Writer says HBO’s ‘Carnivale’ copied his idea

Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles writer who helps aspiring screenwriters learn their craft has filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Home Box Office and the creator of HBO’s offbeat fantasy-mystery series “Carnivale,” claiming the series contains “remarkable and substantial similarities” to a novel that he had been working on since the 1980s.

Writer Jeff Bergquist, artistic director at the New Playwrights Foundation, contends that he submitted several screenplays and a rough draft of his novel “Beulah” -- all versions of a quirky drama set amid a traveling carnival -- to workshops at the American Film Institute and the New Playwrights Foundation in the mid to late 1980s.

The suit, filed June 9 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, alleges that Daniel Knauf, the creator and executive producer of “Carnivale,” had been a member of both groups at the time and read Bergquist’s rough draft of the novel.

Asked to comment on the suit, an HBO spokesperson said: “ ‘Carnivale’ was created by Daniel Knauf and any suggestion to the contrary has absolutely no merit.”


Knauf also described the suit as “groundless": “I created ‘Carnivale,’ and I created it by myself.”

According to the suit, Bergquist wrote a series of screenplays in the 1970s that dealt with life in a traveling carnival and by the next decade had begun work on a novel about life in a traveling carnival during the Depression. The book was initially titled “Freakshow: The Novel” but then came to be titled “Beulah.”

Bergquist continued revising the novel over the years, according to the lawsuit, and registered his copyright for “Beulah” with the U.S. Copyright Office in 2002.

In spring 2003, the suit noted, HBO began advertising a new television series about a traveling carnival titled “Carnivale” and Bergquist began receiving calls from friends who had read “Beulah” congratulating and assuming -- incorrectly, it turned out -- that his novel was being turned into a television series.


The show began airing in September 2003.

The suit lists a number of alleged similarities between “Beulah” and “Carnivale” involving stories, settings and characters.

In one example, the suit notes, the main character in the novel and TV series is a farm boy growing up in the Midwest during the Depression who never knew his father. In the novel, the boy is raised by a fanatically religious aunt, the suit states, while in the TV series, the boy, Ben Hawkins, is raised by his fanatically religious mother.

In another example, the suit describes a character in the novel named Brother Ezra, an up-and-coming radio preacher with a large tattoo on his chest of dead foliage -- and a dream to build a large temple in Beulah City to attract more congregants. In the HBO series, the suit states, there is a character named Brother Justin, a radio preacher with a large tattoo on his chest of a dead tree who has a dream of building a large temple in Mintern, Calif., to attract more congregants.

Likewise, the suit noted, the novel includes a dwarf named Doc Catchem, a “smooth talking, articulate, fancy dresser,” while the TV series featured a dwarf named Samson who is smooth talking, articulate and a fancy dresser.

There is also a character in the book called “The Lady” who is the mysterious manager of the carnival who lives in a trailer and permits almost no one to see her. In the TV series, the suit states, there is a character called “Management,” who lives in a trailer and will allow only a few people in. Both characters have magical powers and are able to telepathically send messages and visions to the farm boy who is the main character.

The suit seeks monetary damages as well as an injunction preventing HBO and the producer from distributing or exhibiting “Carnivale” or any additional projects based on “Beulah” without Bergquist’s consent.

In May, HBO decided not to renew “Carnivale” for a third season. Although the show garnered a cult following and received five technical Emmys last September, it never achieved the success of the channel’s other dramatic series such as “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under” and “Deadwood.”