Novel to Screen :: Brent Hartinger on ’Geography Club’

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Nov 14, 2013

Since its publication in 2003, Brent Hartinger's gay YA novel Geography Club has spawned several sequels, including the 2005 follow-up "The Order of the Poison Oak," 2007's "Split Screen" (later retitled "Double Feature"), and -- just published this year -- "The Elephant of Surprise."

The books center around Russel Middlebrook, a teenager who, with his friends and classmates, sorts out all of life's big questions (love, loyalty, sex, friendship), and does it from a gay perspective. It's been a journey of transformations for Russel, but it's been an even greater shift for the real world. In 2003, gay teens were considerably more isolated and, as a result, disempowered.

Now, thanks to powerful forces like the Internet, the media (which has shined a light on the crisis of gay teen suicide and brought us gay icons like "American Idol" 's Adam Lambert and the "Queer Eye" guys in recent years), and seismically shifting social attitudes toward gay and lesbian individuals and their families, gay teens are no longer as willing to buy into the narrative that they are somehow "broken" or "wrong" because of their sexual and romantic feelings for others of the same gender. To be sure, gay teens are now accepted and even protected as never before: When a Republican governor signs legislation to ban so-called "reparative therapy" targeting vulnerable teens, as New Jersey's Chris Christie has done, the tide has turned and is never going back the other way again.

Angst toned-down

Of course, that means Hartinger’s story needed a little tweaking to bring it up to date. Aside from some increasingly small and isolated pockets of anti-gay hostility, gay-straight alliances (GSAs) like the one Russel and his friend start at their school are commonplace; in most towns, these take-charge kids would not need to disguise their GSA as a "Geography Club" to sidestep a less than sympathetic school administration.

"I think that they did a pretty good job of updating it," Hartinger said of the movie based on his still-popular novel. "There’s still prejudice, there’s still homophobia, but it’s definitely not a world where gay people don’t exist.

"They’ve toned down the level of angst," Hartinger added, "and I think because of that, just like the book, just like ’Glee,’ they are going to catch the wave that’s been rumbling under the radar for the last decade or two, the GLBT teen movement. I know there have been one or two exceptions, but I don’t think there have been very many movies, American movies anyway, about gay teenagers to date that are really quite this professionally done.

"This is a really slick top-notch production, and I’m really pleased with that. Some of the other movies from the last decade... their heart is in the right place, but the sound is a little off or the acting is a little off. I think in this case, they have a film that really could be a contender -- it could be held up against any other movie. I think people will be pleased and gratified, because the movie is validating of the issue of gay youth."

Stand up and be counted

Whenever the issues of teenagers and sexuality, especially homosexuality, come together, that really seems to press the buttons for some people. Hartinger addressed this point, saying, "I think it’s so much less the case than it used to be. I think the same people still get upset, but what’s different is people are now speaking up for these stories and these kids in a way they didn’t before. Society, liberals, and some gay people who weren’t willing to come out -- teachers who weren’t willing to come out in schools, others who weren’t willing to come out in their communities -- we sort of surrendered the debate to some really loud voices on the other side, and they controlled the debate. They got their way. They were able to scare politicians into thinking their voices were the only voices.

"The only thing that’s changed is, we’re now willing to stand up and be counted, and celebrities are able to come out now and support these things. I think that changes the balance. And then you have the mushy middle who, before, were only getting one side of the story; now they are hearing our side of the story, and I think our side of the story is more compelling, more logical, more ethical, and more moral.

"That’s why we’re winning," Hartinger continued. "It boils down to that."

Even so, there are vestiges of anti-gay animus, gay panic, and outright myths about what it means to be gay to which swaths of society continue to cling.

"I am absolutely sure the movie will be criticized, just like the book has been criticized by certain elements," Hartinger acknowledged, "and I think if teachers try to bring this into their classes, that’s going to be controversial in some cases. But there will be other people who stand up and say, ’Look -- this is something that’s important. This is something that I want to see.’

"They really bent over backwards in making the film to not have anything that is objectionable to kids and teens," the author noted. "There really is no way anybody can look at this movie and criticize it on any grounds other than homophobia. And you’re never going to satisfy those people."

Hands-on approach

Meantime, young GLBTs need, and deserve, to have their concerns and fears addressed. Hartinger doesn’t simply leave it to his books to serve that function; he takes a more hands-on approach. And example: "The Real Story," accessible via his website, which brings the topic of safer sex to young gays and bisexuals.

"HIV/AIDS is still a really serious disease, and gay and bi guys are at a very high (and rising) risk of catching it," Hartinger writes in text at the site. "But a lot of people don’t seem interested in talking about it anymore.

"So the Real Story Safe Sex Project takes a new, hopefully more entertaining approach: Learn about HIV and safer sex using entertainment and popular culture, especially projects involving your favorite fictional gay and bi characters."

To launch The Real Story, Hartinger has penned a new story, "Two Thousand Pounds Per Square Inch," which features a characters familiar form the Russel Middlebrook novels and can be downloaded for free on a variety of platforms.

The real stories that constitute real life may have branched out in such literally novel new ways, but that doesn’t mean the source material has to be let behind. Hartinger noted that the film remains firmly rooted in the first book’s text.

"It is entirely the first book, although they have read the other books and one of the producers told me several years ago that he wants to make this movie so that he can then make the sequel," Hartinger shared with EDGE. " ’The Order of the Poison Oak’ is his favorite book in the series. It may not happen... but if it does, that would be fantastic."

Indeed, the producers demonstrated their dedication to Hartinger’s original text in an unmistakable and straightforward way.

"They gave everybody, from Scott Bakula on down, the three books in the series that were out at that time so they could read them," the author related. "And then I gave everybody the fourth book when it came out."

Changes happened

Naturally, translating a book to the screen means changes have to happen: That’s the nature of the business. "But they found the books inspiring," Hartinger said, "and that is very flattering. They just sent me the movie poster last week, they’ve kept me in the loop and were very respectful all along the way. I’ve tried to be respectful back, and allow them the freedom to do what they wanted to do. It would have been a little awkward had the movie been crappy... but fortunately, that didn’t happen! I’m proud to have my name associated with it, and have the other books associated with it."

By the way, you read correctly: Scott Bakula has a role in the film, alongside Cameron Deane Stewart, who plays Russel; Ally Maki and Andrew Caldwell, who portray Russel’s best friends Min and Gunnar, respectively; Justin Deely, who plays closeted football player Kevin; and Teo Olivares, who plays Brian, the unpopular kid who gets picked on and who Russel befriends.

"The casting was probably the single best element of the movie," Hartinger enthused. "Some of the actors are exactly like I imagined the characters; some of them are not, but they are so good that they have me re-thinking -- ’Maybe that’s a better way to go!’ And also, I didn’t meet anybody [from among the cast] who I didn’t really like personally. Cameron is such a nice guy. He’s from Texas, and when he moved to Hollywood he got two movies in two weeks -- one of them was ’Geography Club.’

"Justin Deeley, since he did the movie he’s been cast in ’Drop Dead Diva,’ so he’s got a recurring role there now. And Nikki Blonsky, who played the lead in the movie ’Hairspray,’ when she heard about the movie she contacted them and said she wanted to be in it. She got a smaller role [that of Terese], which they re-wrote for her. Alex Newell, who is an actor from ’Glee,’ is in the film also [in the role of Ike]. I couldn’t have asked for better actors, honestly. I’m very pleased with the way that went."

Another movie?

EDGE ventured the opinion that "Split Screen" ... sorry, "Double Feature" would make for a particularly fun movie, should a film franchise develop, given that the novel involves Russel and friends working as extras in a zombie movie.

"I think they all have some potential," Hartinger averred, like a proud parent unwilling to identify a favorite child. " ’The Order of the Poison Oak’ has a theme of fire, and you could do a lot with that visually; but I also think the latest one, ’The Elephant of Surprise’ would work well.

"I’d like to see them do ’The Order of the Poison Oak,’ because it’s next in line, and also because I think it’s a sweet story," Hartinger added. "It’s an unusual gay teen story in that I don’t think you see a lot of gay teen romances with non-traditional gay characters, and I think having a burn survivor as a love interest [would be interesting]. I like that the story is about Russel learning about safe sex; he learns that people are not always what they seem, and how you look is not necessarily an indication of who you are.

"It’s really not about the gay experience," Hartinger reflected. "I sort of feel that as a society we like to say that for something to be a non-issue, first it has to be an issue. But now that being gay or being a gay teen has been an issue, I’d like to see us move on and see a movie that isn’t about the gay experience so much, but rather about the experience of a kid who happens to be gay. Somebody is going to do that, and I would love to have my name involved with it. I think that’s really where society is headed and it’s going to be an exciting place to be."

There’s speculation online that Hartinger is going to write another book in the series; there’s even a rumor that the fifth installment would skip ahead in time to Russel’s early 20s, possibly while he is still in college.

"I haven’t started a fifth book," Hartinger states, adding that whether he does continue the series "is going to depend on how the movie is received. If they do a second movie, I’ll definitely write it; if the movie is a big success, I’ll definitely write it. But I have devoted a considerable amount of my time writing and talking about this series, and while I’m proud of it and happy with it, there are so many other stories I’d like to tell."

Working with his husband

For example?

"I just finished an adult thriller with my partner [Hartinger is married to novelist Michael Jensen; the couple live in the Seattle area], and I’m working on another film project right now, which hopefully will be filmed this spring. And then I have some other film projects circulating, and I would really like one of them to go forward."

Now might be a good time for a dollop of full disclosure: This EDGE correspondent was an occasional contributor to AfterElton (which has now morphed into TheBacklot), the gay site created by Jensen, Hartinger, and Sarah Warn. At the time, Jensen was the site’s editor in chief. After asking Hartinger to pass his fond greetings along to Jensen, EDGE asked about the creative collaboration the two spouses have recently completed.

"I thought it was going to be really hard," Hartinger admitted." What you expect from your partner is unquestioning loyalty and support, and that’s what he has always given me -- we’ve been together 20 years now. But the one thing is, when he critiques my manuscripts he can be critical and harsh, and it’s role confusion -- I expect him to be supportive, and he’s critical! Which I appreciate, because that’s what I’ve asked him to do, but it’s confusing.

"When we approached this project I thought, ’This is going to be horrible; we’re going to be fighting; it’s going to create this weird dynamic in our relationship,’ " Hartinger continued. "It wasn’t like that at all! We did have to work together, but in the end I think that made things better because we didn’t do anything unless we both agreed. Anything that was questionable, we threw out and came up with something else. We were both on the same page with the big picture, so I’m really pleased with the end result, now we have to see if a publisher buys it. But it was a surprisingly good experience -- if this thriller is successful, we’ll definitely write more books."

Flex his muscles

Meantime, Hartinger is yearning to flex his creative muscles and delve deeper into the possibilities of nuance for gay characters.

"I have another gay teen project out there that is very dark and disturbing," he teased. "Because I and others have written stories about what it means to be gay, I’m hoping we can now move beyond to what comes next. What stories do we tell when being gay isn’t really that big an issue? That really opens up possibilities where being gay informs the story, but doesn’t dictate the story.

"This next gay teen novel I want to see published involves a gay character who is not necessarily good or heroic -- he’s a darker character. I’m hoping I can now explore darker themes even in GLBT teen literature, whereas before you didn’t want to give the other side any ammunition. New freedom in society gives us as writers lots of freedom, too."

Plus, EDGE mused, it’s nice to see a more complex portrayal of a gay character rather than someone who is a cliché or a cardboard cutout or shiny and happy and sexless.

"Right, and now you can do all the nuance in between," Hartinger said. "I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie ’Cruising,’ but all the defense of the movie saying that it’s just an ordinary thriller and not every gay character is going to be a hero... you can’t say that, as they tried to say in 1979 when that movies came out. You can’t say that when there are no heroic gay characters in movies. When all you have are the villains, which all we’d had for generations, and when you give us another gay villain who frankly isn’t even all that nuanced, you can’t fall back on that sort of rationalization. Until we are the heroes, we can’t be the villains; it’s not fair. Well, now, we are the heroes sometimes, and that opens the gate.

"I watched ’Skyfall’ two nights ago," Hartinger goes on to relate. "It wasn’t a terrible movie, but the whole bisexual villain thing - I have see that so many times. It’s so frustrating to see that yet again. People tried to claim that it was somehow revolutionary, but it didn’t seem revolutionary to me at all. That one-off line where James Bond hints that maybe he’s gotten it on with a man, that just didn’t do it for me. That wasn’t enough. Give me a gay super-spy, and then we can talk about all those legions of lesbian and gay Bond villains we’ve had over the decades. But until you give me a gay James Bond, I don’t want to see another freaky bisexual villain!"

Watch the trailer to Geography Club:

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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