The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession

This book is based, loosely, around the Florida orchid thief, John Laroche. Susan Orlean is a journalist who hears about his story and attempts to discover why he has become so obsessed with these flowers, and one in particular, the Ghost Orchid. Laroche is a fascinating and complex character. Susan Orlean is both attracted and repelled by this man and her description of him is amazing in its detail and ruthless in its honesty.

Initially written as an article for the New Yorker, the original story has been padded out to create a book. In my opinion, the ‘padding’ shows. I wanted to follow the story of Laroche and his companion Seminole Indians, and to follow Susan in her quest to see the Ghost Orchid growing in the swamps. But the background divergences kept throwing me out of the narrative. This is my main, and only, criticism of the book.

That is not to distract from the wealth of interesting detail that is covered: the escapades of the original orchid collectors, the feuds between orchid growers, the competitions, the rivalry and the nature of obsession, the incredible world of the Florida swamps. And, of course, the beauty of the plants themselves and their varied botanical features. The ending – with its unresolved quest and disappointed disillusionment – is superb.

What I learned as a writer

People are fascinating. Unless you are studying a topic for academic reasons, detailed descriptions of the natural world and historical events only become intensely interesting when framed around people. Even in non-fiction, characters are the key to a story.

Film adaptation of the Orchid Thief, Adaptation

The book, The Orchid Thief, has been adapted as a film, ingeniously entitled “Adaptation“, featuring Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper as John Laroche. The film is really the story of an introverted screenwriter’s struggle to turn Susan Orlean’s sprawling non-fiction book into a film.

As a writer, I loved the first part of the film.

Now, in the film, the struggling screenwriter has an extrovert twin-brother. This annoying twin churns out his first screen play, a ludicrous but action-packed script. It seems that this ridiculous twin takes over the ending of the Orlean’s film Adaptation. Surely that must be the only explanation for the turning point at which the film abandons any pretence at keeping to the facts of the book and shoots off into an entirely different direction. But, in the film, the only explanation for this strange diversion is that the screenwriter attended a much-hyped scriptwriting course.

The second part of the film degenerates into a meaningless farce – complete with gratuitous sex, drug taking, shoot-outs and crocodile attacks.

Indeed, if you didn’t know better, and because the film is presented as a true attempt to adapt the book, you might believe it was really possible to extract a cocaine-like compound from the ghost orchid – and that Susan Orlean really was a drug addict. It even ends with an obligatory Hollywood-mawkish, feel-good romantic reunion between the screenwriter and his former girlfriend.

I was disappointed by the second half of the film and I felt both patronised and cheated. Let me explain…
Patronised? Yes: did the film-makers really believe that audiences can’t watch a film unless it contains sex, drugs, and guns?
Cheated? Yes: this was neither an honest adaptation of a great non-fiction book, nor a proper exploration of the difficulties of adapting such a book.

Here is a suggestion for the hapless screenwriter, although this is too late to rescue the film. Why not have the second brother (the writer of car chases and shoot-outs) take over the second half of the film in an attempt to turn the film into a commercial success? We could watch him battle with his introverted twin, their arguments illustrating the difficulty of adaptation and exploring the question of how much you can ‘fictionalise’ fact. Now that would allow a proper exploration of the nature of compromise when adapting books to film.

One of the reasons I disliked this film so much was because I felt the makers betrayed their compact with the audience – i.e. a film adaptation doesn’t necessarily have follow all the facts within a story, but we do expect a film adaptation to accurately depict the truth within the story.

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