The role of the auteur is that of a filmmaker whose unique artistic vision pervades all aspects of the project. The film effectively becomes their baby, and the work as a whole is indicative of their stamp. While film is a collaborative effort, the auteur crafts the work towards his vision, which in turn guides the production toward its artistic goals. In the case of the 2003 film Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is the auteur, as the entire project is geared toward his unique artistic vision. Adaptation is a very loose adaptation of Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief, an autobiographical novel about herself and eccentric plant dealer John Laroche. While Orlean paints herself as a reasonable person in her book, Laroche being a fascinating, if eccentric and quickly tempered man, Kaufman's adaptation of the novel presents Orlean and Laroche in subtly different ways that still provide a semblance of their original characters.
In The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean refrains from describing herself, but as the narrator of the novel her voice shines through among her descriptions of orchids, Laroche, and the history of the Fakahatchee Trail. As a piece of non-fiction, the story is not really about Orlean, nor does she make it out to be. She merely records her immediate thoughts and emotions surrounding the events of the book, and about Laroche. Orlean is inquisitive, though not overly patient - at many points throughout the book she becomes tired of Laroche's off-kilter eccentricity. However, the main relationship between Laroche and Orlean is strictly platonic, as Orlean portrays him as a subject of inquiry. The narrative constantly maneuvers back and forth between various subjects and timelines, with backstory-enhancing tales fluidly interweaved with the events of the chapter.
Laroche, from Orlean to Kaufman, maintains most of his primary character traits; he is an eccentric, jovial but overly confident yokel with no front teeth and an encyclopedic knowledge of plants. "Frankly, Your Honor, I'm probably the smartest person I know," he says in both novel and script, an apt analysis of Laroche's personality (Orlean, p. 6). This betrays a simple confidence and pride, which is often greater than his abilities, as evidenced when he gets lost in both versions of the work. Orlean's version of Laroche is enigmatic, hard to pin down; he never truly seems to run out of steam. What's more, Laroche is actually fascinated with the orchids and nothing else; in Kaufman's version, Laroche has a side interest in the drug that the ghost orchids create. Instead of them being rare pieces of beauty, Laroche sees them as a commodity.
The most important liberty taken by Kaufman in adapting Orlean's character to the film is to expand one moment from the novel (where Orlean thinks about killing Laroche) and extends that into a whole murderous side to Orlean. "I also very much wanted to kill Laroche, to actually murder him and leave his body here, not because murder is part of my nature or upbringing and not because I thought it would help me find the way out of the swamp but just because I was furious with him and I was wrought up and had a lot of nervous energy" (Orlean, p. 280). This moment was just a moment of frustration for the real Orlean, something that is dropped as soon as it is brought up. However, Kaufman, as an auteur, takes the creative liberty to extend that into the film's third-act switch into Orlean being a gun-toting drug-addicted crazy woman.
Another of Kaufman's influences in adapting the novel is to give Orlean and Laroche a love story - eventually, they fall for each other, taking drugs and having sex in a forest, where Charlie catches them. With Kaufman's story (which Kaufman himself lambasts in the meta-story for being too cliche), he realizes the difficulty of adapting the book is that there is no real connect between the two characters. Thus, taking a cue from Valerie (and his brother Donald), he makes them get together, thus creating a story from a book that was just made up of observations.
In turning Orlean and Laroche into dramatic coconspirators in murder, Kaufman makes the characters more dramatic and filmable, though they are very consciously not reflective of the people described in Orlean's book. This is the responsibility of the auteur; Kaufman is self-referential in his struggles to adapt The Orchid Thief, trying to make a book about flowers seem a dramatic, successful movie. In doing so, he dramatically changes the story most of the way through the film, turning it into a drug/murder tale instead of the piece of distanced, homey journalism found in Orlean's book.
Jonze, Spike. Adaptation. 2003.
Kaufman, Charlie. Adaptation: The Shooting Script. New Market Press, 2003.
Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief.