Donna Tartt, author of The Secret History/Photo © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Members of the Slacker Generation don’t need another reason to feel put-upon. Gen-X-ers have taken a fair amount of flack for what amounts to a collective predisposition toward self-pity and negative thinking. All that hand-wringing about working McJobs and the hopelessness of finding fulfillment and meaning in a world ravaged by Baby Boomer greed now seems like the self-indulgent effects of an over-education and under-employment population living in a simpler time.
But there is one area where this generational persecution complex may be justified. An inordinate number of the most significant and celebrated books of the '80s and '90s have stalled on their way to the big screen. For every two adaptations of Foxfire, shelves of award-winning works of heartbreaking literary genius have been left to languish in development purgatory. And while some masterpieces like Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle have understandably been filed under “unadaptable,” there are a handful of novels from that era whose propulsive plotting and compelling characters seemed destined for a second life in film or cable TV.
Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, published twenty years ago this September, may be the most mystifying of Hollywood’s many missed opportunities from that era. Both crisply contemporary and steeped in academic erudition, Tartt’s amorality tale about a cabal of Classics students at a small New England college whose bacchanalian ritual ends in tragedy immediately captured the zeitgeist became a massive bestseller and developed a cult of this-is-my-favorite-book-ever devotees that continues to grow in numbers to this day. Case in point: Andrew Garfield told Word & Film last year he had just started reading The Secret History because his girlfriend adored the book. Similarly, actor Ioan Gruffudd admitted in a recent piece in the Guardian that he had become obsessed with Tartt’s debut novel after devouring it while on vacation.
The stories of how The Secret History and these other beloved tomes got lost in the Hollywood shuffle are as varied as they are maddening. Fittingly, perhaps, for works of such nuance and philosophical inquiry, there are no easy answers or tidy resolutions to the mystery of why such worthwhile books have been marooned on the island of incomplete adaptations. But now that On the Road is due to finally reached its cinematic destination after a long arduous journey, there may be hope yet for these twentieth-century late bloomers.
1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
There’s been no shortage of interest in adapting Tartt’s celebrated portrait of the liberal arts college hothouse that’s been known to breed a very specific brand of self-importance and solipsism that can be dangerous when left unchecked. Director Alan J. Pakula optioned the book early on and dispatched literary power couple Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne to conquer the screenplay. Even with that kind of bookish firepower, the project failed to take flight and was left in limbo when Pakula died in 1998. Four years later, Gwyneth Paltrow and her brother Jake resurrected History with financial backing from Miramax and Warner Bros. But the project was then derailed yet again after Gwyneth and Jake’s father, director Bruce Paltrow, passed away at the end of '02. Tartt now owns the rights and has no plans to sell them back to Hollywood anytime soon.
2. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Published near the end of 1989, Dunn’s National Book Award finalist about a pair of carnies who concoct a scheme to boost ticket sales by breeding a family of freaks and geeks seemed tailor made for Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s comic-macabre romanticism. Sure enough, the frequent collaborators snatched up the film rights and then promptly did nothing with the project. Several years back, Andy and Lana Wachowski signed on to produce an adaptation. But for much of that time they’ve had their hands full bringing Cloud Atlas to the screen. Geek remains long overdue for some movie love.
3. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Weighing in at 1,079 footnoted pages, Hollywood was slow to jump into the ring with this literary heavyweight. Wallace’s complex, quasi-satirical study of the insidious effects of the American addiction to more of everything -- particularly escapist entertainment -- weaves together multiple narrative strands involving an addiction recovery facility, a fancy tennis academy, and a dysfunctional family reeling from the patriarch’s recent suicide. No filmmaker has dared wrestle this beast into a screenplay’s three-act structure. But several years ago, not long after Wallace died, a series of intriguing rumors surfaced indicating that director Sam Jones (“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film about Wilco”) was shepherding an Infinite Jest film. Meanwhile, HBO was developing a simultaneous adaptation of the massive novel into some sort of multipart series. Either way, the possibilities are … infinite.
4. Independence Day by Richard Ford
This Pulitzer Prize-winning meditation on a suburban man’s muted midlife crisis constitutes the meat sandwiched between the first and last books of Ford’s spare trilogy about a sportswriter-turned-real-estate-agent named Frank Bascombe. There are no bombshells or particularly remarkable vicissitudes that befall Bascombe as he navigates his way through divorce and a series of disappointments (minor and otherwise). But Ford captures modern ennui with such haunting elegance and humanity that it seems like a criminal not to have the opportunity to watch Bascombe embodied in a masterful performance by, say, Bryan Cranston. Fortunately, HBO, which owns the rights to the trilogy, made a promising move several years back, when it hired writer-director James Mangold to oversee the project. Unfortunately, there has been no mention of its status since.
5. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
If an anthology were compiled collecting all the great book adaptations that never came to fruition, this Pulitzer-winning novel would appear on the cover. Hollywood’s on-again, off-again love affair with John Kennedy Toole’s revered posthumous novel about a thirty-year-old New Orleans momma’s boy who embarks on a crusade to find a job and get a life has become the stuff of legend. A motley assortment of filmmakers, from Harold Ramis to Steven Soderbergh, has attempted to crack Confederacy to no avail. This is the Holy Grail of fiction adaptations; and Hollywood has refused to give up its quest to bring it alive on the big screen. Recently, indie auteur David Gordon Greene made a run at the project, with Will Ferrell attached to star. Then, just four months ago, Confederacy rose from the dead yet again, with Flight of the Conchords creator James Bobin on board to direct and Zach Galifianakis poised to play the schlubby protagonist. Now there’s a confederacy worth joining.