With books, as with films, success depends a lot on the timing and the tie-ins. Whether it will resonate with readers or viewers, and whether it will sell, depends on whether its theme or plot are particularly relevant, or whether something else has happened that makes it stand out from the “noise” in the industries. And sometimes, the timing is just not fortuitous. An example of this is the film based on the novel Tulip Fever, by Deborah Moggach, released in the USA on September 1, 2017. Haven’t heard of the film? Read on.
Go straight to tulip fever.
17th century Orchid Fever
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the themes of the book and the film were quite hot and there was a glut of them on the market. Today, not so much. Almost twenty years ago, Orchid Fever, by travel writer Eric Hansen, re-introduced the world to the volatile trading of the futures market – specifically, trading in orchid plants, which had its heyday in the seventeenth century. (On a futures exchange or market people trade contracts to buy specific quantities of a commodity or financial instrument at a specified price with delivery set at a specified time in the future.)
The orchid collecting mania started in 1818, when William John Swainson sent a box of tropical plants he had acquired in Rio de Janeiro to London, using orchids as packing material – and the impressive flower than bloomed in London triggered “orchid fever”. When orchid fever reached its height in the Victorian era, orchid madness, “Orchidelirium”, hit a peak, and people were staking their fortunes on buying and selling orchid bulbs with an eye on how the flowers will look when they eventually bloom – and what they would be worth then. And the rarer and more exotic the plant – the better. The mad pursuit of collecting and discovering orchids in far-flung, exotic places reached extraordinarily high levels and wealthy orchid fanatics sent explorers and collectors to almost every part of the world in search of new varieties of orchids.
Orchid Fever, by Eric Hansen (2001)
In his narrative non-fiction book, Hansen follows the trail of growers and dealers in the highly lucrative orchid market, and it is a story of intrigue, secrecy, smuggling, betrayal and insanity. It’s surprising, since they are, after all, just plants. But what desirable, beautiful plants! Hansen’s book reads like a thriller and the opening paragraph is a good indication of the dramatic tone of the rest of it:
“There is something distinctive about the sight and sound of a human body falling from the rain forest canopy. The breathless scream, the wildly gyrating arms and legs pumping thin air, the rush of leaves, snapping branches, and the sickening thud, followed by uneasy silence. Listening to that silence, I reflected on how plant collecting can be an unpleasant sort of activity.” (P.1)
The collecting of orchids in the wild was banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) adopted in 1973, though some orchids are still endangered and smuggling still happens.
“‘It’s [the Paphiopedilum sanderianum] the holy grail of orchids,’ Richard explained. ‘Maybe only a dozen botanists on earth have seen it bloom in the wild. It has the whole orchid world in turmoil, conservationists, scientists, and commercial growers are at each other’s throats over the plant.’” (p.7)
Trading in orchids today
That orchid with the long name quoted above is the rarer version of the potted orchid that you can buy in your local grocery store or flower shop. In the 1990s, when Hansen wrote his book, the worldwide annual retail orchid growing business had a value of about $9-billion. Today it is much less, estimated at $288-million. These days, people mostly buy potted or cut flowers that are easy to transport (in their cars or shopping carts), and easy to keep alive in their homes for decoration. The Netherlands is one of the most important suppliers in the field of pot plants, with goods of €742 million in this category being exported to Germany in 2015. And the pot orchid has 36% of the flowering indoor plant market, followed by poinsettias with 10 per cent, cyclamen, kalanchoes and pot roses. In other words, other pot plants aren’t even a patch on orchids. But the glory days of trading in orchids are long gone. Nobody will kill for an orchid plant now.
17th century Tulipmania
In Europe, formal futures markets appeared in the Dutch Republic during the seventeenth century – a prime example was the tulip market. At the peak of Tulipmania, in February 1637, some single tulip bulbs sold for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsworker – an enormous amount of money for the time. The historical events of Tulipmania and Orchidelirium are so strange and dramatic – a case of truth being stranger than fiction – that they became popular fiction and non-fiction subjects from when Alexandre Dumas wrote his novel The Black Tulip in 1850.
In 1998, two years before Hansen’s book came out, American journalist Susan Orlean published The Orchid Thief, a non-fiction biography based on her investigation for the New Yorker magazine of the 1994 arrest of John Laroche and a group of Seminoles in south Florida, USA, for poaching rare orchids in the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve.
Then, Deborah Moggach, author of These Foolish Things, that was made into the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, wrote the popular romantic novel Tulip Fever, published in 2000, the same year as Hansen’s book.
A popular subject: Tulipmania and Orchidelirium
Tulip Fever, by Deborah Moggach (2000)
In Tulip Fever, Moggach depicts the commonalities between the lust for, and cost of exotic and rare things of beauty, like art, porcelain and flowers. It combines the themes of trade in flowers, with trade in art. With this type of rarified collecting, as Donna Tartt depicted in The Goldfinch, and Edmund de Waal described in The White Road, obsession and insanity are never far away.
In Tulip Fever, Amsterdam in the 1630s is in the grip of tulip mania and swimming in the money from trading in tulip bulbs. “Cornelis Sandvoort”, an ageing merchant, commissions a talented young painter, “Jan van Loos”, to preserve his status and marriage on canvas – as was the habit in the Golden Age of Dutch painting. Domestic interiors, portraits and still lifes were composed according to rigorous rules for the inclusion of objects that had specific symbolic meanings – flowers for fleeting life, a skew tablecloth for lust, exotic fruits for wealth, a mirror for introspection or self-awareness, a motto on a piece of paper as a warning, etc. The beautiful young wife, “Sophia”, is just another object that symbolizes Sandvoort’s wealth and power.
At the sittings, the passion between Sophia and Jan grows – and why would it not, considering that she becomes the object of his unvarying attention and flattery? The conclusion of the book has to do with what bulbs they can lay their hands on and what price the bulbs will get, so that they can have the money to elope.
Tulip trading and Johannes Vermeer
The master of the symbol-laden domestic scene in The Netherlands at that time, was Johannes Vermeer or Jan Vermeer. All the art world has left of Vermeer and his work during the Dutch Golden Age of painting, is a small number of known and authenticated works that he painted between 1650 and 1680. He specialized in interior scenes and portraits, carefully and precisely executed, with great attention paid to the symbolism of the objects and poses in the scenes he created. His most famous work is probably Girl with a pearl, in Dutch, “Meisje met de parel”, painted around 1665. This small but exquisite work hangs in the Mauritshuis museum in Den Haag, The Netherlands. The pearl signified prosperity, vanity and desire.
This painting has become so popular that Tracy Chevalier wrote a historical novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999, re-issued in 2001), fictionalizing the painting’s creation. In the novel, “Johannes Vermeer” becomes involved with a fictional servant named “Griet”, whom he has sit for him as a painting model while wearing his wife’s pearl earring. The novel was made into a 2003 film with the same name, and a 2008 play. The attention that that Vermeer lavishes on Griet and her vulnerable position as an object of lust but also a lowly servant, are revealed in the book and also in the film.
The film of Tulip Fever – released too late
Released on September 1, 2017, the film thus far has remained low-key. It is a question of timing: the production was delayed for a long time. The project started in 2004, which would have made it timeous, just after the book – and others on the same subject – hit the market and were in the news. Due to financing problems it was shut down until it was restarted by Ruby Films and the Weinstein Company in 2013. It was filmed in the summer of 2014 but then the release was postponed for three years. The first test screening happened in November 2014 and didn’t get positive reactions. The film was originally scheduled to be released in June 2016, but the release date was pushed to July 2016, then to February 2017, and it was finally released in theatres in certain European countries from July 13, 2017, and in the USA on September 1, 2017.
“Timing is everything. That’s the takeaway, both on-screen and off, from ‘Tulip Fever’, a well-bred, if tawdry period drama set in Amsterdam at the height of Tulipmania, in 1637, when prized bulbs might fetch more than the value of a house. It was an economic bubble, of course (although the term would not be coined for nearly another century, with the so-called British South Seas Bubble), and fortunes were made and lost according to when investors entered the market. But timing also matters in the telling of such stories, and Deborah Moggach’s 1999 novel coincided nicely with the dot-com bubble, whereas the long-delayed adaptation of same from the Weinstein Company arrives at a perplexing moment.
“Not only is there nothing presently in the zeitgeist to which to peg such a story (except perhaps the Dane DeHaan-Cara Delevingne reunion nobody asked for, shot before ‘Valerian’ and shelved for nearly a year), but the entire package has a curiously old-fashioned feel — and not just because it takes place 380 years ago. Rather, ‘Tulip Fever’ aspires to the handsome, harmless middlebrow appeal of such Miramax movies as ‘Chocolat’ and ‘Shakespeare in Love,’ and ultimately represents the kind of “prestige” art-house pablum around which Harvey Weinstein could once spin a best picture frenzy.” (Peter Debruge, Film Review: Alicia Vikander in ‘Tulip Fever’, in Variety, Sept, 1, 2017)
Debruge’s review is spot-on. I recall that Moggach’s novel is a bit of a bodice-ripper, with a secret pregnancy and romantic subterfuge, and a whole heap of lustful glances and heaving bosoms. Keeping close to the novel, the film is a period romance, and focused more on the painter-model relationship than on tulip bulbs (despite the title) which were, at that time, more desirable than gold, much less a woman or a painter’s model. That is the thing of course – it is the “look of love” that passes between a painter and his model that has been known to cause a whole heap of trouble over the ages. But Tulipmania was drama on a much grander scale.
In this sense, Tulip Fever, the film, is both out of sync with the current issues in the world – and the publication trend in the late 1990s and early 2000s of books about futures trading in plants. One struggles to find relevance in the subject, and to be purely a visual feast is simply not enough these days.