When I was working as a maid in Yosemite National Park, a departing guest left a stack of New Yorker magazines. An article in one of them struck me with its depth of understanding and command of the English language. It chronicled the life of an orchid collector in south Florida who had been arrested for stealing rare, endangered orchids from federal land, most notably the Ghost orchid. The author, Susan Orlean, was so fascinated by this collector's story that she lengthened the article into a book, "The Orchid Thief." Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is considered a master of the narrative-style human profiles and one of our modern-day writerly wonders.
As happens with many popular books, the movie rights to "The Orchid Thief" were sold and a screenplay developed. Instead of being the story of "The Orchid Thief," however, "Adaptation" (Columbia Pictures, 2002) becomes a story about screenwriter Charles Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) who becomes entranced with Orlean (Meryl Streep) who, as we know, is entranced with orchid thief John Laroche (Chris Cooper) who is, as I mentioned, entranced with "collecting" orchids. Oh, and during the story, we're introduced to Kaufman's (fictional) twin brother, Donald Kaufman, also played by Cage.
With "Adaptation," the duo responsible for the fabulously twisted "Being John Malkovich," director Spike Jonze and writer Charles Kaufman, take the viewer on parallel paths. One path is the presumably true story of balding, frustrated, introverted screenwriter Kaufman, struggling for almost the entire film to figure out a way to turn a book about flowers and passion into a movie that does the book's prose justice. His brother, Donald, after a screenwriting seminar, has little trouble cranking out a screenplay his Hollywood producers love that is full of swagger, violence and sex.
The other path is the story of Orlean and Laroche as she follows him through the swamps of Florida in search of an elusive flower, perhaps a beautiful metaphor for the elusive passion in her own life. She eventually finds both with the help of the tooth-challenged (yet somehow still toothsome) Laroche.
When these two paths converge it is no wonder that so many car crashes occur.
Within the first two-thirds of the film I had already firmly planted "Adaptation" in my top 10 favorites-of-all-times list. Spike Jonze created scenes supposedly shot on the set of "Being John Malkovich" and hilarious voice-overs that sound like the inside of my own head when faced with a blank page.
Although Streep and Cage are phenomenal and worthy of every word of praise thrown their way, Cooper steals the show. He becomes the embodiment of sex, power and psychosis, even without his front teeth—and won an Oscar for his effort.
The last 20 minutes revert to some ironic (and yet ultra-realistic) action and violence; even this part is done with artistic purpose, although I found the end a bit disappointing. Overall, however, I couldn't help but feel that Jonze and Kaufman had done it again, maybe even better this time around.