The Orchid Thief

The Orchid Thief is a 1998 non-fiction book by American journalist Susan Orlean based on an article that Orlean wrote for The New Yorker. It is based on her investigation of the 1994 arrest of John Laroche and a group of Seminole Indians in south Florida for poaching rare orchids in the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve.

Laroche, a Miami eccentric, hit upon the idea of collecting endangered species of orchids from swampland that was Seminole territory, by using real Seminole Indians to obtain his specimens and exploiting their legal right to use their own ancestral lands.

Laroche narrates a poetic passage about the beauty and mutability of the Orchid and the limitless shapes and forms they take to attract insects, insects which in turn imitate their shapes and coloring and fall in love with the flowers, propagating them in a curious dance of nature. Orlean’s writing centered on the power of singular passion to drive a person’s life.

Adaptation,  is a 2002 American comedy-drama, directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie [and Donald] Kaufman, based on Orlean’s book. Kaufman who had been hired to write a screenplay of the book, experienced writer’s block He ultimately wrote a script based on his experience of writer’s block while adapting the book into a screenplay.

Kaufman has a similar singular passion to Laroche, the passion to create a truly unique story, one that is far from the formulaic Hollywood scripts he abhors. The film then is a a pun, referring both to Darwinian principle of adaptation among Orchid species as lauded by Laroche, and the ordeal for Kaufman of adapting a book into a screenplay.

Kaufman co-credits the screenplay to his twin brother, a curiosity since Donald does not exist outside of the screenplay. Donald is everything Charlie is not – confident, successful with women, a hack writer. Faced with the surprising news that Donald’s script for a clichéd psychological thriller, called The 3, is selling for six or seven figures in Hollywood , Charlie resorts to attending a screenwriting seminar in New York to seek inspiration.

Needless to say the film slides from biography of man with writer’s block into a ludicrous conglomeration of elements of a Hollywood thriller, drugs, sex, guns, chases, even a crocodile attack. Charlie visibly perks up once he knows how to convert the book into a film and closes wondering which international superstar will portray himself in the film.

The film is both teller and told, both narrator and narrated. One is left realising that we have not watched a story of a man adapting a book into a screenplay, we have in fact been watching the story of a man telling the story we are watching, co-written by a character within the screenplay, leading us on a merry dance of adaptive creativity.

But what more would you expect from the writer-director duo who brought us ‘Being John Malkovich.’

Pygmalion

Pygmalion (Πυγμαλίων Pugmalíōn) is a legendary figure of Cyprus, most familiar from Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses. He is a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he has carved.


Depiction of Ovid’s narrative by Jean Raoux.

Having crafted the perfect woman, Pygmalion makes offerings to Aphrodite at her festival day, quietly wishing for a bride who would be “the living likeness of my ivory girl.” When he returns home, he kisses his ivory statue, and finds that its lips are warm. He kisses it again, and finds that the ivory has lost its hardness. Aphrodite has granted Pygmalion’s wish. Pygmalion marries the ivory sculpture and they live happily together.

In modern times, George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, reexamines the myth through the story of underclass flower-girl Eliza Doolittle who is metaphorically “brought to life” by a phonetics professor, Henry Higgins. Higgins teaches her to refine her accent and conversation and otherwise conduct herself with upper-class manners in social situations. The play inspired the film My Fair Lady starring Audrey Hepburn.


King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1884, by Edward Burne-Jones, currently hangs in the Tate Gallery, London.

George Bernard Shaw’s re-telling of the Pygmalion myth also draws upon the Elizabethan ballad of King Cophetua. Titled “The King and the Beggar-maid,” the story is Cophetua, tells of an African king who one day while looking out a palace window, witnesses a young beggar, Penelophon, “clad all in grey”. Struck by love at first sight, Cophetua walks out into the street, he tells Penelophon that she is to be his wife. She agrees and becomes queen, and soon loses all trace of her former poverty and low class.

C. S. Lewis often used Cophetua and the beggar girl as an image of God’s love for the unlovely. In The Problem of Pain, he writes,

We cannot even wish, in our better moments, that [God] could reconcile Himself to our present impurities – no more than the beggar maid could wish that King Cophetua should be content with her rags and dirt…

In classical fairy tales, the maiden is woken from an enchanted sleep by the kiss of the Prince, just as Pygmalion, the sculptor awakens his bride, with a kiss. Moreover, Professor Higgins endows Eliza with dignity and pride, bringing her ‘to life‘ by bestowing upon her the graces of society. But these tales offer little nuance to what may occur to an unsuspecting creator once he has summoned a real life woman with agency and choice, into his life.

It is not love to to fashion a person as though an object, to be pure and good, endowed with life yet with the expectation it will remain good and pure in perpetuity? A mannequin or socially engineered project like Eliza Doolittle cannot truly feel loved nor genuinely love in return under such conditions.

Bernard Shaw’s play notoriously does not end with the fairy-tale love story of Ovid’s Pygmalion. Rather Eliza rebels from Higgins, refusing to fetch his slippers and he grows furious for “lavishing” his knowledge and his “regard and intimacy” on a “heartless guttersnipe” who he has made “a consort for a king.”  The Hollywood film version ‘My Fair Lady’ of course rejected such a realistic ending in favour of, well a Hollywood one.

What is reality then? The Hebrew prophets tell of a tragic drama between YHWH and his people, here depicted as a young girl taken from poverty to be the bride of the King. Ezekiel 16 reads:

10 I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put sandals of fine leather on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. 11 I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, 12 and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head.

However, the bride does not remain beautiful and obedient for the king. She soon rebels, turning to prostitution and idol worship and even giving her children up for human sacrifices.

15 “‘But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute… 16 You took some of your garments to make gaudy high places, where you carried on your prostitution... 17 You also took the fine jewelry I gave you, the jewelry made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them. 

The prophet continues to lament all of Israel’s misfortunes as resulting from the self inflicted chaos of Israel’s choices, a once chosen and adorned bride who chased other lovers. He closes with a reminder of YHWHs eternal promises.

Soren Kierkegaard’s version of the ballad of King Cophetua, ‘The King and the Maiden’ retells the tale with the king willing to take on the clothes of a beggar to claim the woman he loves. It is he that abases himself rather than she he elevates, lest he overwhelm her with his power and grandeur and never truly claim her heart.

The King and the Maiden

This short story strikes at the heart of the reader, for love is true love not when the object of desire is bestowed with graces to make her worthy of love, but when she is met by the humbled heart of one earnestly and repeatedly wishing to know her win her heart, one indeed willing to suffer the pains of loving her and her imperfections and keep coming back to an eternal promise of love.

Prometheus Bound

Prometheus Bound is a 5th century BC Greek tragedy attributed to the playwright Aeschylus. It recounts the myth of Prometheus, a Titan who defies the gods and gives fire to mankind. Prometheus is famously subjected to perpetual punishment for this kindness, becoming a precursor to rebel heroes of literature and popular culture, who stand against tyranny and suffer for the freedom of others.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus (Προμηθεύς,  meaning “forethought”) is is credited with the creation of man from water and earth and for enabling the progress of civilization. Prometheus not only gives the gift of fire to mankind but he also teaches humanity all the civilizing arts, such as writing, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, architecture, and agriculture.


Prometheus Brings Fire by Heinrich Friedrich Füger. 

The Titans, of which Prometheus is one, were members of the second generation of divine beings in Greek mythology succeeding the primordial deities born from the void of Chaos. The Greek story of creation, much of which entails the violent warring between the primordial deities such as Gaia (earth), Uranus (sky) and Chronos (time) is said to have been adapted by Hesiod from eastern creation myths such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish. 


Prometheus watches Athena endow his creation with reason (painting by Christian Griepenkerl, 1877)

The Titan Chronos (time) wins the primordial battle and establishes the Golden Age of Greek mythology. According to Hesiod, (Theogony, 511–616) the Golden Age was an era when:

[Men] lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace.

The peace of the Golden Age was upturned when Chronos was overthrown by his son Zeus, to establish the reign of the Olympians gods or the Silver Age of Greek mythology. According to Hesiod, the Titan Prometheus supported Zeus in his war against Chronos, however later undermined Zeus’s authority by thwarting his plan to obliterate the human race, and further helping humanity by stealing fire for them (Hesiod, Theogony, 565-566) .

Zeus sentences the Titan to eternal torment for his rebellion by ordering him to be bound to a rock, where each day an eagle, the symbol of Zeus, was sent to eat his liver, which would then grow back overnight to be eaten again the next day and forever. Years later, the Greek hero Heracles, descendant of Zeus, slays the eagle and frees Prometheus from his torment (520–528).

In Hesiod’s account, Prometheus is no hero. He contributes to human suffering by gifting humanity fire and granting them independence from the gods, and loss of innocence. On the other hand, in Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus is portrayed as the rebel with a conscience, whose crime – his love of the humans he created – brings not only the rage of the gods, but eternal suffering and the sympathy of the human audience.


Prometheus (1909) by Otto Greiner

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Romantic artists admired the Promethean figure, using him a a foundation for the Romantic hero who, resisting the oppressive forms of society foresees a future in which all such repression will be overthrown. In light of the Napoleonic wars, the American war of Independence, the French Revolution and other struggles of the era, the emancipation of humanity from tyrannous rule was indeed topical and required a strong, emancipating hero.

Writers such as Byron’s saw Prometheus’ victory over the gods, in a metaphysical sense, as a refusal to submit to

‘the inexorable Heaven, / And the deaf tyranny of Fate’ (ll. 18–19),

and to go to one’s grave

‘Triumphant’ by ‘making Death a Victory’ (ll. 58–9).

As such the figure of Prometheus [bringer of fire] was compared with Milton’s defiant character Lucifer [bearer of light]for embodying the spirit of rebellion.


Prometheus Bound by Thomas Cole (1847)

On the other hand, other Romantic writers saw the Promethean hero to prefigure Christ, as a divine being who suffers horrible tortures for the sake of mankind in face of the will of the gods. How then could one literary figure represent both Christ and Satan, holding qualities of both rebel and sacrificial hero?

Percy Shelley, writing Prometheus Unbound, posited that hatred narrows perception. He writes:

Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement

Shelley’s version of the Promethean hero focuses upon transformation, made possible by the act of forgiveness. While Byron’s retelling of the Promethean myth puts the emphasis exclusively upon defiance, Shelley’s hero forgives his oppressor, and suffers for his creation, setting in motion a process which leads to a new world, freed from oppression.


Prometheus Being Chained by Vulcan by Dirck van Baburen

Writing to the political climate of his day, Shelley rejected the cycle within history of replacing one tyrant with another.

… until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness.

As such Shelley’s Promethean hero, champions free will, goodness, hope and idealism in the face of oppression.

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.


Heracles freeing Prometheus from his torment by the eagle (Attic black-figure cup, c. 500 BCE)