Water for Elephants image © Twentieth Century Fox
“Water For Elephants” may turn out to be perfectly entertaining in its own right, but be honest – how much of your motivation for seeing it this weekend stems from displaced hunger for the ever-elusive screen adaptation of Katherine Dunn’s 1989 masterpiece, Geek Love? It’s basically like having sex with someone while actively fantasizing about someone else the entire time (I predict a national spike in this very behavior early next week, thanks to the hot circus lovin’ of “Elephants” stars Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon).
Despite having been counted among many filmmakers’ dream projects, Dunn’s novel – which focuses on a family of sideshow performers who deliberately cultivate “marketable” deformities in their offspring – remains a sort of holy grail of cinema. For the author, hopes for an adaptation spring eternal. “I hope it happens,” says Dunn. “It would extend and expand the life of the book … A lot more readers come to [books] because of film adaptations than through the normal literary streams.” While fans of her book are sure to have the highest possible expectations for a Geek Love film, Dunn is very realistic about the compromises that would be involved: “Some writers get snooty about what happens when their books are adapted to film, but I don’t feel that way. Film is a different art form with its own demands and its own riches. A screenwriter once told me that adapting a script from a novel is hard, ‘Like trying to cut a child’s suit out of a man’s overcoat.’ That makes sense to me. Plus, the process of reading is a home movie at its best. Each reader projects their own version of the experience inside their skull as they go along. It’s probably true that no two people read exactly the same book. A film adaptation is, I hope, the director’s version. A new creation.”
It seems that the name batted around most frequently in connection with Geek Love is Tim Burton, making Johnny Depp considered a shoe-in for the role of Arturo, the family’s flippered mastermind. “Every time a new director is rumored to be interested I try to imagine how they might treat it,” says Dunn. “But in any hands at all it could go in any direction. It could be the most gawdawful schlock or a masterpiece for the ages. Or anything in between. Not my machine.” With all the optioned titles out there, she’s perfectly aware that “many are called and few chosen,” and that’s before you add the weight of certain filmmaking challenges (namely conjoined twins, pyrotechnic effects, and amputations galore). “In the early years I could see that casting might be a problem,” Dunn comments. “The mere technical problems of depicting the characters could be daunting. But with CGI and other special effects it seems possible, though expensive.”
In the absence of a proper film tribute, fans of the book are not inclined to sit idly by, notes Dunn. “I’ve been amazed to see how many incarnations and mutations Geek Love has sprouted. Visual artists, musicians, theater groups, costume parties, even sandwich names in cafes, have all done riffs on characters or incidents in the book. The book acts as a launch pad, or maybe a trampoline for other artists to do their own tricks,” she says, adding: “Gives me a kind of Granny thrill to see it.” Notable example: in 2004 a company called Sensurround Stagings produced a theatrical adaptation. Also, the musical project “Evelyn Evelyn” (conjoined-twin alter egos concocted by rock stars Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley) cites Geek Love as an influence. Has Dunn listened to the album? “Fortunately, my friend Michael Upchurch, the novelist and critic, is tuned in to everything. I knew nothing of this until Upchurch sent me the CD a couple of weeks ago. In his note he calls it ‘true, high-gothic headphone theater.’ That’s a pretty good description. I enjoyed the CD. But I don’t hold a patent on Siamese twins.” She points out some of the other literary references named on the Evelyn Evelyn Facebook page: Half Life by Shelley Jackson, The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton by Dean Jensen, One of Us by Alice Dreger.
Here’s hoping that, should you choose to partake in “Water for Elephants” this weekend, Dunn’s gracious attitude toward other purveyors of lurid circus-fare will keep you from feeling unnecessarily adulterous – and while we’re at it, here’s hoping that ever-patient Geek Love fans will continue to rally for a solid adaptation [don't know about you, but this writer is rooting for a fully animated version]; in this respect, there seems to be room for as many people (and/or limbs) at the table as ever before.