

In fact, what Kaufman nobly managed to do, regardless of one's feelings on his method of arriving at his destination, was extract the one essential aspect of Orlean's book and turn it into the overriding theme of his screenplay. He prefers to think of it as evolution or adaptation; but more simply, The Orchid Thief is about passion. Orlean writes in the first person, noting early on that Laroche "is quite an unusual person. He is also the most moral amoral person I've ever known." The author peppers her accounts with seemingly random tidbits, as when she notes that "there are more golf courses per person in Naples than anywhere else in the world," a piece of trivia ostensibly thrown in precisely because she had mentioned the city. Little comments like this are scattered in bunches throughout the book, and many seem superfluous or, at the very least, unnecessarily detailed. Without them, The Orchid Thief would be a third of its actual length, but somehow one gets the feeling it would fail to retain its substance in their absence.

What, then, is its substance? Facially, The Orchid Thief is about a man accused of stealing orchids from federally protected land. More broadly, however, his is a parable of the shape that passions can take and the way in which virtually anything can serve as a muse for a perfectly suited person. Where it gets bogged down is in the essay-length forays into the history of orchids as commodities, needlessly expansive depictions of strands of conversation at orchid expositions, and other similarly elongated tales that seem gratuitous, although not necessarily incongruous in the context of the book as a whole. This is not to say that many parts of The Orchid Thief were not fascinating, because they were. However, while Charlie Kaufman quickly recognized that his screenplay would have to forfeit faithfulness to the content in favor of thematic fidelity, Susan Orlean appears to have missed a similar message in adapting the stories she lived and heard to the written page. Both works are flawed tributes to their predecessors: Kaufman plays God with facts, and Orlean refuses to discriminate her numerous segments for relevance. But if perfection is unattainable, one may as well be entertained, and the prize in that category goes to Adaptation, not The Orchid Thief.

No comments:

Post a Comment