Adaptation in Adaptation
I recently got to write about a specific scene from Spike Jonze’s Adaptation that takes place during the beginning of the film and introduces the relationship between two of the main characters. Unfortunately, this clip from the movie isn’t online anywhere so I tried to describe the scene as much as possible to make my analysis as coherent as possible. We’ll see.
Susan Orlean’s article in the New Yorker about plant enthusiast and overall eccentric John Laroche is a titillating story about the theft of a rare Orchid that also embodies his unique personality. The film interpretation of the article, aptly named Adaptation, plays on the idea of what adaptations really are while simultaneously fleshing out Laroche into an even more intriguing character. Through the courtroom scene where Susan Orlean, played by Meryl Streep, is first introduced to John Laroche, played by Chris Cooper, Adaptation reveals its faithfulness to the article while still creating a character using some artistic liberties. This scene demonstrates the realistic personality of Laroche while foreshadowing the fictional world the film will delve into as the narrative progresses.
By lingering on the shot of the wild Ghost Orhcid and cutting to Laroche in court, director Spike Jonze is making a visual comparison of the two oddities that are central in both Orlean’s article and his interpretation (15:07-15:13). Having Laroche’s voice appear before he is seen also plays on the idea that the Ghost Orchid and he share many of the same characteristics. In Orlean’s article on Laroche, she immediately begins with this same scenario of him talking in front of the court about his accomplishments and knowledge in the botany world. Her take on the courtroom scene has Laroche appear like a man who is confident in his actions and abilities, talking to the judge like he would one of his colleagues or friends. Similarly, Jonze has Laroche rambling on about his achievements, almost verbatim to the article, but with a setting that Orlean did not mention. During this scene in the film, the camera pans around the courtroom, highlighting the actions of various legal players and their lack of attention paid to Laroche.
The attorneys are seen having what appears to be private discussions that are irrelevant to the case at hand and give the sense that no matter how much Laroche talks, he is not the most important subject in the room (15:27-15:43). This depiction of the courtroom scene also reflects the contrast between Laroche and his environment, similar to the rarity of the Ghost Orchid. Laroche’s personality is completely unique yet seems out of place when compared to the formal environment and severity of the situation he is in. One of the lawyers even seems to be annoyed with his long, verbal resume’ and only responds with a forced “thank you” after Laroche admits he may be the smartest person he knows (15:38-15:44).
Susan Orlean’s article does not mention the courtroom environment in this manner which reveals the changes that Spike Jonze made while filming. While Orlean was trying to depict a man comfortable with his own quirks, Jonze was showing Laroche as a man that comes across as insignificant and almost too smart for his own good. This difference in portrayal of Laroche alters how the reader or viewer perceives and therefore accepts him as a character. Jonze did decide to give Laroche the same attire that Olrean describes in her article, with him wearing sunglasses around his neck, a patterned shirt, and very casual pants; all of which are very out of place in a courtroom.
The physical appearance of Laroche is very important in establishing his character and how he relates to the world around him, as he is very set apart. Also, his attire comments on Orlean’s description of Orchids and how some people make judgements based on looks alone and sometimes cannot tell rare flowers from common ones (Orleans, 42). Just like the Orchids, Laroche is much more than his lowly appearance and is a man that has adapted to many scenarios over the years. However, the beginning of this sequence (15:08-15:46) does not overtly reflect how the rest of the film will play out, nor does it include any mention of Charlie Kauffman who is trying to write the screenplay adaptation for Orlean’s article. This is important to note because it initially grounds the film in reality that is almost wholly pulled from Orlean’s words, where as the end of the film changes Orlean’s story for the sake of change and to comment on interpretations.
Once the scene cuts to Laroche outside the courthouse as he is about to get into his van, the interaction between he and Orleans is initiated (15:46). While this conversation is not directly mentioned in “Orchid Fever” it sparks the relationship that will further be explored and exploited later on in the film. When Orlean mentions she’s from the New Yorker, he retorts with the motto of the paper as if to say that he already knows who she is based on her affiliation alone (15:49-16:01).
This once again plays on the idea of judging as both Laroche and Orleans make initial assumptions that end up being incorrect. After Laroche asserts that he didn’t do anything and that he’ll take the case all the way to the Supreme Court, he mentions that the judge can go screw herself (16:10-16:17). This reflects Orlean’s discussion on how Laroche likes to balance the line of morality between good and evil as he committed a crime but still defends his innocence (Orleans, 46). Jonze’s use of this scene to reveal thematic principles shows how interpretations of literature do not always have to exploit the material, but can still be true to the original narrative without a word for word recreation.
This scene also reveals the connection between Laroche and Orleans for the first time as he admires her willingness to listen and she admires his blunt honesty about how he feels (16:24-16:31). Orleans depicts this admiration in her article from the very beginning as she focuses on the way Laroche openly says what’s on his mind and has no problem about who he is as a person. Even though they just met in this scene, their fleeting glances foreshadow a relationship to come that becomes very intense as Jonze fictionalizes their interactions later on in the film. Without this revelation of character between Laroche and Orleans, the rest of the film would have lacked emotional depth and tension that grounds a heavy hitting ending. Once Laroche learns whatever he says will be put into print, a piano themed soundtrack begins to play that is reminiscent of horror music and hints at things to come (16:27).
Even though the clip ends with Laroche putting on his sunglasses and smiling, the music connects the tone of this scene to the following scene of Charlie Kauffman frantically working on his screenplay of “Orchid Fever.” Kaufman’s eratic movements visually contradict the calmness and confidence of Laroche in the scene before, creating character foils that give the film another layer of depth that Orlean’s article does not cover. Also, having Kaufman adapting her article for the big screen also gives the sense of self-reflectivity as the audience is simultaneously witnessing what he is writing about and his writing process. This plays with the idea of truth as the audience is not always certain what is real and what Kaufman has changed for entertainment’s sake.
No matter what I say, Nic Cage is always right. At least his hair is.