Charlie Kaufman is a parasite, in the best - and most cinematic - sense of the word.
Hired to adapt Susan Orlean's nonfiction best seller, The Orchid Thief, for the screen, Kaufman - the writer responsible for the irrepressible Being John Malkovich - took the road decidedly less traveled.
After agonizing over how to bring Orlean's book to the screen (no easy task, given its disjointed narrative, unstructured structure and knack for veering off in whatever direction tickled the author's fancy), Kaufman essentially gave up. Then, instead of focusing on the story told in Orlean's book, he opted to focus on the hardships of adapting it to the screen.
"I was hired to write this adaptation," says Kaufman. "And I just couldn't figure how to do it. So I decided to write about that."
Kaufman cast himself as one of the central characters, played by Nicolas Cage, and Orlean as another, played by Meryl Streep. He invented a fictional twin brother for himself - a jollier, less angst-filled Cage - who's a hack screenwriter of the first order (he even gets a screenwriting credit for the film). Then Kaufman crafted a script that's as much about the creative process as about the perils of being John Laroche, the impassioned, inventive and pretty-much amoral protagonist of Orlean's book.
Using The Orchid Thief less as a blueprint for his movie than as a host organism from which it gains support, but not form, Kaufman called his movie Adaptation. His script is a rumination on passion and creativity, on individuality and risk-taking, on what it means to live a life piggybacking on the creativity of others.
And in the process, he created a movie more faithful to Orlean's book that any "straight" adaptation could have hoped to be.
The original story
Orlean's The Orchid Thief is nominally the story of Laroche, whose life consists of jumping from one passion to another, draining every drop of spiritual energy out of each pursuit, then simply casting it off and finding another subject on which to repeat the process. Before the events of the book, he had been obsessed with tropical fish, turtles, lapidary and mirrors. Here, he's turned his energies to orchids, collecting them, breeding them and even - as one might guess from the title - stealing them.
But the book is about far more than that. It's about the state of Florida, where Laroche has plied his various trades, and how it seems an environment peculiarly suited for such characters. It's about real-estate scams and orchid societies and fetid swamps and Seminole Indians clinging to the last remnants of their culture and geology and meteorology and the law. It's about Susan Orlean, who was (and remains) a writer on assignment for The New Yorker, who spends months and months and months soaking up the lifeblood that makes a man and his surroundings tick, then puts it all down on paper and earns a living telling the tale.
Charlie Kaufman's script for Adaptation is about all of this, too. Laroche, in the person of actor Chris Cooper, is a character, but he's merely a means to an end. Adaptation pays lip service to the bones that make up The Orchid Thief, but is far more interested in what's going on inside. In a way that few other film adaptations can rival, it's about the book - not the story, the book.
"If you're talking about an emotional truth, and also a kind of thematic and philosophical truth, then yeah, I would say it's a lot closer" to the essence of the book than a conventional adaptation would have been, Orlean says from her New York apartment. "In terms of the spirit of the book and the real theme of the book, which had more to do with longing and passion than the particular story of the orchid thief ... I feel that those were not only touched on, but expanded on and riffed on."
'True to both ideas'
Kaufman, who last month came to Washington with Cage and director Spike Jonze to promote the movie, has been notoriously reluctant to discuss the "meaning" of Adaptation, insisting upon leaving that up to the audience. But Jonze, when asked if the structure of the film and its unavoidably self-indulgent aspects is an intentional reflection of the book and its structure, is glad to ruminate a little.
"The connection to the way Susan wrote the book, and the artist calling attention to himself, those are ideas that are involved in the movie in a big way," says Jonze. "The idea is that you're watching this character write this movie that you're watching, but at the same time, you're taking that self-referential idea and then putting that as the setting for the movie. ... That's what the movie is all about."
"It's about the other thing, too," interjects Kaufman, being careful to not portray Adaptation as a movie more about ideas than characters (that would be giving away too much). "They are two things, and hopefully they both function equally."
"True, one can never be more important than the other," Jonze acknowledges. "We have to be true to both ideas."
Thus prodded, Kaufman elaborates a little. "I feel there are a lot of things the movie is about. ... Everything's hopefully connected and running through the movie. The self-consciousness of the movie is, to me, as essential as the issue of being truthful to the characters at the moment, which is as essential as the self-consciousness of the movie. It's not like two levels to me, it's two different things that are at the same level."
All of which may be a longhand way of saying you see in the movie what you see in the movie. But Kaufman is clearly trying something different here. Even the title of the movie works on different levels in different situations. Screenwriters adapt books; animals, via evolution, adapt to their surroundings; orchids, biological squatters that count on their host organisms for support, adapt so they can feed more proficiently.
Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter, simply adapted to the pressures of turning The Orchid Thief into a movie the best way he could figure how. "My energy was in my blockage," he says, insisting that his movie was more an act of desperation than of inspiration.
"It wasn't an intellectual decision, it was an emotional decision," he says.
Few who have ever grappled with the artistic muse would fail to sympathize.
"I thought the movie was a wonderful sort of meditation," says Orlean, "on just the way creative work gobbles up your brains."
And sometimes, the brains of a few other people as well.