“Adaptation” and the South Florida Ghost Orchid
“Adaption” was released December 6, 2002. The film’s domestic box office gross was $22,498,520
WARNING: SPOILER ALERT
Adaptation is a film about adapting a book into a screenplay, but it’s also about adaptation in so many other ways. Several stories are layered and woven into a complex plot: a slice of Miami history fictionalized into a love story serves as a backdrop for a screenwriter’s angst about writing the very same movie we are watching. It’s a trip—not just into the swamp in search of an elusive bloom, but also into the hearts of characters longing “to care passionately about something.”
The screenplay is based on screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s attempt to adapt Susan Orleans’ book, The Orchid Thief, to the big screen. In real life, Kaufman found writing a movie about flowers so challenging that he wove his writer’s block and creative process into the story, creating a fictional version of himself in his own screenplay.
Nicolas Cage plays the anxious and tormented fictional Charlie, who suffers not only from writer’s block, but the kind of neurotic shyness and indecision that’s quite obviously modeled after Prufrock, the character from T.S. Eliot’s poem, who thinks twice too many times before writing a word, making a decision or kissing the girl. Cage also plays Charlie’s twin brother, Donald, a carefree alter-ego who has no qualms about writing a formulaic Hollywood screenplay. Donald is spontaneous, writes prolifically and gets the girl. In other words, he adapts and goes with the flow—but at what cost? His screenplays are cheesy and predictable.
Donald is a projection of everything Charlie longs to be, but the former is stuck deeply within his own insecurities as a man and a writer. Despite the quality of his writing and highbrow artistic aspirations, he can’t budge. He is a master of hesitation, not adaptation.
It’s not until Donald is killed off that Charlie breaks free from his own limitations. Charlie ends up living the very corny, predictable Hollywood drama he wanted to avoid writing in the first place—a deus ex machina throws the plot into a tailspin, complete with car chase, fatal alligator attack and corny musical conclusion.
But in the process, Charlie adapts and stops hesitating. He grows some balls, kisses the girl and writes the final lines to his screenplay. The film ends with “So Happy Together” by The Turtles, with Charlie driving out into the sunset (well, actually out of a parking lot into Sunset Boulevard), freed at last from writer’s block.
The Love Story
Just following Charlie and fictional-character-within-a-fiction Donald is interesting enough, but the story within the story is even more interesting because it’s based on true events that couldn’t have taken place anywhere else but South Florida, home to one of the rarest flowers on the planet. John Laroche (played brilliantly by Chris Cooper) is the name of a real Miamian who was arrested and tried for poaching ghost orchids and other plants from the Fakahatchee Strand in December 1993. Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) is a real journalist who wrote an article about Laroche’s hearing at a Collier County Court in 1994. “Orchid Fever” appeared in The New Yorker (1995), which Orlean later expanded in book form as The Orchid Thief.
In the film, the swamp-slogging, self-proclaimed horticultural genius Laroche and the sophisticated but emotionally blank New Yorker Orlean become romantically entangled, which never occurred in real life. But most of what you see in the film regarding Laroche’s notoriety as poacher comes straight from Orleans’ article in the New Yorker—some of it verbatim.
The fictional romance between Laroche and Orleans plays on the idea of adaptation in a perverse way. Laroche is a jack of all trades and an all-or-nothing obsessive collector who’s good at everything he does but isn’t able to adapt. He abandons each and every hobby on a whim with no emotional attachment whatsoever, never looking back, no matter how much time, money and energy he has invested. In one unforgettable scene, Laroche uses colorful language to tell Orlean that he has given up his prior interest in exotic fish with such conviction that he renounces fish altogether. He refuses to set foot in the ocean again, even though the Atlantic is just a few miles away.
In contrast, Orleans is a successful New York-based writer whose book has been optioned into a film. In the same scene, she tells Laroche that such an ability to divorce himself emotionally from the past can lead to a total disconnect. She’s a middle-aged woman looking for “something to care passionately about” and she finds that in the unlikely Laroche—not so much in him, but in his stubborn passion for orchids.
The pair couldn’t have been more mismatched. They “adapt” to each other only briefly. In order for Orlean to let go of her inhibitions, she snorts a strange green hallucinogenic powder Laroche has manufactured from the ghost orchid based on a traditional tribal recipe.
She also poses on Laroche’s porn site, a new business venture he undertakes in the course of the film. The drug fulfills the longing she so craves and Laroche, bitter from his divorce, falls for the fact that she has fallen for him. It’s a doomed relationship. They adapt, but don’t survive.
Seen as a whole, the metaphor of adaptation from a botanical as well as human perspective is played out beautifully in this movie. Adaptation is about what you need to do to survive in the world, as Orlean says in the film. Orchids have mastered adaptation over thousands of years; it’s a different story in the realm of the human heart.
THE GHOST ORCHID AND THE REAL JOHN LAROCHE
Orchids are the most numerous of blooming plants on the planet—there are over 25,000 species all over the world—and each one has adapted to its own environment. They are masters of adaptation in the name of sex; the shape of each orchid determines how it will attract its pollinator. (In fact, the word orchis means testicle in Latin.)
Discovered by a Belgian plant collector in Cuba in 1844, Polyrrhiza lindenii is rare in nature; it only grows in southwestern Florida, the Bahamas and Cuba. When it’s not blooming, the stemless and leafless orchid appears as a clump of roots attached to a tree.
When it blooms, the flowers appear suspended in air, hence its namesake.
Because they are endangered and so difficult to cultivate, the real-life Laroche was tempted to propagate them himself, putting an end to the black market and in his own twisted altruistic way of thinking—the need for poaching wild specimens.
In her New Yorker article, Orlean quotes what Laroche told a Collier County judge during his hearing: “I’ve been a professional horticulturist for approximately twelve years. I’ve owned a plant nursery of my own. . . . I have extensive experience with orchids, and the asexual micropropagation of orchids under aseptic cultures. . . . I’m probably the smartest person I know.” Laroche was and probably still is one of a few specialists in the entire world who could propagate the ghost orchid successfully in a laboratory.
Laroche had several strokes of bad luck back in the late 80s and early 90s. In 1998, a car accident knocked out his front teeth, killed his mother and uncle and left his wife in a coma. She later divorced him. In 1992, he lost all his greenhouses to Hurricane Andrew. Orlean writes: “Laroche decided then and there he would die of a broken heart if he ever opened his own nursery again.”
After Andrew, The Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc. placed a job ad for an expert to help build a nursery on tribal grounds. They hired Laroche, who wanted to clone orchids in a laboratory that would become part of the nursery.
Laroche then spent time at the University of Miami Law Library studying Indian law, searching for a loophole regarding the removal of exotic species from state land. He had precedents regarding Indian immunity: the case against Miccosukee Indians for poaching palm fronds and the State of Florida vs. James E. Billie, a chairman of the Seminole Tribal council, who got away with shooting, skinning and eating an endangered panther.
In 1993, Laroche and three Seminole men from the nursery were arrested for removing 136 plants—including several specimens of the ghost orchid—from the Fakahatchee Strand, a state preserve in Everglades City located off Route 29. The case was eventually resolved on a loophole, just as Laroche had predicted. At the time, Indians were technically immune from statutes prohibiting the removal of endangered plants, but the plants they removed were attached to tree branches, which are not endangered. (Orchid roots attach stiffly to tree bark and Laroche wanted to avoid damaging them.)
The Indians pleaded no contest to a statute that forbids cutting up trees; they might’ve been off the hook had they removed the orchid directly. As far as Laroche was concerned, the judge made it clear that merely being an employee of the tribe was hardly grounds for immunity, so he pleaded no contest to both poaching of plants and removal of trees. He returned the plants, paid court costs and a fine. His greatest punishment, however, was probation: for six months, he couldn’t enter the Fakahatchee Strand.
THE GHOST ORCHID TODAY
On July 11, Associated Press reported that on July 7, two bird watchers discovered a ghost orchid at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, a private park managed by the Audubon Society. Ed Carlson, park manager, told me that there were eight blooms approximately 45 feet off the ground, 150 feet away from the boardwalk. By July 12, one of them was already wilting brown.
RJ Wiley, a Florida-based wildlife and landscape photographer, recently captured the bloom in this gorgeous photograph. The photo wasn’t easy to take—he had to set up his camera on a ladder away from the boardwalk. Here, you can clearly see the root mass and the leafless, stemless flower. Strip away the flowers and it’s obvious how difficult it would be to identify the plant simply by its roots.
Our local celebrity ghost orchid has only one pollinator, the giant sphinx moth, whose proboscis is long enough to fit just right, not one millimeter less or more—just right. The slim nectar spur on the bottom is shaped like the long tongue-like appendage of the moth, which can measure up to six inches long. As the moth sucks nectar, sticky grains of pollen attach to its head. For pollination to occur, the moth must visit another orchid where, hopefully, the same pollen will detach onto the plant. The process is a perfect example of adaptation and the unique relationship between the flower and its pollinator.
THE GHOST ORCHID AS ART
World-renown black and white landscape photographer Clyde Butcher, who specializes in Everglades images, had his own love affair with the rare bloom. Each shot in the triptych below was taken in 1999, 2000, and 2001, respectively, and required long treks into the swamp, as well as hauling ladders, a tripod and of course, heavy professional camera equipment.
You can visit Clyde’s Big Cypress Gallery on your way to the Fakahatchee Strand or Corkscrew Swamp. Click here for a google map of the locations mentioned in this article. Ghost orchids bloom mid-summer around June or July, but the beauty of the Everglades remains year-round.
—RJ Wiley tip via Michael Pancier.
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