“I passed so many vacant acres and looked past them to so many more vacant acres and looked ahead and behind at the empty road and up at the empty sky; the sheer bigness of the world made me feel lonely to the bone. The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.”
- Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief
Last year, I read Susan Orlean’s account of her time spent with the eccentric orchid thief John Laroche. Somehow, I’ve only just now realized that Charlie Kaufman (of Being John Malkovich fame) had attempted to translate Orlean’s story to the screen, resulting in 2002’s Adaptation, the mind-bogglingly meta exploration of his own struggle with the creative process. It’s a wonderful clash of Kaufman’s inner whining artist and the artistically-bankrupt alter ego in his twin character, Donald (who steers the entire second half of the film into an explosion of fun outlandish Hollywood drama). It’s a great - if disorienting - followup to an excellent read.
I loved Orlean’s book for the exact reason Kaufman’s character seemed incapable of adapting it to screen without compromise - it really is just around 300 pages of that beautiful “sprawling New Yorker shit.” Likewise, I loved Adaptation for it’s ability to turn Kaufman’s neurotic struggle into a commentary on artistic integrity. And for its willingness to not-so-gently take the piss, if you will, on both its audience and writers, as a once nuanced plot suddenly turns on its head to revel in every cliched Hollywood stereotype possible.
Mostly, though, I loved it because through all his absurd plot twists and angst-ridden characters, Kaufman (the real writer, not his fictionalized self) ultimately manages to pull off that same “sprawling shit” wonder Orlean’s personal journalism does. He busies an engrossed audience with another character’s painful plotlines, and suddenly, quietly, we know everything he could never really say about himself.