112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Adaptation and Adaptation: Impotence, Potence, and Orchid Thievery

Reine Bouton, Southeastern Louisiana University

I will explore how impotence is shown in the film Adaptation to reflect the creative challenges of adapting a print text to a film.


Everything is an adaptation of something. Susan Orlean adapted John Laroche's story in The Orchid Thief and she parsed details from books on orchids and chose in which manner she would organize and present them in her novel. It is not all her original material. Yet, she penned a successful novel. The adaptation of that book, entitled Adaptation, not only attempts a re-telling of The Orchid Thief, but speaks to the nature of adaptation itself. The metafictive film is layers upon layers of writing, editing, narrating so that, as the protagonist, Charlie Kaufman's twin brother, Donald, says at one point "Sometimes this kind of story turns out to be something more, some glimpse of life that expands like those Japanese paper balls you drop in water and they bloom into flowers and the flower is so marvelous you can't believe there was a time all you saw in front of you was a paper ball and a glass of water.” 


The struggle the narrator has with writing the screenplay of Orlean's book has at its core, the notion of fidelity, a notion which is inherently connected to adaptation studies and in the popular sense for audiences, who explore whether the film was faithful to the book. Film adaptations are indeed held to a higher standard than the print texts on which they are based, but as Thomas Leitch in "Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory," notes, so few texts (of any kind--print or film) are original or not adapted from something anyway. The real writer of (and character in) Adaptation, Charles Kaufman, and the director Spike Jonze explore in this film the struggle in the creative process of writing an adaptation, most notably seen in the motif of impotence found throughout the film. Charlie embodies impotence as he struggles to stay true to Orlean's book--he is sexually impotent and cannot kiss a girl he likes, let alone have sex with her or anyone other than himself, he cannot find the words or make himself speak to people, he cannot write; in short, he cannot act. He exists as a self-deprecating, effaced figure who is powerless in his ability to live his life or write this screenplay, all under the pressure of the effort to be authentic.  In my paper, I will explore the way in which impotence represents the act of adaptation and how this struggle is ultimately resolved by the end of the film.