Curses! Downers South grad not happy with movie version of his book

In the new movie "The Curse of Downers Grove" - being released Tuesday on Blu-ray, DVD and video on demand - a student at Downers Grove High School tragically falls to his death from a water tower.

It's one of many terrible deaths attributed to the Downers Grove "curse."


Yes, but for Downers Grove South High School graduate Michael Hornburg, who wrote the book the movie's based on, it's all too real.

"I saw more people die in high school than in the rest of my life," he said on his cellphone while walking the streets of New York City.

"One kid died in a car crash," he said. "One kid drowned in a quarry. The girl who sat next to me in typing class, she was kidnapped outside of an arcade and was found murdered inside a garbage bag in Lisle. So there was a lot of murder and mayhem and people getting killed on a scale I never experienced again. It was so concentrated in such a short period of time."

Hornburg lived on Chicago's North Side until he was 14. Then he moved to Downers Grove, where his grandparents lived.

He graduated from Downers Grove South High in 1978 before heading off to live in Portland, Oregon. He became a musician and spent a year working at a San Francisco nightclub, then moved to New York where, he said, he makes his living selling used records and books.

We asked Hornburg if he had seen "The Curse of Downers Grove" and if he approved of the huge changes made from his original book, all about a high school senior named Chrissy who becomes slightly obsessed that she might fall victim to "the curse."

Chrissy's sagely grandmother, a dominant figure in the novel, has been expunged from the movie, as has Chrissy's mother's insatiable appetite for male attention.

"Chrissy's grandmother is the moral center of the book," Hornburg said. "Chrissy is always going to her for advice. That's sad they didn't keep her in the movie."

Hornburg admitted that if this had been his first experience turning a book into a movie, he'd be much more outraged by the changes. But he's been on this horse before.

His 1996 novel "Bongwater," a quasi-autobiographical work centered around the grunge music scene in Portland during the '80s, became a 1998 movie starring Luke Wilson as an aspiring artist who falls in love with smoking pot, prompting his girlfriend (Alicia Witt) to head to New York with a heroin addict (Jamie Kennedy). The movie also featured Jack Black, Amy Locane, Brittany Murphy, Andy Dick and Jeremy Sisto.

"In books, you're trying to create an emotional feeling," Hornburg said. "In movies, people want to be rocked out of their seats. It's a completely different thing. I had previously gone through this with 'Bongwater.' I was in complete shock over that.

"That experience prepared me to be more open and more understanding and more ready for what (the film) was going to be. You just have to distance yourself from the movie. I understand that they have so much money invested in this that you have to let them do what they want."

And what was it they wanted for the movie?

"They always wanted more drama, more tension! More tension! More tension!" he said. "That's just the theme in Hollywood. They want things scarier and scarier. That's just how it works."

So, "The Curse of Downers Grove" that Hornburg wrote - he described it as a lighthearted high school tale like "Clueless" - turns into a fairly violent homage to Sam Peckinpah's home invasion thriller "Straw Dogs" at Chrissy's suburban house.

Hornburg's Downers Grove roots can be found in both his novels. They share a common character in David. "Bongwater" features a five-page flashback to David's youth in Downers Grove, one that Hornburg says reflects his own experience.

"Downers Grove was very much a party town," he said of his time living in Illinois.

How did he escape the Downers Grove curse?

"When you're young, you're careless," he reflected. "I remember people driving around in cars doing stuff they shouldn't be doing while driving.

"And I was very conservative, not politically, but in a careful way."

Does Hornburg get a percentage of the earnings for "Curse of Downers Grove" or did he simply sell the rights?

"I learned from the first time I did this that you get all your money up front," he replied. "That's how it works."

• Jamie Sotonoff and Dann Gire are on the lookout for suburbanites who would be make good column subjects. Send them your suggestions at and

Will-be musician and novelist Michael Hornburg is shown soon after his graduation from Downers Grove South High School.
Downers Grove native Michael Hornburg is shown in Paris, France, during the time he wrote the novel that is now the basis for the thriller “The Curse of Downers Grove.”

Mentors? Musician, novelist and Downers Grove South High School graduate Michael Hornburg didn’t have many.

But he said he did befriend music legend Muddy Waters.

“When we were kids in Downers Grove, Muddy Waters lived in the next town over, Westmont, and he would let us go into a lot of shows for free,” Hornburg said. “He used to come into the Shell station where we were in Downers Grove all the time in a butter-colored Cadillac.

“We kept saying we were going to come out to California and see one of his shows. He’d say, ‘Sure, sure, I’ll put you on the list.’”

So, Hornburg and a friend finally made it out to a Muddy Waters concert in California.

“We’re like these two scruffy, long-haired boys who show up, and they’re like, uh, this is a private event,” Hornburg said. “So we said, “We’re Michael and Gene from the Shell station in Downers Grove!’ So, the man says, ‘Oh, you’re the boys from Illinois. They’ve been waiting on you.’

“They take our car and put us in a golf cart and drive us to the front row. It was like a lawn party or something. It was so hilarious. He (Muddy Waters) was like a grandfather figure. Isn’t that crazy?”

— Dann Gire

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