THE MAFIA OF NERDS: Making The Orchid Thief into Adaptation

Nicolas Cage with author Susan Orlean.

Originally published in Vigilance, December 2002.

I held cautious high hopes for Adaptation, the new film from writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze who had previously collaborated on Being John Malkovich. I hadn’t liked their earlier film, yet it was just not bad enough to dismiss. Malkovich had an enchanted, whimsical quality and strong performances from everyone save the title character. Their new movie stars Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper; it takes as a point of departure Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, a nonfiction account of Florida’s thriving black market for rare and endangered plant species.

The most I can say for Adaptation is that Streep (who plays Orlean) and Cooper (who plays John Laroche, the real-life snaggle-toothed outlaw horticulturist of the book’s title) have genuine chemistry. You can see how her detached New York journalist grows to relish the company and skewed wisdom of his scrappy little swamp-crawler, a man who says, “When you spot your flower, you can’t let anything get in your way.” Yet aside from their early scenes together, the movie fails on every conceivable level and on a few that are inconceivable. Jonze and Kaufman are solely to blame. Using Orlean’s book as a springboard for a plethora of repugnant, trivial, and witless observations about the creative process, their Adaptation comments on the infantilization of movies by itself being an infantile movie; to this end Cage and Streep (after a gun-toting chase through Fakahatchee Swamp) hurl insults at each other that might sound more appropriate coming from adolescents, “You, you fat creep, you,” etc.

If the film had actually been about Laroche and the tropical torpor of his illegal orchid-poaching pyramid schemes (he dreamt of making millions by cloning rare plants that flourish under swamp conditions), we might have had a deft comedy of the sort Jonathan Demme once made, a Melvin and Howard–esque look at the cutthroat, back-stabbing competition of flower shows and obsessive collectors. The real subjects of Adaptation, however, are crassness and ineptitude. Demme, it turns out, is one of the co-producers of this patently self-conscious irony-fest.

While The Orchid Thief isn’t a great book by any stretch (it’s often repetitive and feels padded by an excess of historical detail), Orlean accomplishes a character study so compelling that the book suffers when Laroche isn’t on the page. The filmmakers jettison much from Orchid Thief that would have translated well to the screen, including this non sequitur: “…he said the most awful things…I asked him what his current girlfriend did and he said, ‘She’s a bitch’—and then a minute later he bragged that she was incredibly smart and had been in medical school before she took her current sales position at Miami Subs.”

Subtlety isn’t what Jonze and Kaufman are after. Watching this willfully, aggressively awful film flop, plop, and disintegrate before my eyes, I came away with the impression that Jonze—one of the “creators” of MTV’s Jackass as well as the son-in-law of Francis Ford Coppola—must be surrounded by people who tell him he’s great all the time. That might account for the bullying hipster petulance that sinks Adaptation from the first frame. He’s constructed the kind of bad movie that people might be afraid to admit they don’t like or didn’t understand, lest they risk being branded as “squares.” All throughout, Jonze and Kaufman keep nudging us in the ribs—are you hip to the joke? Are you hip to our superiority to this material? Don’t you get it? Jonze indulges in nose-thumbing to the extent that we’re meant to snicker along with him in a scene where Cage, who’s too choked-up to speak, makes a cell phone call to the mother of a man who’s just been killed. With sadomasochistic queasiness, the sequence jeers at itself for being phony and at any viewer who might be appalled. What’s the purpose of this? Is Jonze tossing a spitball at stark emotion or at how movies represent emotion? Does he honestly believe that the average filmgoer pays $7-10 to sit in the dark and wallow in smug detachment from what happens on-screen? Aren’t we there to be moved or thrilled or gripped somehow? The director’s cynicism is as sickening as his attempts at humor are flat and obvious. And in spite of his incessantly jokey tone, Jonze doesn’t shy away from depicting pointless violence—in fact, he lingers over it, such as in a brutal sequence where Laroche’s family is wiped out in a car accident.

As for Kaufman, he’s penned a lugubriously self-referential screenplay featuring not one but two fantasy versions of his ego; Cage portrays both “Charlie Kaufman” and his fictitious twin brother Donald. For most of the movie we watch Charlie struggle with writer’s block in adapting Orchid Thief. After a while, I wondered why doesn’t he just go talk to Orlean; ah, but then there would be no Adaptation. And Donald, a novice screenwriter, freeloads at his brother’s house devising a dreadful pulpy thriller that becomes a hot property as Charlie treads angst like swamp water. Charlie, who constantly frets over his receding hairline, must be intended to represent high art (based on what—Being John Malkovich?); he doesn’t want to sacrifice the integrity of Orlean’s book by reshaping it in Hollywood terms—a love angle, action violence, drug use—yet in his desperation to “dramatize” Laroche’s life, he does precisely that. Jonze and Kaufman clearly intend the destruction of a literary work as a simile for something. Like what?


The final third of Adaptation slogs through such toxic levels of sleaziness and shame you may feel as if your soul needs a colonic. How could the real-life Susan Orlean (who still writes for The New Yorker) accept the Streep Orlean’s declaration that “I lied in my book and in my life”? After a screening of the finished film a few months ago, Streep reportedly asked Orlean “…for her forgiveness and understanding for the liberties we took with her name and reputation.” Yet the author apparently enjoys being John Malkovich-ized. Orlean concedes that The Orchid Thief “…has become more of a character in the movie than the actual basis for the movie.” I can’t imagine, nonetheless, that the readers who made her book a bestseller are going to cozy up to such a conceptually rancid screen version.

In the film, as in the tome, Orlean states, “I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately.” For this yearning, an archetypal response to life’s emptiness, Jonze and Kaufman trash Orlean: she abandons journalistic distance to become addicted to an orchid-derived cocaine with which Laroche supplies her. (Is this so Orlean can match the filmmakers’ stoner mentality?) The embarrassing finale—rendering how Donald would end Charlie’s script—has Laroche and Orlean shacked up and plotting to kill Charlie, who uncovers not only their affair but also a greenhouse of illegally obtained seedlings cultivated for the plants’ narcotic capacities.

On the author’s website, she professes to find Jonze’s film “amazing.” Given what a prostitute she’s made to be on-screen, it’s probably to her benefit not to come out against the film; she’d look doubly foolish. And how and to whom would Orlean protest? Nerdy little prigs weaned on Saturday Night Live skits are going to love this movie, and the insular cadre of hip that attends to the New Clothes of Jonze and Kaufman will be waiting to inflict a scornful “Didn’t you get it?” to any voice of dissent. On a web page devoted to the scenarist (it’s called “Being Charlie Kaufman”) a maintenance minion who updates the site deems Orlean “really cool” for her above-stated reaction, adding, “…look at what Charlie and Spike have done to her book. You could hardly have blamed her if she’d freaked out somewhat.”

For all its indie posturing (or because of it), Adaptation succeeds only as an experiment in cinematic tyranny, roughly the equivalent to George W. Bush saying, “You’re either with us or with the terrorists.” The Orchid Thief ends with this description of south Florida’s Fakahatchee Swamp, where much of the book’s narrative takes place (Jonze and Kaufman display neither interest in nor feeling for nature, by the way): “It was pure vivid gorgeousness, a bounty, a place so rich no one could help but pass through it and say to himself, I will find something here.” And that is a small measure of what Adaptation tosses. — NPT

November 2002