ad·ap·ta·tion: Any change in the structure or functioning of an organism that makes it better suited to its environment. The Oxford Dictionary of Science
Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002) began life as an article. Written by Susan Orlean for The New Yorker in 1995, ‘Orchid Fever’ was about an eccentric orchid collector named John Laroche. By 1998 it evolved into The Orchid Thief; a book that chronicled Orlean’s journalistic investigation of Laroche, his court battles over orchid poaching, the world of orchid collectors, the history of orchid hunters, Seminole Indians, and a Florida land scam. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, hot Hollywood property since the purchase of his Being John Malkovich script, was commissioned to write the big-screen adaptation. He loved the book, but struggled to find the film hidden within. After months of false starts, Kaufman decided to write himself into the screenplay and make the story about his struggle to adapt the book. In addition to Orlean’s text, the film incorporates Robert McKee’s screenwriting manual Story and Charles Darwin’s seminal opus On the Origin of Species into its dense conceptual meta-fabric.
Adaptation is a rare gem—a once-in-a-lifetime kind of idea that invites the viewer into the process of its creation. Have you ever written the story of a writer who doesn’t know what to write about? I have, once, as a kid, and even back then I was certain I wasn’t its originator. What distinguishes Kaufman’s approach is that it utilises self-reflexivity not to eat itself up, but to integrate ideas about the structure of organisms and screenplays, of people and their art. The title alone refers to biology, psychology and intertextuality.
The film’s story jumps between timelines the way a screenwriter’s mind inevitably must when attempting to organise ideas. Chronologically, it shows John Laroche (Chris Cooper) poaching orchids from a state reserve with the help of Seminole Indians. The trial that ensues attracts the attention of Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), who spends time with Laroche to write an article and then a book about him. Introverted screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is contracted to adapt the book, but finds himself unable to structure Orlean’s often-tangential writing. His personal and professional failures are magnified by the chillaxed successes of twin brother Donald (also Cage), who attends the seminars of scriptwriting guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox). After Charlie stumbles on the idea of dramatising the adaptation process, the film’s final act introduces a sexual relationship between Orlean and Laroche, a ghost orchid drug, and an action climax that’s formulaic and ironic at the same time.
The masterstroke of Kaufman’s methodology is a cunning capacity to extract The Orchid Thief’s most interesting passages by virtue of creating a character with that very motivation. There are scenes in the film where Charlie simply reads the book to us while wondering how he could possibly convert a particular literary insight into the language of cinema. Some sections of the book are transposed and visualised literally, others become voiceover narration, devolve back into the dialogue from which they originally emerged, reappear mutated yet recognisable in a different part of the story. Most seamlessly, Kaufman utilises Susan Orlean’s writing style and John Laroche’s rhythms of speech to re-construct them as film characters. Even the screenplay’s most Hollywoodesque inventions evolve from its central source text. The romantic attraction between Susan and John transpires because of Orlean’s palpable zeal for Laroche as the subject of her journalistic prose. The ghost orchid drug evokes the addictiveness and obsessive nature of orchid-mania.
The book often portrays plant traits as exemplary, specifically in terms of Darwinian theory. Apart from their incredible adaptability, the lesson Kaufman extracts from orchids is cross-pollination. Orlean writes, ‘self-pollinating species endure, but don’t evolve or improve themselves’. By integrating McKee’s structural theories and Darwin’s ideas on evolution into his work, Kaufman breaches the gap between the structures of storytelling and existence. Intertextuality is his cross-pollination. What fascinates me is how much of what appears original in Adaptation can be traced back to The Orchid Thief. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in her introduction to the film’s published script, Susan Orlean concludes: ‘Strangely, marvellously, hilariously, [the movie’s] screenplay has ended up not being a literal adaptation of my book, but a spiritual one, something that has captured (and expanded on) the essential character of what the book, I hope, was about.’
One of the most subtle, seemingly un-adaptable concepts in the book is disappointment. In the film, Charlie discusses this very issue with Robert McKee, whose approach to screenwriting does not encapsulate dramatic notions of disillusionment. Hollywood filmmaking in general does not conceive of a non-epiphanic finale. Yet Kaufman’s resolution is intentionally anti-climactic. He writes a third act that, on the surface, contains the elements of action and suspense, but deep down only emphasises the fallacy of storytelling pyrotechnics. According to John Wrathall of Sight and Sound, Kaufman’s ‘failure is his triumph’. Violence, drugs, car chases and redemption cannot be utilised effectively within the context of his highly cerebral text; they are destined for a different type of intellectual ecology.
The difficulty with judging adaptations has always been an apples and oranges dilemma. Kaufman’s solution is to take a step back into a universal realm, what Charlie calls ‘a journey that unites each and every one of us’, and to utilise adaptation as our common ideological ancestor. By applying a Darwinian framework to the concept of screen adaptations, Kaufman compares biological networks to media. He suggests a text resembles an organism and a medium simulates an environment. Thus, a text being adapted from one medium to another is like an organism adapting to a new environment. This method of looking at adaptations provides a clue to the symbiotic relationship between a medium and the individual texts that populate it. After all, individual organisms often reshape their environments as much as they are shaped by the environmental forces — in this case, the structural and aesthetic differences between film and literature — that surround them.
‘Survival of the fittest’, the idiom most commonly associated with Darwinism, was actually coined by philosopher Herbert Spencer while drawing parallels between economic and biological theory. Darwin argued for the survival of the most adaptive. The species that can rise to the challenges of environmental change will thrive while those that cannot will wither. Integration, in this sense, is more important than strength. Re-applied, the theory suggests that only Orlean’s ‘most adaptive’ ideas can survive a screen adaptation of her work. In the same way, her most ‘cinematic’ passages — those that most naturally evoke powerful images in the reader’s mind — hold an advantage over her most ‘literary’ prose in acclimatising to film. My feeling is that Orlean’s most important ideas not merely survive being adapted to a different medium, but are strengthened by the process.
The vital difference between adaptations in nature and in texts is the human element. Nature holds no responsibility to the past. As Susan observes in the film, ‘plants have no memory’. Whatever traits or species survive, nature simply moves on. With texts, the adapter gets to play God. He controls the intricacies of transposition and his sensibilities shape the editorial, structural and aesthetic mutations undertaken by the text. Effectively, Kaufman’s decision to take a step back into a Darwinian framework interconnects his themes at a cellular level. On my part, by writing about the devolution and mutation of literary description; intertextuality as cross-pollination; intellectual ecology; a common ideological ancestor; the symbiotic relationship between a medium and the individual texts that populate it; the environmental forces that drive screen adaptations; and the acclimatisation of ideas from literature to film, I’ve endeavoured to extend Adaptation’s biological metaphor into blog-post form.