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“Happy Together:” The Insect and the Orchid in Kaufman and Jonze’s Adaptation

A number of articles have been written about Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s second cinematic collaboration, Adaptation (2002).  Although critics have differed as to the film’s subject matter – does it explore gender politics? Hollywood? Genesis? masturbation? – they have consistently concurred on one point; Kaufman’s failed attempt to turn Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into a screenplay has nothing to do with flowers: “[T]he screenplay and resulting film seem to have little to do with Susan Orlean’s ‘book about flowers’”(Tomasulo 176). “The fact is, the idea of dramatizing a flower is just, well, stupid” (Evans 32). “Let’s be honest Adaptation is as much about flowers as Flowers for Algernon is about flowers” (Landy 504). I disagree. This article is the first to argue that Adaptation has as much to do with the process of adaptation through which an insect and an orchid form a relationship as it has to do with the process of adaptation through which a book becomes a screenplay.  Both processes erase the hierarchies of first and second, original idea and afterthought. The relationship between the insect and the orchid is mirrored in the relationship between Charlie and his twin brother and Kaufman and Spike Jonze.   Much of the film’s beauty emerges in the complicated dance between the literary/cinematic and biological processes of adaptation. The further Charlie’s screenplay steps away from fidelity to The Orchid Thief the closer it comes to capturing what makes the orchid irresistible, its power to deceive.

In 1999 fresh off the success of his wildly imaginative screenplay for Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman was commissioned by Valerie Thomas to adapt Susan Orlean’s bestselling The Orchid Thief.  Orlean’s book tells the story of John Laroche’s attempts to steal rare orchids from the Fakahatchee Strand in Florida.  Adaptation.1 tells the story of Kaufman’s many disappointed efforts to bring the book to the screen.  Charlie (Nicolas Cage) is fat, bald, lonely, and depressed.  He tries repeatedly to begin his screenplay and ends up bumping his head against his own neuroses instead.  In his first attempts, Darwin is his muse.  He imagines starting his film with the origins of life on earth.  Before telling the story of the orchid thief, he will begin with the Big Bang and, through time-lapse photography, will race through all of human civilization to his own birth.  But as quickly as Charlie comes up with his brilliant idea, he recognizes its insanity as Darwin punches his face.  He tries to begin the film with John Laroche (Chris Cooper) in his white van heading into the Fakahatchee Strand to pilfer orchids.  He tries again with Orlean (Meryl Streep) as the origin of his narrative.  So self-absorbed is he, however, that he finally lands on himself as the film’s opening, “Charlie Kaufman, bald, fat, depressed, sits at his typewriter, etc.”  Meanwhile, Kaufman’s identical twin, Donald, races through his own screenplay, after taking Robert McKee’s popular weekend writing seminar, and sells it through Charlie’s agent. Donald convinces Charlie that he must meet Orlean in order to write his screenplay.  But when the frightened Charlie chickens out, Donald impersonates him and interviews Orlean in his place.  Donald suspects Orlean (a distinguished New Yorker writer) of hiding something, and he and Charlie follow her to Florida to discover that she is having an affair with the orchid thief and is snorting the drug Laroche is extracting from the flower.  When the married Orlean realizes that Charlie has followed her to Miami, she decides that he must be killed before he ruins her reputation.  In the Fakahatchee, where Laroche steals his orchids, Donald and Charlie manage to temporarily escape the gun-toting Streep and Laroche.  But as they attempt to drive away they crash into a park ranger, and both Donald and the ranger are killed.  As Laroche aims his gun at Charlie he is suddenly dragged underwater by an alligator and killed as well.  In the film’s final minutes Charlie meets up with Amelia, the woman to whom he has been too frightened to declare his love.  Amelia has long since given up on Charlie and is now with another man, but Charlie kisses her and tells her he loves her.  Fortunately, she still loves him as well.  In a voiceover, the finally happy Charlie tells us that he now knows how to end his screenplay — by concluding it with the conclusion we have just seen — to Adaptation.

In other words, Charlie’s screenplay is a mess. Paradoxically, it is also perfect.  Each scene complements another scene. Charlie takes on the project of adapting The Orchid Thief as Valerie (Tilda Swinton) praises him for having “such a unique voice.”  Not too unique it appears.  She has already obtained the screen rights from Orlean by complimenting her for “such a unique voice.”  Charlie begins by longing to capture the beauty of Orlean’s prose — “that wonderful sprawling New Yorker stuff” — but is defeated by what he later calls “that sprawling New Yorker shit.” Charlie wonders “how did I get here?” And a montage of the earth’s history up until Charlie’s birth follows.  Later Charlie tries to make a similar montage the lead-in to his movie.  As Donald begs Charlie for help with his screenplay, Charlie suggests he collaborate with someone else as “I hear Mom’s great at structure.”  Later Charlie’s agent phones to tell him that he’s bought Donald’s script and that Charlie should collaborate with his twin as Donald’s “great at structure.” Laroche spies on the Seminoles getting stoned on ghost orchid; Charlie spies on Orlean and Laroche getting stoned on ghost orchid.  We see Charlie and Amelia at a party while they’re dating and again later when she’s dating someone else.  Laroche and Susan attend an orchid show; Charlie attends an orchid show.  When Charlie enters his house, Donald is typing away furiously at his script; when Donald enters the house, he interrupts Charlie’s flow.  After hours lost in the Fakahatchee, Susan and John finally find a ghost orchid; after hours trapped in the Fakahatchee, Donald and John are killed.  The film begins with Charlie calling himself a fat, bald loser; it ends with Susan Orlean hurling similar insults at him.  At the beginning Charlie is reading Orlean, while Donald reads Robert McKee.  By the end Donald is reading Orlean, Charlie McKee (see Figure 1).  Laroche’s collecting obsession (tropical fish, mirrors, fossils, orchids) begins in childhood when he develops a passion for finding turtles. The movie ends with The Turtles’ biggest hit, “Happy Together.”

“Happy Together:” The Insect and the Orchid in Kaufman and Jonze’s Adaptation, Sternlieb, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: (Charlie (left), Donald (right)) See above -- “At the beginning Charlie is reading Orlean, while Donald reads Robert McKee.  By the end Donald is reading Orlean, Charlie McKee.”

When Donald asks Charlie how best to kill off a character, the bored and angry Charlie proposes having a literature professor cut off body parts of his different victims — the film could then be called The Deconstructionist.  Donald, of course, takes his facetious idea seriously and, inspired by his girlfriend’s tattoo of a snake eating itself has his character eat himself.  “Ouroboros,” Charlie responds.  “I don’t think so,” says Donald.  “Ouroboros,” asserts Charlie.  Charlie is devastated by his revelation that his film is going round in circles, making endless futile attempts to start.  But what Charlie sees as his failure Coleridge advocated as the ideal aspiration: “the common end of all narrative, nay of all Poems is to convert a series into a Whole: to make those events which in real or imagined history move in a straight line, assume to our understanding a circular motion — the snake with its tail in its mouth” (Faggen 29).  Ouroboros signifies eternal return, and in assuming its shape Adaptation elides distinctions between first and second, before and after, original and adaptation, the “real” and the modified version.  The film, which relies on an extraordinary number of telephone conversations, resembles an elaborate game of telephone in which the original message is whispered and comes full circle to be repeated in altered, sometimes unrecognizable form.

The circularity of Adaptation’s structure constantly reverses the chronology of the “original” or “actual” events.  For example, in the third scene Valerie introduces the idea that Laroche and Susan could fall in love; Charlie immediately dismisses the idea.  We then go back in time to Susan’s first encounter with Laroche three years earlier.  Susan is disgusted by the smell of Laroche’s van and his casual crudeness and misogyny.  At the orchid show she begins to fall under his spell as he waxes poetic about the co-evolution of orchids and insects (see Figure 2).  Later at her dinner party her friends tease her that she’s “doing it in the back of the van with Laroche.” When she finally goes to the Fakahatchee with John, she is miserable and decides she is finished with orchids (and presumably him as well). The film skips ahead three years.  Donald and Charlie spy on Orlean and discover she is flying to Miami.  Then they discover a naked Orlean on Laroche’s porn site.  The film then reverses chronology again and shows Susan and John falling in love over the phone after Susan starts snorting the orchid powder. In three previous love-making scenes, a waitress takes off her blouse for, Valerie curls up in bed with, and Susan climbs atop of Charlie.  Each encounter appears to be real and proves to be illusory.  Like the earlier sequences, Susan and John’s phone conversation seamlessly fuses together reality and fantasy.  The phone conversation overlaps with and merges into a shot of John and Susan making love on a beach.  Is this pure fabrication?  In the following scene Orlean lies on the grass and tells John that she wishes she could be a shiny ant.  This sequence clearly complements the earlier moment in which the waitress unbuttons her blouse.  Both are woodland scenes saturated with deep greens and reds and filled with the sound of bird song.  Did the ant episode actually occur?  It looks more unreal than the previous fantasy sequence; it seems to be some parodic version of the Garden of Eden. Susan and John’s affair isn’t “verified” until Charlie witnesses it through the window of Laroche’s greenhouse. When did Susan begin falling in love with Laroche? Did Susan and Laroche have an affair, or is the film’s ending just a cheap device to overcome writer’s block?  If Valerie fed Charlie the idea, did he add on this ending to satisfy the producer?  Did Orlean actually lie about herself and Laroche in her book or did Charlie invent the lie in order to tie up his script?  Is Donald also merely an advantageous lie?

“Happy Together:” The Insect and the Orchid in Kaufman and Jonze’s Adaptation, Sternlieb, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: (John Laroche and Susan Orlean)  “At the orchid show she begins to fall under his spell as he waxes poetic about the co-evolution of orchids and insects.”

Donald does not enter Adaptation until Charlie’s neuroses have been well-established.  So when he first appears, we may mistake him for a physical manifestation of Charlie’s deep self-loathing or a convenient figure for writer’s block.  He always arrives at the most inopportune moments when Charlie is trying to work or sleep or masturbate.  He is not seen by any other character until the film’s twenty-sixth scene.  We may be shocked to learn at this point that he does actually exist.  Or does he?  Are the later scenes with Donald, like the earlier sex scenes, mere fabrication?  We may settle into the rest of the movie convinced that Donald exists, but there are still clues that he may not.  When Donald is killed, Charlie phones his mother.  He says only one word, “Mom,” before bursting into tears. “Charles?  Charles, is that you?  Charles?”  Donald has been the Mama’s boy throughout the film; Charles is always as contemptuous of their mother as he is of his brother.  Why, when Charlie doesn’t speak, does the mother not ask for Donald?  Why is she so sure that this is his identical twin on the phone?   The moment of Donald’s departure, of course, complements his first words: “Charles, Charles is that you?”  Is it?

Donald names his insane script “The Three.”  There are three dead bodies in the Fakahatchee, three days for McKee’s seminar, and Charlie has three sexual fantasies.  Most importantly there are three Charlies.   As he laments the fact that nobody has ever tried to write a movie about flowers before, his dim-witted brother asks, “What about Flowers for Algernon?”  The book Flowers for Algernon (which does indeed have nothing to do with flowers) was adapted for the screen as Charly (1968) in which an intellectually-challenged man becomes a genius before reverting back into an intellectually-disabled man. Donald, we learn as the film progresses, is much more clever than Charles supposes, but this allusion to Charly suggests that Charlie the “genius” and Donald the lesser intelligence are one and the same person.  So, Charly is Donald and Charlie made one.  Their initials C.D. are the third Charlie’s, Charles Darwin. (Donald considers his brother a genius and never calls him anything but Charles.) Darwin followed up The Origin of Species with an astonishing investigation of co-evolution as observed in the relationship between orchids and the insects that pollinate them.  Origin took more than 20 years to write and might have taken longer had Alfred Russel Wallace not written to Darwin in June 1858 telling him of his sudden discovery of natural selection.   When Darwin received Wallace’s paper, he was shocked and “feared that all of my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed” (Carroll 58). Darwin’s despair is mirrored in Charlie who sees his Wallace (Donald) race past him.  Darwin was writing for an audience that still believed that the orchid was created by the hand of God.  How else to explain that there is an orchid that looks like an octopus, another like a monkey?  Some look like squirrels, others like nuns dressed in their wimples, still others like drunken old men (Orlean 43). But Darwin considered orchids the pinnacle of natural selection.  As Orlean notes, he often described them as ‘my beloved Orchids;’ Darwin wrote that it would be ‘incredibly monstrous to look at an Orchid as having been created as we now see it. Every part reveals modification upon modification” (Darwin 9:302). The perfection of Charlie’s script was not achieved by a lightning bolt of creative insight but by the collisions between one mistake or accident and another, by modification upon modification.

Orlean’s prose captures the uncannily beautiful relationship between the insect and the flower:

[O]rchids have multiplied and diversified and become the biggest flowering plant family on earth because each orchid species has made itself irresistible. Many species look so much like their favorite insects that the insect mistakes them for kin, and when it lands on the flower to visit, pollen sticks to its body. When the insect repeats the mistake on another orchid, the pollen from the first flower gets deposited on the stigma of the second — in other words, the orchid gets fertilized because it is smarter than the bug. Another orchid species imitates the shape of something that a pollinating insect likes to kill. Botanists call this pseudoantagonism. . . .Other species look like the mate of their pollinator, so the bug tries to mate with one orchid and then another — pseudocopulation — and spreads pollen from flower to flower each hopeless time. . . .No one knows whether orchids evolved to complement insects or whether the orchids evolved first, or whether somehow these two life forms evolved simultaneously, which might explain how two totally different living things came to depend on each other (Orlean 45-47).

This strange harmony, this perfect dance without a choreographer frustrates Charlie’s every attempt to write a screenplay about it.  As Orlean’s gorgeous prose illustrates, our language cannot accommodate lack of agency.  A flower has no brain, no power to strategize, but in order to understand the orchid, we must imagine it outwitting a bee, mocking a moth, cuddling up to a fly.

Do we, like pollinating insects, “mistake” Donald and Charlie “for kin”?  Donald conveniently appears whenever Charlie is making any kind of progress.  He always arrives with news of his greater success; he always brings Charlie back from ecstasy to despair.  Donald claims that he is following Charlie into screenwriting; Charlie successfully finishes his screenplay by following Donald’s hack, commercial advice.  Donald concludes his multi-personality disorder screenplay with the cop chasing the serial killer and his hostage.  “But they’re all still the same person, right?” asks Charlie.  Donald’s ludicrous premise is partially realized in Adaptation when we cannot determine whether or not Charlie and his twin are separate people. Donald’s indeterminable status replicates the central question of Susan’s book — does he, like the ghost orchid, actually exist, or is he only a phantom? Adaptation ensures the impossibility of distinguishing truth from lie, original from copy, authentic from inauthentic.  In this way, the film realizes the perfection of co-evolution.  Just as there is no way to rewind the tape and discover which came first, the orchid or the bee, there is no possibility of distinguishing Charlie’s Susan Orlean from the actual Susan Orlean, no way to determine if Charlie and Donald are two distinctive people or if they have co-evolved.

In Meryl Streep’s last scene, she longs to be new, to be a baby again.  Like Cage at the beginning of the movie, she wants to find herself emerging from the womb.  How did we arrive at this place in which both Orlean and Charlie want to return to the beginning?  How did the producer’s suggestion, Susan’s desire, and Charlie’s script all coincide?  Rare is the film in which the screenwriter puts himself into the story, yet paradoxically this self-reflexive movie makes it unusually difficult to answer who put this story together?  Who determined its structure and much of its content?  Like the amorous or antagonistic collisions between the bee and the orchid, it is constructed around a series of mistakes.  Donald’s mistakes about Flowers for Algernon, deconstructionism, and Ouroboros create richer and richer metaphors in Charlie’s screenplay.  When McKee praises Casablanca for taking a musical break mid-movie, Donald decides (inappropriately) that he should insert “Happy Together” into the middle of his psycho-thriller.  After Donald’s death, Charlie steals the song for his own movie.  Donald’s fatal mistake of following Orlean to Florida allows Charlie to finally complete his movie.  In perhaps the most painful moment of the movie Charlie mistakes a sweet waitress for a possible love interest.  When he asks her to attend an orchid show with him, she backs away and gossips about him with another waitress.  Thereafter, Charlie avoids any encounters with actual women. The moment with the waitress is mirrored in the Fakahatchee swamp when, in Donald’s last minutes, the twins reminisce about a high school girl (fittingly named Sarah Marsh) with whom Donald had been madly in love.  She too rejected him and gossiped about him with another friend.  Charlie tells Donald how embarrassed he was for him at the time.  But Donald remains unashamed.  His love made him happy.  It wasn’t Sarah’s to take away from him, he tells the incredulous Charlie.  Donald’s capacities to love and to make love, to spread his happiness everywhere echo Laroche’s words about the love-making between the bee and its soulmate, the bee orchid — “By simply doing what they’re designed to do, something large and magnificent happens.  In this sense, they show us how to live.  The only barometer you have is your heart.  When you spot your flower, you can’t let anything get in your way.” Like mistakes in the orchids’ world, Donald’s mistakes are procreative.  They produce metaphors, ideas, connections, and finally hope of further procreation as they (along with floriology) inspire Charlie to declare his love for Amelia.  Charlie is paralyzed by perfectionism, but Adaptation is a perfect film because it mirrors natural selection, because it appears not to be the result of intention, foreknowledge, or design but of a series of mistakes.

As much as Charlie studies The Orchid Thief, he fails to understand the significance of pseudocopulation or pseudoantagonism.  In order to interview Susan Orlean, Donald pretends to be Charlie. In order to get Native Americans to steal orchids for him, John Laroche pretends to be a concerned environmentalist. In order to maintain the pretense that she is a happily married, respectable journalist Susan is willing to murder Charlie.  On the black screen that opens Adaptation Charlie introduces himself to us through a self-flagellating monologue; in order to impress he must become a Chinese-speaking oboist.  Donald, on the other hand, pretends to be a screenwriter and voilà, he is a screenwriter.  Obsessed with integrity and honesty, Charlie cannot see what every other character takes for granted; nature flourishes because of fakery.

In their previous collaboration, Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze matched Kaufman’s outrageous plot with extravagant visuals — the windowless, claustrophobic apartment Craig shares with Lotte and her menagerie, the ceilings so low on floor 7 1/2 that employees must hunch over, the terrifyingly dark tunnel into Malkovich’s head, the hundreds of Malkoviches Malkovich encounters when he enters his own brain.  Two of Adaptation’s earliest scenes take place on the Malkovich set. In both scenes, Jonze reminds us of the overt weirdness of their previous film, of the multiple ways in which Malkovich calls attention to the cinematic apparatus.  Adaptation does the opposite.  Rather than exploiting Charlie’s neurotic energy, Jonze tames it with an unobtrusive visual style.  As Jonze notes, “It’s not like a Star Wars movie where everybody comes out talking about the effects. . . .It’s like a magic trick; you don’t know there is a trick happening here because your attention is focused somewhere else. . . .[O]ur goal [was] that what you pay attention to is the brothers’ relationship, not that the same actor is playing each part (see Figure 3).”2 The pseudocopulation of the bee and the orchid is also a magic trick.  The bee, focused on its lovemaking, is oblivious to the fact of the orchid’s deception.  (We cannot know how the orchid knows how to pretend, but the orchid is, nonetheless, pretending.)  The character Charlie Kaufman is obsessed with how he will adapt Orlean’s book; the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman writes his stand-in as oblivious to the cinematic mechanisms that will make it possible.  Charlie’s character is the bumbling bee to the controlling orchid, Jonze.  Jonze’s job, like the orchid’s, is not to call attention to, but to disguise the fakery, to make the deception seem perfectly natural.

“Happy Together:” The Insect and the Orchid in Kaufman and Jonze’s Adaptation, Sternlieb, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: (Donald and Charlie) “It’s like a magic trick; you don’t know there is a trick happening here because your attention is focused somewhere else. . . .[O]ur goal [was] that what you pay attention to is the brothers’ relationship, not that the same actor is playing each part.”

Occasionally Jonze teases the audience with signs of his presence, with visual tricks.  (As I mentioned earlier, three times we are deceived into believing Charlie is having sex; three times we discover he is masturbating.  This legerdemain makes it impossible for us to know if the love scenes between Laroche and Susan are real.)  In one of their first scenes together, Donald explains the premise of his screenplay to Charlie.  Although Charlie remains unconvinced, he quickly tires of fighting with his brother:

Charlie: There’s no way to write this. . . How could you have somebody held prisoner in a basement and working in a police station at the same time? 

Donald: Trick photography.

Charlie. . .Listen closely. . . In the reality of this movie where there’s only one character.  Right? Okay? How could you? What exactly would? I agree with Mom.  Very taut. Sybil meets I don’t know Dressed to Kill

Donald: Cool.  I really like Dressed to Kill until the third act de-nooie-ment.

Charlie: That’s not how it’s pronounced.

The scene is hilarious on so many different levels.  Donald fails to recognize the impossibility of his premise — how do you convince an audience that a character who’s freely working in a police station is also imprisoned in a basement?  (When Charlie asks how a killer and his hostage on horseback can be followed by a cop on a motorcycle while all still being the same person, Donald’s infatuated girlfriend replies, “Well that’s the big payoff.”) Donald has no idea how a movie is made.  Simple editing, not trick photography, situates a character in two different places at once.  And photography will expose, not conceal, the fact that the three different characters are all the same person.  “Trick photography” is not simply a joke at Donald’s expense, but at Charlie’s as well.  Trick photography cannot rescue “The Three,” but it saves Kaufman’s script.  It creates the illusion that Donald and Charlie are separate people, but  so seamlessly, that we forget that we are being deceived.  Charlie (the character) has clearly forgotten that filmmaking is a collaborative effort.  Nicolas Cage is never alone in a room with a typewriter — he is surrounded by cameramen and lighting designers.  The burden of translating Orlean’s story to the screen is never on Charlie’s shoulders alone.  Donald seeks help from Charlie, his girlfriend (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and Robert McKee (Brian Cox).  Orlean communicates constantly with Laroche as she writes both her article and her book, but Charlie is determined (until the third act denouement) to go it alone.  Needless to say, this is not the lesson to learn from this film about cooperation, collaboration, and co-evolution.  Yet Jonze seems to have so successfully hidden himself that critics have curiously forgotten about him as well.  Almost every review of or critical essay on the film refers to “Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation.”3

Darwin’s explanation of pseudocopulation has not gone unchallenged. In A Thousand Plateaus Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari use the example of the orchid and the wasp to illustrate their concept of the rhizome.  While the “arborescent” cultural model respects hierarchies and chronologies, while it searches for unitary origins and anticipates solitary pinnacles, the rhizomatic cultural model looks for infinite, even interspecies connections:

How could movements of deterritorialisation and processes of reterritorialisation not be relative, always connected, caught up in one another? The orchid deterritorialises by forming an image, a tracing of a wasp; but the wasp reterritorialises on that image. The wasp is nevertheless deterritorialised, becoming a piece in the orchid’s reproductive apparatus. But it reterritorialises the orchid by transporting its pollen. Wasp and orchid, as heterogeneous elements, form a rhizome. . . .[This is] not imitation at all but a capture of code, surplus value of code, an increase in valence, a veritable becoming, a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp. . . .There is neither imitation nor resemblance, only an exploding of two heterogeneous series on the line of flight composed by a common rhizome. . . .(11)4

As Brent Adkins explains

In order to see the orchid and the wasp as a rhizome, we need to abandon the concepts of mimicry and imitation. Mimicry and imitation suppose that the orchid is representing or signifying something, in this case a female wasp. Rhizomes, however, do not function according to representation. Nothing in a rhizome represents something else. There is only connection. Rhizomes do not propagate by way of clearly delineated hierarchies but by underground stems in which any part may send additional shoots upward, downward, or laterally. There is no hierarchy. There are no clear lines of descent. A rhizome has no beginning or end. It is always in the middle.

Most crucially, “the rhizome continually creates the new” (Adkins “Asignifying Rupture”). Deleuze and Guattari were skeptical of Darwin’s explanation of the relationship between the orchid and the insect.  As Matt Bernico sees it: “Evolutionary biology tells a narrative of the orchid imitating the wasp for the propagation of its species.  Deleuze and Guattari correct this narrative in saying that the orchid is becoming-wasp, and the wasp is becoming-orchid. . . .What is essential here is that the encounter between the two entities creates a new reality, a new becoming.  What does it mean for the orchid to become-wasp and the wasp to become-orchid?  It means a mutual love for each other.  It is a rupture in business as usual”(Bernico).  Charlie longs to stay true to Orlean’s book, but his script follows an impulse of its own.  It neither mimics nor represents The Orchid Thief, but creates a new “species” or genre of film.  Unlike Darwin, Deleuze and Guattari read the mysterious dance between the wasp and the orchid as neither self-preservation nor self-propagation.  Unlike every other character involved in the process of moviemaking— Donald, McKee, Valerie, Charlie’s agent (Ron Livingston), even Orlean and Laroche — Charlie is unmotivated by personal or financial considerations.  He aspires to the disinterestedness of the wasp and the orchid; he longs to transcend “business as usual.”

A Deleuzian might note that Charlie’s misery as an artist working in Hollywood is clearly the result of capitalism which “fosters schizophrenia because the quantitative calculations of the market replace meaning and belief systems as the foundation of society” (Holland 2). There is no evidence that Charlie would disagree with such a diagnosis.  After all Charlie begins the film with the highest ideals:

I don’t want to compromise by making it a Hollywood product.  An orchid heist movie.  Or changing the orchids into poppies and turning it into a movie about drug running.  Or cramming in sex, or car chases or guns.  Or characters learning profound life lessons.  Or characters growing or characters changing or characters learning to like each other or characters overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end.

But he does write a movie about drugs and guns and sex and car chases and the main character’s overcoming obstacles and growing and succeeding by learning some profound life lessons.  Has he done so because of Donald’s death?  What if Donald never existed? Did he compromise himself because Susan compromised herself, or did he compromise Susan in his script because he couldn’t adapt The Orchid Thief? We might deem Charlie’s inclinations rhizomatic, his completed film Darwinian: —  “The wasp, [Deleuze and Guattari] argue, is an element in the reproductive system of the orchid, and as such is part of the orchid’s morphology. . . .Darwin, by contrast, was convinced that insects must, as autonomous organisms, derive some material benefit from the pollination process” (Doyle Chap. 2, note 24, emphasis added).

While Charlie sees his offhand joke about deconstruction coming back to bite him, Deleuze might have seen it as a perfect illustration of both the acts of deconstruction and adaptation:

Deconstruction. . .refers to a way of reading texts ‘against themselves.’Deleuze’s deconstructive method is best considered as a project of ‘free indirect discourse.’ Deleuze seeks to work with other thinkers and artists so that his own voice and the voice of the author become indistinct. In this way he institutes a zone of indiscernibility between himself and the authors with whom he works. According to Michel Tournier, Deleuze demonstrated this power of translation, the ability to transform another’s work at a young age. It is a matter of picking up another’s arrows and relaunching them. Alain Badiou argues that this indirect approach is a method which conveys a commitment to perspectivism: we can never be sure who is speaking. (Marks 25)

As a teacher Deleuze aspired to something “like an echo chamber, a feedback loop in which an idea reappeared after going, as it were, through various filters” (Marks 25). In adapting The Orchid Thief Charlie accidentally creates “a zone of indiscernibility” between himself and his twin, himself and Orlean.  In his effort to translate The Orchid Thief to the screen as authentically as possible, he inadvertently exposes the book’s lies and uses the book as evidence against itself.  As Joshua Landy notes, “paradoxically, Kaufman captures the spirit of The Orchid Thief precisely by being unfaithful to it.”5

Charlie is given Orlean’s book to adapt because of the success of Being John Malkovich, but he begs to be relieved of the assignment when adaptation proves far harder than his own invention. On two occasions, Charlie has the chance to meet Orlean and discuss her book, but is too shy even to greet her (see Figure 4). Instead, he begins to fantasize a relationship with her in which she speaks to him in a seductive, disembodied voice as if she herself were the ghost orchid she sought in the Fakahatchee.  Charlie so worships Orlean that he is paralyzed at the prospect of disappointing her or disrespecting her beautiful book. Whenever we see Susan in his imagination she is typing away effortlessly. She, unlike Charlie, is a true, incorruptible writer. But when he finally successfully follows her, he is horrified to find himself face to face with his double, a more damaged version of himself, a woman so ashamed of herself, so self-conscious, so terrified of failure and self-exposure that she is willing to murder Charlie rather than have her reputation ruined. The journey Charlie takes during this film liberates him from his worship of Orlean.  He is able to finish his screenplay once she falls from the pedestal of a goddess and is reduced to a human being. In other words following (pursuing, chasing) Susan allows Charlie to stop following (accepting or adhering to the authority of) Susan.

“Happy Together:” The Insect and the Orchid in Kaufman and Jonze’s Adaptation, Sternlieb, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: (Cage and Streep’s uncomfortable elevator ride) “Charlie has the chance to meet Orlean and discuss her book, but is too shy even to greet her.”

Charlie is so devastated by the fact that Donald has sold his awful script that he follows his brother’s advice and enrolls in Robert McKee’s weekend scriptwriting seminar.  Although Charlie has dismissed McKee as a formulaic hack, he embraces his wisdom after taking his seminar, then goes on to break some of his core principles.  McKee derides voiceover as a cheap, sloppy device; Adaptation heavily relies upon it.  He slams the use of a deus ex machina; Charlie ties up his film with the use of two dei ex machina (a van and an alligator) in quick succession. By ignoring McKee’s “Bible” and “Ten Commandments” (McKee,  Story, workshop manual), he is overruling one God while replacing Him with others.  These divine interventions end Laroche’s narrative which began with equally horrific signs of the presence of God.  As the successful gardener backs out of his driveway, and his mother praises his good fortune with an “Amen,” a truck crushes his car, killing his mother and uncle. After coming out of the coma caused by the accident, his wife divorces him, and a month later Hurricane Andrew “swooped down like an angel of God,” leveling all of his greenhouses.  Charlie despairs as he tries to write a movie about the “miracle of God’s flowers.”  But this is a Darwinian narrative; if Kaufman allows God any power, it is never to create, only to destroy.  He is crucial to ending Charlie’s irresolvable, runaway plot, but cannot be counted on to catalyze Charlie’s creative energies.

Charlie tells McKee that his identical twin has previously taken his course.  “Casablanca was written by identical twins, finest screenplay ever written,” McKee assures him. In fact, this is only partially true. Casablanca was also an adaptation, based on an unproduced play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. The Epstein brothers began adapting Casablanca, were then called away for a month to work on Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series, and returned to take over for Howard Koch who had replaced them.  Casey Robinson contributed three weeks of rewrites.  The famous final line was written by Hal Wallis after the film had completed shooting.  The Hays Office cut anything too controversial or sexually explicit. During production, nobody had any idea that the hastily thrown-together movie would become Casablanca.  Hundreds of films were being churned out in Hollywood in 1942-3, and the movie was shot in chronological order because only half the script existed at the time shooting began.  Yet these “disparate approaches somehow meshed” into what Andrew Sarris considered “the most decisive exception to the auteur theory”(Sarris).6  The importance of this moment then is that as McKee is teaching authorship, he names the most notorious example of a screenplay with no single author, no intelligent designer, the most successful example of brilliant and accidental and unintentional co-authorship.  In Adaptation’s opening line Charlie’s interior monologue tells us that “I don’t have an original thought in my head.”  The movie that follows doesn’t necessarily disprove him.  But the interaction of his thoughts, his anxieties, his self-loathing, and his presence with the film’s characters and collaborators produces a movie the likes of which has never been seen before.

A movie with almost as famous a screenplay as Casablanca’s, Sunset Boulevard, is, I would argue, a profound influence on Adaptation.  Billy Wilder’s work belies McKee’s directive against voiceover.  Most of his best scripts — Double Indemnity, Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon, The Apartment, Stalag 17, Hold Back the Dawn — use voiceover to beautiful effect.7  Sunset Boulevard has been criticized for overusing voiceover, for narrating what is clearly visible on screen as if to prove Norma Desmond right: “they had the eyes of the whole wide world but that wasn’t good enough for them. . . .so they opened their big mouths and out came talk talk talk.” But Joe Gillis’s voiceover, like Charlie Kaufman’s, inadvertently becomes his screenplay.  Gillis finally writes his masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard, posthumously; Donald’s contribution to Adaptation — both he and Charlie are ascribed authorship in the opening credits —is given to him posthumously as well. Charlie hates Donald’s hyperbolic “The Three,” but his own script seems to have taken the greatest screenplay about the fate of the screenwriter and upped the ante.  If Joe Gillis is shot then drowned, Donald is shot then killed in a car crash while John Laroche is attacked by an alligator then drowned.  If Joe attempts to rewrite Norma’s prose while suspecting that the middle-aged woman is crazy, Charlie approaches Susan’s prose as if it were a sacred object, and learns too late that the middle-aged woman is capable of homicide. If Norma is hit by a microphone on the Paramount sound stage where she no longer belongs, Charlie is banished from the sound stage where his own movie is being filmed.

The conflict in Adaptation between hack commercialism and art, between the “fucked up” fantasy of a thriller and the hard-won struggle to bring integrity and reality to the screen is played out repeatedly in Sunset Boulevard.  In his opening monologue Joe promises to tell “the facts, the whole truth.”  But Hollywood has schooled him in the monetary value of telling lies.  He aspires to write The Grapes of Wrath and settles for writing a baseball picture. He gets a job rewriting Norma Desmond’s awful script for Salomé by claiming it is “fascinating.” Betty Schaefer urges Joe to rewrite his own script, “Dark Windows,” tothrow out all that psychological mess, exploring a killer’s sick mind” and focus on the story of teachers.  “It’s true.  It’s moving.”  Joe counters with “who needs true, who needs moving?  Psychopaths sell like hotcakes.” Sunset Boulevard is, of course, that rarest of compromises, a moving and commercially successful film that explores a killer’s sick mind. Betty is a more cheerful version of Charlie, Joe a more cynical version of Donald, and the “Dark Windows” scene anticipates the unresolved conflict between one brother who wants to create truth and beauty and the other who makes a killing off of a script about a psychopathic killer.  Betty, of course, as a child of Hollywood, lives in her own la la land.  Her favorite street in the world “all cardboard, all hollow, all phony, all done with mirrors” is on the Paramount lot, and her incuriosity about Joe’s living situation demands more than a willing suspension of disbelief.   But Max von Mayerling has no ambivalence.  The former director, still a master illusionist, never stumbles.  Reality is never allowed to intrude on the seamless fantasy he has constructed to keep Norma alive.  Before she goes mad, he writes and posts her fan mail.  Just before she kills Joe, he tells her “Madame is the greatest star of them all,” and just after she kills Joe, he continues the charade by impersonating Cecil B. DeMille (who also refuses to tell Norma the truth) directing her in Salomé.  Louis B. Mayer attacked Billy Wilder for “disgrac[ing] the industry that made and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood.” But even as Wilder the screenwriter (like Joe Gillis) exposes Hollywood’s underbelly, Wilder the director is as committed to illusion as his onscreen directors.  After all, his film begins with a talking corpse face down in a swimming pool and ends with a cast of hundreds gathered to indulge a Hollywood star in one last fantasy.  As much an homage to as an exposé of the dream factory Sunset Boulevard constantly exploits the thin line between truth and fiction.  Generations of viewers have conflated the perfectly healthy Gloria Swanson with the mad Norma Desmond. DeMille calls Norma “young fella,” the nickname he gave Swanson.  Max shows Norma and Joe Queen Kelly, the movie that helped destroy von Stroheim’s and Swanson’s silent movie careers. As Betty and Joe stroll through the Paramount lot she tells him about her grandmother who did stunt work for Pearl White.  Betty Hutton played White in The Perils of Pauline.  Joe’s producer thinks his Alan Ladd script would work better with Hutton whose real-life husband, Jay Livingstone, plays the piano at Betty and Artie’s New Year’s Eve party (Friel 30).  Joe and Betty walk through Washington Square, used in the previous year’s The Heiress starring Montgomery Clift.  Originally cast to play Joe Gillis, Clift dropped out because his own sex life (he was sleeping with a woman sixteen years older than himself) eerily resembled Gillis’s.

Wilder gives fictional names (Max von Mayerling) to factual circumstances (Erich von Stroheim was one of the three most promising directors in Hollywood in the 1920s) and fictional circumstances (a girls’ softball team movie) to an actual person (Betty Hutton).  The collaboration between the illusionist (Jonze) and the truth-teller (Kaufman) results in a film which barely bothers with any pseudonyms yet continually elides the distinction between fact and fiction.  While much of Adaptation is fictitious — Charlie Kaufman is neither fat nor bald, he does not have a twin brother named Donald, Orlean and Laroche did not have an affair — Jonze makes it all too simple to believe just the opposite.  Even the most outrageous scene (Laroche’s death by alligator) is no more unlikely than Laroche’s true story of losing his mother, uncle, wife, and property within a few weeks.  Most diabolically this adaptation makes us question the veracity of its source.  The filmmakers pretend that Susan lied to her husband and lied in her book about what happened to her in the Fakahatchee.  If The Orchid Thief distorts the truth and Adaptation reveals its lies, is the adaptation more authentic than the original?  Kaufman’s screenplay disallows the kinds of divisions and hierarchies endemic to discussions of adaptation.  Instead, the original and its adaptation are made one. In fact, Adaptation has already proven that “original” and “adapted” may be synonymous and interchangeable.  In 2003 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences went along with Kaufman’s joke and nominated both him and the non-existent Donald for an Oscar, but struggled to select a category for the nomination.  Had Adaptation’s screenwriters co-authored an “original screenplay” or an “adapted screenplay”?  The New York Times wondered “whether the distinction between original and adaptation was still valid”(Rizzo).

Joshua Landy rejects the impulse of “a number of critics [who] have wanted [Adaptation] to be making arguments, sending messages, transmitting statements about the human condition.”  The film is not “presenting an argument” “that human beings must adapt in order to grow,” or illustrating that “there are limits to human adaptability,” or even that “flowers are essentially like us.” 

In interview after interview. . .Kaufman has repeatedly stressed his intention to avoid didacticism.  ‘The movie is . . .not taking you through and teaching you something, you know, it’s to have interactions with. . . .If I were working to make any conscious point it would become banal. . . .My goal when I do something is to have a conversation with the audience rather than to lecture them.’(Landy 511, note 30)

But I would argue that Adaptation refuses to make arguments or teach lessons because it eschews cause and effect. Deleuze may believe that capitalism fosters schizophrenia, but in the Ouroboros that is Adaptation, schizophrenia is just as likely to foster capitalism.  Charlie is wretched as he envies his brother, misses his deadlines, and finds absolutely nothing funny.  Does he lighten up because he’s inadvertently killed his brother and Laroche and ruined Susan Orlean’s life? We might as well ask which came first, an insect finding a matching orchid or an orchid adapting to the needs of an insect.  As Laroche tells Susan “neither the flower nor the insect will ever understand the significance of their love-making.  How could they know that because of their little dance the world lives?” This incomprehension, however, as we see in the stunning shot (that accompanies Laroche’s words) of a field of orchids and the bees that covet them does not impede their delirious intimacy. Did Charlie finish his script?  Did he steal from Donald’s?  Did he resort to every cheap Hollywood cliché, or did every Hollywood cliché serendipitously happen to him?  Our inability to answer these questions cannot detract from the power of the dance Charlie has choreographed (or improvised).

Yet Adaptation does offer Charlie one last, floral answer.  Why, after months of sexual longing and frustration, should he kiss Amelia and tell her he loves her?  Critics may insist that Adaptation has nothing to do with flowers, but Charlie knows better.  His film needn’t “dramatiz[e] a flower” when a flower can instead serve to resolve all drama.  Does Amelia love him?  Does she love him not?  Apparently, the petals of a plucked daisy have given him the response he and his script long for and all the courage he needs.  As Charlie drives away after Amelia’s reciprocated declaration of love, the screen fills with the film’s final and most joyous moment, a highway median filled with daisies, blossoming to the contagiously ecstatic beat of “Happy Together (see Figure 5).”

“Happy Together:” The Insect and the Orchid in Kaufman and Jonze’s Adaptation, Sternlieb, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: “a highway median filled with daisies.”


I would like to thank Clare Cowen for her fortuitous observations.  I would also like to thank a certain participant at the Lexington Narrative conference and the readers and editors at Literature/Film Quarterly.


1 Adaptation. is the title of the film.  To avoid confusing punctuation I, like almost all critics, omit the period.

2 Spike Jonze, qtd. by King. King writes, “No one is talking about the effects in Adaptation, which suits director Spike Jonze and visual effects supervisor Gray Marshall just fine.” Figure 3 beautifully captures Jonze’s visual style.  Various flower patterns are simultaneously ubiquitous and unobtrusive in the twins’ hotel room.

3 Here are several examples of many. Both Joshua Landy and David L. Smith refer to “Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation.”  Jonze is only discussed in Landy’s footnotes where he insists that the film is Kaufman’s despite the fact that it is a collaboration.  K.L. Evans mentions Jonze participating in an interview with Kaufman but has nothing else to say about the director.  The point of Sergio Rizzo’s essay is that Adaptation is the screenwriter’s, not the director’s film.  Although the director “has long overshadowed the screenwriter,” “Kaufman’s acclaim as a screenwriter reflects a new sensibility.” Sarah Boxer also refers to Being John Malkovich as “Mr. Kaufman’s.”

4 I believe I am the first to mention the rhizome in relation to Adaptation. K.L. Evans mentions Deleuze in a very different context.  See “Charlie Kaufman, Screenwriter,” The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman, ed. David LaRocca (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2011).

5 I have no evidence that Orlean lies about anything. The Orchid Thief’s lies are Kaufman’s own inventions. Joshua Landy, “Still Life in a Narrative Age: Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation,” Critical Inquiry, Spring 2011, Vol. 37, No. 3.  Among many important observations Landy notes that Adaptation pretends that the closing words of The Orchid Thief are “fantastic, and fleeting and out of reach.”  They are not.  The words appear on p. 41.  See p. 499. 

6 Joshua Landy notes that “it is true, of course, that we have a much harder time postulating an author for
Adaptation. . .than postulating an author for the average Hollywood movie. . . .[but] the film bears if anything a more powerful stamp of an original vision than that average movie we find easier to read.”  This paradox is also at play in Casablanca, a film whose author is difficult to pinpoint, yet serendipitously bears the “powerful stamp of an original vision.”  See Landy, p. 514, note 37.

7 Wilder wrote Sunset Boulevard with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr.  All of his scripts were co-authored.

Works Cited

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Bernico, Matt. “Becoming-Wasp, Becoming Orchid,” March 11, fluxofthought.wordpress.com.  

Boxer, Sarah. “New Yorker Writer Turns Gun-Toting Floozy?  That’s Showbiz.” The New York Times. December 9, 2002.

Carroll, Sean B. Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species. Houghton Mifflin, 2009.

Darwin, Charles. The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. Ed. Frederick Burkhardt. Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Doyle, Richard. Wetwares: Experiments in Postvital Living. University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Evans, K.L., “Charlie Kaufman, Screenwriter,” The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman, ed. David LaRocca. University of Kentucky Press, 2011, pp. 23-45.

Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. University of Michigan Press, 2001.

Friel, James. “‘You See, This is My Life’ The Worlds of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.Literary Readings of Billy Wilder. ed. Georges-Claude Gilbert Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007, pp. 25-41.

Holland, Eugene W. Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Introduction to Schizoanalysis. Routledge, 1999.

King, Susan. “Adaptation effects: seamless, unsung.” Los Angeles Times. December 13, 2002.

Landy, Joshua. “Still Life in a Narrative Age: Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation,” CriticalInquiry, Spring 2011, Vol. 37, No. 3. , pp. 497-514.

Marks, John. Gilles Deleuze: Vitalism and Multiplicity. Pluto Press, 1998.

Massumi, Brian, translator. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. By Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. London: Continuum, 1987.

McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting.  Methuen, 1999.

Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief. Ballantine Books, 1998.

Rizzo, Sergio. “Adaptation and the Art of Survival,” M/C Journal 10/2, 2007.

Sarris, Andrew. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” Film Culture 1962, no. 27. (Winter 1962-1963).

Smith, David L. “The Implicit Soul of Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation.” Philosophy and Literature 2006 30, pp. 424-435.

Sutton, Damian and David Martin-Jones. Deleuze Reframed: Interpreting Key Thinker for the Arts. I.B. Tauris & Co., 2008.

Tomasulo, Frank P. “Adaptation as Adaptation: From Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief to Charlie (and ‘Donald’) Kaufman’s Screenplay to Spike Jonze’s Film.” Authorship in Film Adaptation, ed. Jack Boozer. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008, pp. 161-178.