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This story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Donna Tartt is the Brigadoon of best-selling authors. She appears out of the mist once every 10 years to deliver a novel that tops sales charts and piques Hollywood’s interest, only to disappear again into the ether.
Tartt, 49, has never had one of her books adapted for film or TV. But with the arrival of The Goldfinch — a Dickensian adventure about a boy who loses his mother in a museum bombing, steals a painting and then spends his adulthood trying to unravel a mystery — that soon could change.
Sources tell THR that Tartt’s representatives are shopping the novel to networks and studios as a potential miniseries, which could better capture her dense and intricately plotted story. And as Goldfinch is being pitched for the TV screen, interest has been revived in her two other novels.
Her debut, 1992’s The Secret History, about a group of privileged college students obsessed with classic literature who murder one of their classmates, was one of the most-buzzed-about books of the 1990s. Tartt scored an unusually big advance ($450,000) and a high-powered agent (ICM’s Binky Urban) as her backstory became legend: She was mentored as a student at the University of Mississippi by renowned writer Willie Morris, who is said to have introduced himself by saying, “I’m Willie Morris, and I think you’re a genius.” She then transferred to Bennington College in Vermont, where she fell in with a literary crowd that included Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem and started Secret History, which took six years to complete. Ellis, who by then had a best-seller with Less Than Zero, introduced her to Urban, who signed her on the spot. The Secret History went on to sell more than 5 million copies.
Warner Bros. snapped up film rights even before the book was published, and producer Alan Pakula took charge of its development. Numerous writers, including Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, took a pass at the screenplay. Scott Hicks (Shine) was set to direct. But Pakula was never satisfied with the script and then died in a 1998 car crash.
With the 2002 publication of The Little Friend, Tartt’s follow-up about a family torn apart by a child’s mysterious death, interest was renewed in Secret History. Warners partnered that year with Miramax to revive the project, with Gwyneth Paltrow set to co-produce with her brother, Jake Paltrow. At the time, Urban said, “I know that a script is being worked on as we speak,” but neither she nor Tartt had seen it.
Even after the Miramax-Warners version fell apart, Melissa Rosenberg (Twilight) and Ellis tried and failed to develop it as a miniseries. Tartt told a British paper she didn’t care if it ever was adapted, and Warners seems to agree. The studio put the project on the back burner and is demanding its investment of about $2 million back before it will let anyone else take it on. Will the publication of The Goldfinch prompt another producer to attempt Secret History again?
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