A Plant’s-Eye View of Desire and Evolution
BEFORE Michael Pollan became a guru of the food-supply-reform movement, thanks to best sellers like “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” he wrote a book called “The Botany of Desire.”
But it wasn’t Mr. Pollan’s growing prominence that finally got “The Botany of Desire,” an idiosyncratic examination of plant history and evolutionary science published in 2001, turned into a PBS documentary. It just took that long to raise the production funds. The nearly decade-long lag resulted from an unhappy reality of the business: Film underwriters are skittish about topics like marijuana, widely used but still mostly illegal, which is one of the program’s four topics.
“The Botany of Desire” is Mr. Pollan’s first book to be adapted for television — and, he says, his favorite of all his works. The two-hour documentary, to be broadcast on Wednesday on many public television stations, follows the book’s conceit: It takes the plants’ point of view in exploring whether they control humans to ensure their survival.
To illustrate, Mr. Pollan, a constant on-screen presence in the program, examines how people’s desires for sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control of nature have been exploited by apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes to lure humans into spreading them far and wide. Many of the ideas he developed in the book became the “seeds,” he said, for his writing on the food supply in The New York Times Magazine, where he is a regular contributor, and then in his books. (He examines corn “from its own point of view,” for example, and looks at the perils of planting crops with uniform genetic traits.)
The documentary’s producer and director, Michael Schwarz of Kikim Media, said he immediately saw the television potential when Mr. Pollan sent him the manuscript for “The Botany of Desire” in October 2000. The two have long been collaborators, first working together in New York in the late 1970s on a short-lived magazine, Politicks & Other Human Interests.
Close-ups of multicolored tulips and panoramic vistas from mountaintop Andean potato fields would provide visual interest, Mr. Schwarz said, and “the whole idea of looking at our relationship with plants from the plants’ point of view is very provocative.” Plants, he said, are “not simply working for us but we may also be working for them.”
Although the budget for the film was relatively small by commercial standards, about $1.2 million, Mr. Pollan called the financing process, which included presentations to several different National Science Foundation panels, “incredibly long and laborious.” The proposals, he said, were landing on the desks of corporate underwriters and foundation grant makers at the height of the drug war. And the film’s marijuana section would examine how the humble cannabis weed benefited dramatically from the war on drugs to become a more potent, pampered and prolific species, as growers, whom Mr. Pollan calls “the best gardeners of my generation,” brought it indoors and crossbred it for hardiness.
At one point a potential financer suggested substituting grapes for cannabis. “This seemed to me to be a really bad idea,” Mr. Pollan said, “in part because the marijuana section is really interesting, and also because what kind of message would that send? That we changed for television for political reasons; you just can’t go there. We stuck to our guns.”
Mr. Schwarz said he eventually found a bit of National Science Foundation grant money to make a portion of the marijuana section in advance. He used it to emphasize to other potential underwriters that he was not making a pro-drug film but a natural history story about “this co-evolutionary relationship and brain science.”
In the end PBS also contributed to the budget, as did the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Columbia Foundation in San Francisco.
Once he had the funds, Mr. Schwarz still had the challenge of staying true to the book. “The way Michael thinks about the plants, the way he allows us to get inside his head as he’s discovering them is very hard to translate into film,” he said. “It’s like an interior monologue.” There was also the cinematic hurdle of having plants as main characters. “We were faced with a couple predicaments, one is they don’t move, the other is they don’t talk,” Mr. Schwarz said.
Special photographic lenses allowed some close-up photography of the plants. And he and his collaborators found people — including medical-marijuana growers and Jan Ligthart, a strapping Dutch tulip grower shown lovingly cradling a white-bordered pink tulip he developed — who were “mad about these plants, who were completely obsessed about them and had devoted their lives to them,” Mr. Schwarz said.
Mr. Pollan is pleased with this foray into television, he said, but the medium isn’t always for him. He worked on a television documentary early in his career, and decided the process was too cumbersome. “There’s a certain freedom you have as a writer to be digressive,” he said.
Six producers approached him about adapting “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” for a documentary, but “nobody came along who had a really interesting idea who was going to freshen it,” he said. So he didn’t sell anyone the rights, although he was interviewed in the feature documentary “Food, Inc.,” which incorporates some of his ideas.
As a book “The Botany of Desire” weaves together evolution, biology, psychology, literature, poetry, philosophy and Greek myth. Inevitably, some of that went by the wayside in the television adaptation, including Mr. Pollan’s musings on Apollo and Dionysus, characters he used to illustrate the competing approaches to nature, domination and abandon. Nietzsche disappeared too.
“It’s television,” Mr. Pollan said. “It doesn’t do as well with ideas, especially old ideas.” In his defense Mr. Schwarz noted that he was able to save Swedenborgianism, a form of Christianity followed by Johnny Appleseed, but “Dionysus wouldn’t agree to an interview.”
By ELIZABETH JENSEN
Published: October 22, 2009