Premise: A circus family attempts to keep its lucrative business going by utilizing a dark and horrifying secret.
About: Katherine Dunn, the author of the 1989 breakout novel, Geek Love, was a single mother working three jobs when her novel became an unexpected best seller. The Portland-based writer was, all of a sudden, thrust into the position of the city’s most recognizable female author. Portland author Rene Denfeld said of her: “She believed the job of a writer is to tell the truth—not the truth that Aunt Mabel wants to hear, not the truth that will sell books. She always said she was waiting for a male writer to write a memoir that was not about all the women he’d slept with, but about having a problem with premature ejaculation.” Geek Love is said to have inspired many artists, including Terry Gilliam and Kurt Cobain. Magician and actor Harry Anderson optioned the book for film rights and wrote this script, which still hasn’t been made.
Writer: Harry Anderson (based on the novel by Katherine Dunn)
Details: 107 pages – 1990 draft
Haven’t you heard? Circuses are all the rage. The Greatest Showman continues to have a strong hold at the box office, finishing in the Top 5 for the 7th weekend in a row. Sounds like Hollywood might be interested in a new circus project. Make no mistake. The misleadingly-titled “Geek Love” doesn’t have any dance numbers. But it does have darkness, secrets, and kids who swear a lot.
I love that truth statement Dunn uses above. As our society moves in a direction where saying anything that doesn’t tow the company line gets you beaten up on social media, it’s become harder for writers to be brave and tell the truth. So what we get instead is a bunch of safe vanilla b.s. with whip cream and cherries on top. The more I read, the more I realize that TRUTH is the secret ingredient that lights up a screenplay. When characters say and do things that REALLY HAPPEN in life, it gives the script an authenticity that can’t be matched.
Which is an odd way to begin this review, since Geek Love is about a freak show circus family. But it’s not so much the situation that’s truthful as it is the characters.
Geek Love introduces us to 40 year-old Oly, a humpback dwarf. Don’t feel sorry for Oly, though. She’s a tough woman who’s managed to become a successful DJ at a local radio station. After we observe her daily routine, we cut back to 30 years ago where we meet the Binewski family and their circus company.
There’s Al, the father, Lil, the mother. There’s Arty, a little boy with flippers for hands and feet. And then there’s Elly and and Iphy, Siamese twins. Arty and Elly and Iphy are the show’s main attractions, while Oly is the operations manager. Her deformity, you see, isn’t flashy enough to make an act out of. She’s just… ugly.
The family, as you’d expect, is an eclectic group. Al seems like a cool guy. Lil is sweet as can be. But Arty is pure evil, the devil incarnate, and has plans to kill off his parents so he can take over the business. Elly and Iphy hate Arty, and the three are always bickering. And when I say bickering, I mean there isn’t a curse word that isn’t used in this story.
When Lil becomes pregnant with another child, we learn the family’s dark secret. Al, you see, is feeding his wife insecticide. Why? Because the more poison his wife ingests, the more likely it is that she’ll have a deformed child, which means one more performer for the show! Al experiments with each pregnancy, having his wife take in a variety of poisonous artificial supplements. And what happens if the child is born normal? I don’t want to say because I don’t think you can take it.
When the new child is finally born – Chick – they realize he’s unlike any of the other children. As in, he has the power to levitate people and heal things. He also ages at a rapid rate, quickly catching up to the other kids. Chick’s powers allow Al to add new acts that he never could’ve dreamed of. But this new attention angers Arty, who sees his star fading.
Suffice it to say, you can only poison your family to create deformed children to work in your circus for so long before it backfires. And boy does it backfire. The only one who makes it out of the mayhem in one piece is Oly, who has some business to settle in the present day before she, too, joins that great big circus in the sky.
Is it possible to write a plotless script that’s entertaining?
That’s the question Geek Love poses (unknowingly).
And the answer is yes. But it’s a complicated yes. I only experience it every so often and it’s always for the same reason – the writer has such a unique voice that that voice overpowers the absence of plot. You read because everything is so fresh and different. Not because you’re trying to find out if the main character’s daughter will be saved.
So I say to all you plot haterz, go ahead and write something without a 3-act structure or GSU… but only if you’ve been told you have a voice unlike any other writer. You are Charlie Kaufman. You are Quentin Tarantino. You are Kurt Vonnegut. You are Katherine Dunn. Otherwise, I would stick to the basics.
With that said, Harry Anderson, the writer who adapted this, missed an opportunity to build a plot into the story. If you have a movie that takes place in the past, you can give it a “plot” by introducing a present-day storyline with a mystery. You then occasionally cut back to that present day mystery throughout the movie. This allows you to be weird and formless in the past. But the audience still feels like there’s a purpose to everything since there’s that unanswered question in the present.
Here, Anderson starts the story with Oly in the present, secretly obsessing over a strange woman who lives near her. It’s intriguing, but it’s completely abandoned once we jump back in time. It’s only at the end of the screenplay that we revisit the mystery, which does have a nice payoff, but because it’s been so long since the setup, we don’t care.
Anderson should’ve made this mystery storyline a bigger deal, cutting back to it throughout the screenplay. Instead he adds an unrelated present-day storyline that was kind of interesting, but because it didn’t have anything to do with the first one, it made the present-day stuff feel just as random as the past.
Luckily, JUST ENOUGH happens every 20 pages in the past that you keep hanging on. It was the revelation that Al poisons his wife to get freaks for his business that kept me reading a little longer. Then the emergence of Telekinesis Baby that kept me a little longer. Before I knew it, I was invested in all of the characters. They were all so weird and interesting, I had to find out what their fates were.
And that advice Dunn gives about truth is on full display in this story. Parents take advantage of their children in unimaginable ways. We just saw it with basement dungeon family. So as uncomfortable as the Binewski secret is, there’s truth in there. That’s why this book sticks out. And probably why people are afraid to make it into a movie. It’s too close for comfort.
I don’t know if I Geek Loved this. But I Geek Liked it. It’s unlike any script I’ve ever read.
Script link: Geek Love
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: (re: truth) Neil Strauss, who wrote The Game, a book about sleeping with a bunch of women, uses the book to chronicle his failures in seduction as well, such as the only time he’d ever had a chance with a Playboy model, but couldn’t get an erection due to performance anxiety. The book went on to become an enormous best seller. I wonder if Strauss knew that Katherine Dunn had predicted his success just ten years prior!