So on Monday, I attended my first screening in my Books on Film Club. Our first book was The Orchid Thief which was (very loosely) adapted into the film Adaptation.
I had planned on reading the book before the screening, and I tried, I swear. But The Orchid Thief is incredibly dense. It’s a non-fiction book about, literally, orchids. Susan Orlean wrote an article in The New Yorker about John Laroche, an orchid enthusiast who was arrested for stealing endangered plants from the Floridian swamps. The bits with John and his obsession were interesting and the book, as a whole, is very well-written. But there are whole chapters dedicated to the various species of orchids, the numerous orchid enthusiasts throughout history, the geography of Florida, etc. I just couldn’t make it through the whole book in time. It just wasn’t gripping enough for me. I had never seen Adaptation, but I was vaguely aware of it and had no idea how this book was going to translate into an Oscar-nominated film.
Confession: I didn’t really get the movie right after watching it. It’s hard to describe, but basically the movie is about Charlie Kaufman (the actual screenwriter for Adaptation) trying to adapt the book The Orchid Thief into a major motion picture. He realizes that the book doesn’t translate well and gets major writer’s block that is only broken when he writes HIMSELF, and his struggle with writing the screenplay, into the movie.
It may sound confusing and convoluted, especially once you’re introduced to Charlie’s (fictional) twin brother Donald, but I was actually able to follow the story fairly well. I did, however, find myself at about the halfway point of the film going, “how on earth is he going to end this thing??” It wasn’t until we got to that ending that the film lost me. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but suffice to say it was pretty much a 180 in the tone of the film and actually had me turning to my friend and whispering, “WHAT IS HAPPENING?! THIS MOVIE IS EFFIN CRAZY.”
The lights came up, I sat there slightly puzzled, and then the evenings moderators took the stage to engage in a discussion of the book and film and how the two measured up. It was like being back in film class, except without any grades to worry about. I was in heaven. Our guest speaker for the evening was Linda Hutcheon, a professor at U of T who is, for all intents and purposes, an expert on the art of adaptation. And as she sat there dissecting the film, it was like a light going off over my head. I got it. I suddenly got it. Donald and Charlie were both aspects of the REAL Charlie! Film-Charlie represented Real-Charlie’s desire to stay true to the source material, while Film-Donald represented his need to compromise in order to make a Hollywood film! And that ending, the one that confounded and confused me? It was a culmination of all the things that Film-Charlie swore up and down at the beginning that he wouldn’t put in his screenplay! Brilliant! Incredible! I love it! I was having a nerdgasm right there in the audience.
The more we talked about it, the more I got into it. Linda Hutcheon mentioned how much she enjoyed books and movies about the creation of art and I realized, I do too. I love TV shows about the making of TV shows; I love books about the art of writing a book; And I LOVE movies about making movies. We discussed the depiction of the writer in cinema, compared Laroche’s obsession with orchids to Kaufman’s obsession with the screenplay, and even got into deus ex machina and how incredibly uncreative and lazy it’s usually seen as being, but how in this movie it’s self-referential and amazing: Kaufman seeks advice on his screenplay from a veteran screenwriter and is told, in no uncertain terms: “Find an ending, but don’t cheat, and don’t you dare bring in a deus ex machina.” And yet, this advice, in and of itself, is not unlike a deus ex machina. HOLY CRAP, FILM/WRITING NERDERY, I LOVE IT SO MUCH.
Now? Now I love the movie. I’m dying to rewatch it with all my new nerdy film knowledge. And despite my indifference to most things Jane Austen (I’m sorry, I just can’t seem to get into any of her novels. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is phenomenal though!) I am awful excited to read/watch/compare Mansfield Park in two weeks.