In 2014, writer Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for her intricate, flamboyantly beautiful and Dickensian novel The Goldfinch–the story of a young boy who survives a terrorist attack that kills his mother, and the unique way the art world helps him grieve and grow. It was a controversial novel at launch, drawing in both heavy criticism and exalting praise, but an exciting time in the world of publishing; the book was a major bestseller, spending more than thirty weeks on the New York Times’ list, and was one of the most talked-about novels of the 21st century. A lot of that’s due to Tartt, a beguiling and famously mysterious woman. That allure began back in 1992 with the publication of her first novel, The Secret History. Another publishing phenomenon, but a story that has somehow avoided screen adaptation, despite its page-turning plot and cinematic descriptions.
The recent big-screen adaptation of The Goldfinch–which debuted to miserable reviews and poor box office tallies–made us think back to The Secret History, why it never made it to theaters, and why it deserves its day in the cinematic sun. Here’s a deeper look at the book’s unusual and failed journey to the big screen, what could have been, and what should still be.
Joan Didion almost wrote The Secret History screenplay
If you’ve read Tartt’s 1992 opus then you’ll know it’s about as lush and strange as mainstream novels get. Set at an east coast college called Hampden, it follows five students majoring in an elite ancient Greek course headed up by classics professor Julian Morrow. Told from the perspective of the non-wealthy outsider who joins the group a year into his studies, the novel centers on a crime the young students commit–a crime steeped in passion, treachery, and ancient ritual. The prose is in a fragrant, neo-romantic style, lending it a timeless, otherworldly quality. So popular was the novel in open publication, that it appealed to other literary names. Most notably Joan Didion–who, at one point, was going to pen an adaption with her writer husband, John Gregory Dunne.
Can you even imagine? Didion is also known for her intriguing elitist writing, although hers is a more dry and no-nonsense style. But the marriage of Tartt and Didion’s minds would have been huge–maybe too huge. Unfortunately, that project fell apart when the man attached to direct–Alan J. Pakula–died in a car accident.
Gwyneth Paltrow wanted to play Camilla
The next iteration of The Secret History came from producer Gwyenth Paltrow, with her brother Jake directing. (Gwyneth was also set to star as Camilla Macaulay, the book’s sole female lead.) The rights were purchased by Miramax, then owned by Harvey Weinstein, who was a noted fan of the novel. But this project was also not meant to be; ultimately, it’s what killed off any major prospects of a big-screen adaptation. After the death of Gwyneth and Jake’s father, Bruce, the two supposedly lost interest in the adaptation. The film rights reverted back to Tartt, who still owns them and hasn’t sold them again. After the perceived failure of The Goldfinch, it seems unlikely that she ever will.
The book would make a perfect TV miniseries.
We can’t exactly blame Tartt for sitting on the rights to The Secret History, which is–in our humble opinion–still her best and most complete work. But it’s still a shame, considering how successful the recent boom of cable miniseries adaptations have been. Think, for instance, of HBO’s Sharp Objects. That Jean-Marc Vallée-directed series was a beautiful, haunting take on Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name, featuring strong performances, a unique visual style, and its own distinct mood. If Tartt ever wavers on the whole rights issue, she’d be smart to trust it with that cable giant. She could even try her hand at adapting it herself, should she be so interested.
Not every novel has to make it to screen. There are plenty of famous and seemingly cinematic fictional works–A Confederacy of Dunces, The Catcher in the Rye, At the Mountains of Madness–that remain un-filmed. But The Secret History is something special, a book so rich with detail, oddities, and a sumptuous mystery plot. It would be a real tragedy if no one ever filmed it; be it as a motion picture or a limited series. But until that happens, we’re happy to reread the novel; it’s perfect for autumn, as the leaves change, the mood intensifies, and the dark corners of reality bleed into the everyday. Donna Tartt knows how to spin a yarn. Let’s hope she has the heart to let it spin onscreen.
Header Image Credit: Alfred A Knopf