I finished Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief with about 20 minutes to spare before its film adaptation, aptly titled Adaptation , screened at TIFF Bell Lightbox this week. Spike Jonze’s 2003 collaboration with screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, was shown as the inaugural offering in a new series from TIFF and Random House Publishing Canada, called Books on Film Club. Series host, Eleanor Wachtel, of CBC’s Writers and Company , was on hand to discuss the two starkly different works, along with the author of Theories of Adaptation , Linda Hutcheon, and a packed theatre full of both book and film enthusiasts alike.

I had seen Adaptation a number of times before sitting down to read The Orchid Thief last week. Even Hutcheon admitted to reading the book, or what she refers to as “the original”Ā, after seeing the film. For her, this makes the original feel like the adaptation. She even heard Meryl Streep, the actress who plays Orlean in the film, in her head when she finally got to the book. This is a practice I don’t ordinarily follow because I cannot enjoy a book if I know exactly what is going to happen with each page I turn. Watching a film after reading a book is like watching that book come to life through the mind of a screenwriter and the eyes of a film director. It may not be what I imagined, but it isn’t my movie after all. Going the other way around “ā€œ film first, book second “ā€œ usually ends up feeling like all the creative decisions have already been made.

Getting out of his head.

Now, if you’ve had the pleasure of seeing Adaptation , then you already know that seeing the film before reading the book in this case, probably wouldn’t have too great an impact. When Kaufman was commissioned to adapt The Orchid Thief , he was just coming off his breakout script, Being John Malkovich , and thought it might be good to get out of his head for a while and into the head of another. Adapting Orlean’s novel proved to be far more difficult than he had originally anticipated and eventually, to spring himself out of his writer’s block, Kaufman wrote himself — and a non-existent twin brother — into the screenplay. So much for getting out of his head.

Having now read The Orchid Thief , I can fully appreciate how infuriating it must have been for Kaufman to adapt it. In the film, Kaufman’s character, played by Nicolas Cage, insists he wants to be true to the book, to honour its themes of obsession and desire, while not turning it into a Hollywood thing, with drugs and sex and character catharsis. And while Orlean’s first novel, an expansion of an article she wrote for The New Yorker, is certainly compelling and oddly consuming, it is really a book about flowers. At its core, The Orchid Thief centers around the title character, John Laroche (played in the film by Chris Cooper), a fascinating and bizarre specimen, who was awaiting trial for poaching plants from a Florida state park when Orlean first met him. As colorful as Laroche is, and he is referred to that way in the film often, he cannot fill a book. Subsequently, Orlean goes on sprawling tangents about different kinds of orchids, orchid thefts, orchid shows, orchid hunters and even how orchids managed to outlive the dinosaurs and how they will likely outlive us.

A critical look at the creative process.

Occasionally, Orlean’s habit of listing things becomes tiresome but, for the most part, The Orchid Thief communicates the author’s musings on loneliness, detachment and passion quite effectively, and often quite amusingly. The problem then arises when a screenwriter famed for forgoing plot in favour of character has to create an engaging storyline where there isn’t one to begin with, without sacrificing his principals. Fortunately, Kaufman’s writers block gives way for his genius to shine through. In order for Kaufman to successfully adapt Orlean’s book, he must embrace convention and work within the guidelines of his genre. In other words, he must do everything he has resisted in all of his writing. Instead of merely giving in however, Kaufman circumvents the expected trappings by making them work for him. Suddenly, Adaptation is a critical exposition of the studio system, an introspective look at social paralysis and a sharply comedic take on what it means to be a writer. Kaufman managed all this and yet somehow, still wrote a movie that is, in part, about flowers.

To do so, Kaufman himself had to adapt and, in doing so, he may have even created an all new genre. After all, it is difficult to call Adaptation an adapted screenplay. A great deal of it is fictionalized and the central character is never even mentioned in the book. One audience member at the screening, in fact it was the lady sitting immediately to my right, noted during the discussing period that the film had no business being referred to as an adapted screenplay. She felt that it could have been any book, that the book and its contents were just a device. That said, I overheard her say to the woman she was with that she only read the first chapter of The Orchid Thief so I’m not sure she is qualified to say as much. Still, she raises an interesting point but the truth is Adaptation was born from The Orchid Thief . If it were any other book, Kaufman’s interaction with it could have been entirely different. Like an actual orchid, Adaptation needed the very particular climate that The Orchid Thief provided in order to exist.

Books on Film continues…

The Books on Film Club series continues on February 28, when the club will be discussing Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park , following a screening of the 1999 film version, written and directed by Patricia Rozema. Rozema will join Wachtel for this discussion. Subscriptions to the remaining five screenings in the series are still available for purchase. Subscriptions bought now will include an extra ticket for a friend to join you for one of the screenings. You can now also purchase individual tickets to the screenings if you are not interested in the complete series.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a strong urge to purchase an orchid.