A Novel Idea: Monica Drake’s “Clown Girl”

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
March 24th, 2011

“A Novel Idea” is a recurring feature at Gordon and the Whale that combines two things that I may have some expertise in – books and movies. “A Novel Idea” is essentially book reviews with a cinematic bent, examining literary works already slated for the big screen treatment – aiming to give us an idea of what to look for when those books finally hit the silver screen, for better or worse.

If you’re not thinking about it too hard, you may hear the words “clown girl” and “Kristen Wiig” and think, “ohh! Good-natured fun!” Then you will read the introduction to Monica Drake’s claustrophobically captivating Clown Girl and realize there is nothing even remotely good-natured about this book and that, hopefully, its film adaptation will fall into the same dark place. Why would it only take you a perusal of the book’s introduction to make this realization? Because that introduction was penned by no less than Chuck Palahunik, Drake’s former writers’ group-mate, and in that introduction, proclaims Drake “his arch rival.” There are no happy clowns in Clown Girl.

Kristen Wiig optioned the rights for Clown Girl back in May of 2010, and though there has been little chatter about the project since then, Wiig was at that time slated to adapt the book and star in the film. IMDb lists the film as being “in development,” with a release date in 2012. For all intents and purposes, the project is still a go and, in a year or so, the big screen should feature one of the greatest female antiheroes in grease paint, well, ever.

That Palahunik pedigree is certainly going to inspire some questions. The most obvious, of course, is Clown Girl something like FIGHT CLUB for chicks? Possibly. Clown Girl is less biting than FIGHT CLUB, feeling much closer in tone to something like CHOKE. The book chronicles the disastrous and dirty life of a clown girl hanging by synthetic thread. Sniffles the Clown (real name: Nita) loves clowning for the craft of it, but bad life choices have forced her to retreat into her clown persona for safety, not for love of the rubber nose. She lives in the glorified mudroom of the home of her drug dealer ex-boyfriend and his crazy new girlfriend (a bodybuilder, no less) in a borough not-so-lovingly called “Baloneytown.” Her idolized boyfriend, Rex Galore, has run off to San Francisco to try to get into Clown College. And the work? The work’s not so great for Sniffles lately, as corporate gigs with her girl-clowns-in-arms Crack and Matey are starting to look more and more like flat-out prostitution. Combined with the loss of her clown pup, a missing rubber chicken, possible heart trouble, and a neighborhood cop she can’t get off her tail, Sniffles has got more problems than you can shake a juggling pin at. Clown Girl wraps all these issues up into one waylaid lady clown and attempts to make a book out of it. The novel is both very funny and very sad.

If Wiig can pull it off, CLOWN GIRL would be a huge boost to her career. Though the very nature of its source material will likely keep it from being anything resembling a blockbuster, CLOWN GIRL could be the sort of just-above-indie flick that establishes Wiig’s true comedic range with an unexpected dramatic twist. As of late, Wiig’s comedic chops have felt forced and wasted. Her appearances on Saturday Night Live have recently been reduced to nothing short of boring retread of her own personal stock characters, characters that have more than overstayed their welcome, characters that entirely obscure Wiig’s talent. Can she go hard with something like CLOWN GIRL? Something like MACGRUBER, a film that was about twenty-two times more irreverent than anyone expected, proved that Wiig is game for going for different laughs.

And Clown Girl is actually remarkably tonally similar to Wiig’s next starring project – BRIDESMAIDS. Like her character in the Paul Feig film, Nita has made some serious missteps in her life and is living with the consequences. Both characters have lost things dear to them, and the trajectory of their stories follows those loses and how the ladies attempt to get those things (and people) back. More than anything, Wiig’s work in BRIDESMAIDS (check out my SXSW review of the film HERE) reassures me that she is more than up to the task of both writing and playing Nita. The plot line of Clown Girl is inherently bizarre and layered with metaphor, but if Wiig can come at it straight-faced, CLOWN GIRL the film can be just as hilarious and heart-wrenching as its source.

So what’s a film like CLOWN GIRL going to look and feel like? There’s no tricks to the source material, and there should be no gimmicks in bringing it to the screen. Drake has written interesting characters that are hard to root for (but easy to love) and placed them in a remarkable setting. Baloneytown is poverty with a sense of humor – as bizarre as that may sound. Look no further than HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN to see how an over-the-top ghetto should be conceived. Sniffles and her ilk would fit right in with that trashed and crass atmosphere. In Baloneytown, the streets run with equal parts refuse and rubber chickens. Mixed in with all that desperation, Sniffles and her ambulance full of clown costumes should be both shocking and pleasing to the eye, a stripe-bedecked beacon of…something.

Sniffles is the central character in the story, but she is also surrounded by a number of supporting characters who play right into the action. When it comes to Jerrod, that cop she can’t shake, the first name that pops to mind (signaling that maybe I took too much of my Host post to heart) is Matt Damon. Damon is a bit too old for the role, but Jerrod needs to be all-American with a streak of sweetness. Someone like a less sarcastic Chris Pine or a more straight-laced Ryan Gosling would fit the bill. The other man in Nita’s life, “clown prince” Rex Galore is built up throughout the book, so that when he finally makes his grand appearance, it’s paramount that all the hype is capitalized on. He needs charm and wit with an edge, along with curly hair to tuck under his clown wigs and long legs to power his unicycle. Still deep in my love for Miranda July’s THE FUTURE, there is only one Rex Galore for me – Hamish Linklater.

When it comes to drug dealer ex Herman, his girlfriend Nadia-Italia, and the other girl clowns Crack and Matey, my dreamcasting powers fail me. Drake purposely ascribes them only slight physical traits (Herman has a ponytail, Nadia-Italia is buff, Crack is skinny), sketches of what they look like, so casting will rely much more on what the characters feel like.

Clown Girl has the potential to translate very well to the screen indeed, already gifted with a strong lead character, a memorable setting, and a few scenes that should stun (see: Sniffles’ “Juicy Caboosey” act gone wrong). The challenge that awaits Wiig (and whoever else will be working on the adaptation) is condensing down the parts of the book that are there more for the fun and feel of them into something that works harder for plot trajectory. Clown Girl is, at its heart, a character study, less about a point-A-to-point-B story, a piece that is ripe for shaping into something more dynamic. A script and performance from Kristen Wiig are, no joke, a damn fine start.

You can read an excerpt from Clown Girl on Drake's website HERE.

Look out for the next installment of “A Novel Idea,” featuring Matt Bondurant’s “The Wettest County in the World.” Do you have a book you’d like me to give the “Novel Idea” treatment to? Let me know below!

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