Are Some Books Unfilmable? ‘The Secret History’ 30 Years On

Book Nook is a little corner of Screen Queens dedicated to books. From book adaptations to book reviews, this will be a place for readers of SQ to engage with the oldest form of entertainment, the written word.

When it comes to adapting a novel for the big screen, it’s undeniable that some books just have the X Factor. Some classics embed themselves into the history of cinema itself (Dracula, Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes), and more recent franchises have stalked the bestseller lists for inspiration (the Harry Potter series made around $7 billion).

But a creative leap from page to screen isn’t destined for every bestseller. Published in 1992, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is celebrating its 30th anniversary and, to date, has not been adapted into a film. The novel, set in the early 1980s, introduces us to American student Richard Papen as he enrols in a liberal arts college, Hampden. Papen is intrigued by the Classics course, but space is limited. Papen eventually works his way into the class, taught by charismatic professor Julian Morrow. Papen’s fellow students are an intimidating bunch. We have glamorous but secretive twins, Charles and Camilla; Henry Winter – wealthy and prodigiously intellectual; Francis Abernathy and the odd one out, loud and boorish Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran. The novel is both a detective story and a deep dive into academia. The students are socially isolated and headily esoteric, and their inability to connect with the real world has devastating consequences.

Tartt’s book met with raves from both sides of the Atlantic. The Guardian called Tartt a “talent to tantalize.” The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani dubbed the book “ferociously well-paced entertainment” The Secret History continues to draw in new readers. However, there still has been no film – a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Articles have appeared in The Nerdist pondering the lack of momentum. While other novels have had multiple adaptations, The Secret History has yet to feature on IMDB. It has a plot, it has interesting characters: what is missing?

It’s a question of timing.

It’s certainly true when a book becomes a bestseller, the window for optioning can be limited. Producers want to capitalize on a book’s ‘IT moment’ (see Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Da Vinci Code and this year, Where the Crawdads Sing). In 1992, Warner Brothers acquired the rights to film The Secret History. Joan Didion and Gregory Dunne would write the screenplay, with Scott Hicks to direct. But the project stalled when producer Alan J. Pakula unexpectedly died in 1998.

In 2002, Gywneth Paltrow and her brother Jake announced a deal with Miramax to film The Secret History. The timing is good as it coincides with the publication of Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend. Paltrow is even rumoured to be considering the role of Camilla. Sadly, Gwyneth and Jake’s father, director Bruce Paltrow, died in late 2002. The project is shelved, and the film rights revert to Tartt.  

Are some books just unfilmable?

Other than logistics, there is also the argument that The Secret History fails to make it past pre-production because it is unsuitable for the screen. We can say that some authors’ work readily translates: Jane Austen and Charles Dickens have been giving filmmakers creative licenses since the early days of cinema. In 2012, a BFI archivist discovered a film from 1901, The Death of Poor Joe (based on a character from Bleak House). But for every Austen and Dickens adaptation, there’s a rough draft of The Confederacy of Dunces or The Catcher in the Rye sitting in a desktop folder. Are ‘difficult’ books just destined to evade the silver screen?

On the surface, The Secret History appears too complex for the screen. It is full of interior life, going against the screenwriting grain of “show, don’t tell.” But the novel is also cinematic in scope. Tartt writes in a densely visual style (just as Dickens did). But where the Victorian novelist projected his plots and characters onto a serialization format, Tartt writes as if she already imagines the camera as an illustrator, a collaborator. We are perched on Richard’s shoulder for much of the book – his discoveries are ours. This narrative technique of limited, and not always reliable, information has also been used to great effect in a 2016 adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden

Unreliable narrators don’t necessarily make a book problematic either. Think of Wuthering Heights’s narrative gaps – it hasn’t stopped the novel from being filmed four times. Emily Bronte’s novel is famously tricky to pin down. William Wyler’s 1939 film leaned heavily into the Cathy and Heathcliff romance, with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier nestling in the (Californian) heather. By contrast, the 1992 Peter Kosminsky film goes multi-generational into the ugliness of Bronte’s novel on cyclical abuse. It didn’t perform well at the box office, although the screen chemistry between Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche was revived for 1996’s The English Patient

The idea of certain books being unfilmable gets stranger still when we consider that Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch, made the journey from page to screen in just six years. Less favourably reviewed, The Goldfinch didn’t reach the giddying critical reception given to The Secret History. The story of Theo Decker, a boy who loses his mother in a terrorist attack, is an impressionistic, deeply atmospheric text. The pacing is more leisurely – the book stretches to nearly 800 pages – and the structure sits top-heavy in Theo’s childhood as we witness Decker’s immersion in a Dickensian world of art forgery. The film, directed by John Crowley, does not redress this issue, which explains the cool critical response. “Elegant but a confused emotional focus,” says The Guardian. By contrast, The Secret History’s structure is almost perfectly balanced. Tartt’s unlikely marriage of highbrow academia and the evergreen appeal of a whodunnit zips along. In terms of narrative drive, Tartt ensures there is nothing to get in its way. 

So we wait?

While some books seem fated to remain on the shelf, The Secret History suffers from uniquely bad timing – never quite in the right place at the right time – and the critical reaction to The Goldfinch may put off future investment. Despite her reported reluctance to engage in any new projects, there is always the possibility that Donna Tartt will change her mind. A good director (David Fincher is a favourite among fans), Tartt tackling the screenplay – the right incentive at the right time could be pivotal.

So we wait. While an adaptation seems tantalizingly out of reach, it is worth noting that successful productions are moving away from a by-the-numbers interpretation of their source material. (Think of Armando Iannucci’s joyously irreverent take on Dickens, The Personal History of David Copperfield.) Our appetite for unconventional fictional worlds has increased exponentially. This cultural shift bodes well for a book that would need delicate curation. 

An adaptation requires many moving parts to fall into place, and ultimately the author’s call. A book that can tell a story and keep it interesting should always interest filmmakers. The crossover potential for The Secret History has always been there, and the book’s cerebral mix of instinct and intellect seems ready to claim its moment. The question, therefore, is not if but when?

Purchase The Secret History at your local bookshops or find an online vendor here.

by Helen Tope

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