A couple months ago, I read The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. Getting through it took quite a bit of effort, which was disappointing because it’s the source material for one of the most interesting films I’ve ever seen: Adaptation.. I have mentioned Adaptation before, and like all dutiful book-lovers I try to read movie source material as much as possible, so it seemed only natural to pick this one up, too. As it turns out, Adaptation. and The Orchid Thief have almost nothing in common; one is a detailed history of the orchid with a focus on Florida, while the other is a self-aware, possibly hallucinatory story of a screenwriter in pursuit of the story The Orchid Thief deliberately wasn’t telling. In fact, the only thing the two stories have in common is the two principle characters–John Laroche (the eccentric orchid collector whose story inspired the book), and Susan Orlean herself.
But, as it turns out, calling the character Meryl Streep plays in Adaptation. “Susan Orlean” is more than a little bit of a stretch. The set-up for Adaptation. resembles the real world, with Susan Orlean going to Florida to interview the mercurial and fascinating Laroche, but it very quickly takes a turn for the bizarre, with Susan and John in an illicit affair built around grinding up and smoking the rare ghost orchid. As you might imagine, the real Susan Orlean has nothing in common with this fictionalized version of her, and yet they share an identity. What’s up with that?
Susan Orlean isn’t the only real world person who got to see an aggressively fictionalized version of themselves on the big screen. This happens all the time in biopics and more surreal films like Being John Malkovich, as well as cameo-based humor favored by big-budget comedies (Chuck Norris in Dodgeball; David Bowie in Zoolander; the entirety of This Is The End and Pauly Shore is Dead; etc.). The famously amicable Neil Patrick Harris is one of the most notable examples, when he played his own drug-guzzling, prostitute-branding maniac doppelganger in the Harold & Kumar franchise (the possibly apocryphal origin story here is that Harris’ manager caught wind of this script and warned Neil about it so that he could put an end to it, but instead the actor thought it was so funny that he asked to be in it, on the condition that he be credited as playing “Neil Patrick Harris” rather than “himself,” because he was not, in fact, representing himself). Playing on expectations about who a celebrity is makes for an easy joke, and “true history” type stories are rarely interesting enough for film without a little creative editing, so real people often turn out fictional in the movies.
But how can you safely navigate this kind of tricky water? If you want to write about a real person, is it okay to change fundamental elements of their personality? Are you even allowed to write about them? Where is the line between fact and fiction, and how the hell are you suppose to navigate it?
There’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that, yes, you are allowed to write fictional stories about real people, even without their permission. That’s pretty much how all fiction works, anyway, to varying degrees; fictional characters are just franken-people, made up of bits and pieces of real people in the author’s life with some made-up bullshit thrown in for variety. The bad news is that, without their permission, you can’t use their real name. This complicates things for writers like Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of Adaptation. (who is featured in it himself, though fictionalized and played by Nicholas Cage; he also wrote Being John Malkovich, which is referenced in the film), who didn’t have permission from Susan Orlean to use her name for such a drastically altered persona in his script. The studio producing the film spent months begging for her permission to greenlight the script, and she finally did give in, but only after considerable resistance (you can see an interview with her about it here). Without her go-ahead, the studio would have had to change the name, which Kaufman resolutely refused to do.
Writing about real people is a tricky business even when you’re not drastically altering them. In general, permission is king. The person you’re writing about has to be okay with what you are writing, which gets complicated when you are trying to find a good angle for the story and their sense of self is getting in the way. Lots of authors write intensely revealing and personal stories about their friends and loved ones (David Sedaris comes immediately to mind; in his story Repeat After Me he even say about his sister, “She’s afraid to tell me anything important, knowing I’ll only turn around and write about it.”; you can hear him read the story on This American Life), which one presumes must lead to a lot of awkward conversations. Unsurprisingly, many other authors steer clear of the situation altogether, resolutely denying that their stories are based on real events or people, sometimes even when parallels are obvious. Mark Twain famously stipulated that his autobiography not be published until 100 years after his death, to ensure that everybody he knew would die before reading it; the first volume (out of four) has since been published. Seems a bit overkill, maybe, but at least nobody is going to sue him for libel.