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ORLEAN, SUSAN: ADAPTATION

ADAPTING TO REALITY
New York writer Susan Orlean passed by Meryl Streep on a film set in 1978; now Streep is portraying Orlean in Adaptation, which is based on Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief. Reality and reality collide, as Orlean reveals to Andrew L. Urban on the eve of the DVD release of Adaptation. 


It’s a good job Susan Orlean is my kinda writer, a journalist attracted to good stories from real life and an unpretentious American with a dog called Cooper. (We’ll get to Cooper later.) I say it’s a good job, because having a phone interview slotted for 7.20 am is in itself not a good thing. Then to have the American publicist tell me at 7.35 that Miss Orlean (enjoying a New York afternoon) is now pressed for time with an appointment coming up, so my interview time is shrunk, just makes it worse. To cap it off, after we finish our (productive and friendly) interview, the same publicist has a quick chat with Orlean as if I were discarded and dismissed. 

It’s not so much my pride that’s been pricked, it’s my sense of common courtesies that’s been denied. But Orlean, like most decent Americans, makes up for it with the kind of openness and generosity about themselves that only highlights such shortcomings in others. For example, Orlean is happy to reveal her thoughts and feelings throughout the arduous process of adapting one of her books into a film called Adaptation. 

As you may already know, Adaptation is directed by Spike Jonze and it tells the story of real screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage), who is commissioned to adapt Susan Orleans’ (Meryl Streep) meandering non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief, to a screenplay, but he is overcome by his insecurities and can't get started. He asks his sweet but simple identical twin brother Donald (also Nicolas Cage) for help, who suggests he enrols in industry-famous Robert McKee's (Brian Cox) screenwriting workshop. In the meantime, Susan ventures on a journey of self-discovery with the eccentric and troubled subject of her book, orchid lover John Laroche (Chris Cooper).

Cooper won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role, and no, Orlean’s Welsh Springer Spaniel is not named after him at all. The dog is named after Orlean’s father’s best friend, because she just likes the name. So it’s a weird coincidence. Like the weird coincidence that Orlean’s one and only stint as an actor was as an extra in The Deer Hunter (1978), in which Meryl Streep starred. They passed each other on the lot a lot, but never really met.

"would be better than to have someone who is as talented as Meryl Streep"

“I teased her later (after Adaptation) about how we’d got to know each other on set as a joke, as I was one of hundreds of extras.” But it wasn’t that brush with Streep’s early fame that made it thrilling for Orlean to be portrayed on screen by the legendary actress. “I felt that if you’re going to take this plunge into the unknown, and the potentially risky, what would be better than to have someone who is as talented as Meryl Streep. It made a big difference to me and made me feel that I could get involved in this project with a certain amount of confidence.”

It certainly wasn’t a question of look-alike casting. “We don’t look alike…we’re not the same height, I’m a redhead she’s a blonde…” And although she didn’t have much to do with the adaptation process itself, nor the making of the film (other than being available for questions and having her home and her wardrobe inspected), Orlean felt connected and a subdued, repressed excitement as the process moved along. 

“I gave some comments on the script, but my involvement was more as an intersted party, which is what I wanted and what seemed appropriate to me. And when the whole thing was done I just wanted to have fun going to all the screenings.” 

Orlean, now a staff writer for The New Yorker, kept her excitement in check. After all, this was her second book-to-film experience, after one of her stories, The Maui Surfer Girls, in a collection published under the title The Bullfighter Checks Her Make Up: My encounters With Extraordinary People, was made into Blue Crush (released in Australia in December 2002). 

"a healthy scepticism"

“I’ve learned from my brief experiences in Hollywood that you should never get too excited until you get your tickets to the Academy Awards. I just didn’t quite believe it was going to happen until it finally actually happened. There were so many stage of the development process that I just thought, ohh, who knows if this will ever happen. I think I had a healthy scepticism.”

But it did happen, and the film was a critical and commercial success. 

Several reviews of Adaptation describe the film as a spoof or a parody or some sort of comment on moviemaking. Those reviewers seem to have missed the point of the film. In one interview, Charlie Kaufman explains: "It was important not to parody anything. It was very important that there be continuity in the seriousness with which we took the characters, no matter what portion of the movie they were in. Our interest is always to sort of create a conversation in a movie, rather than give you any kind of conclusion." 

Adaptation, after all, is the story of the adaptation wrapped around the original story that Orlean wrote, a sort of diary of writing madness that engulfs the reality on which it is based.

Orlean: “In 1994, I headed down to Florida to investigate the story of John Laroche, an eccentric plant dealer who had been arrested along with a crew of Seminoles for poaching rare orchids out of the a South Florida swamp. I never imagined that I would end up spending the next two years shadowing Laroche and exploring the odd, passionate world of orchid fanatics. I certainly never imagined that I would willingly hike through the swamps of South Florida.”

"Nor... receiving tickets to the Academy Awards,"

Nor, she might have added, that she would indeed be receiving tickets to the Academy Awards as a result.

Published June 12, 2003



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Susan Orlean


Cooper - not named after Oscar winner Chris Cooper

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Chris Cooper


Meryl Streep in Adaptation







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