Today's Picks: Secrets, Love, Crime and Tartt
An Ankler newsletter about available IP; I do the reading for you
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In today’s edition: a great character driven dramatic novel and two backlist gems (including a hit from the '90s that never made it to the screen). But first, I wanted to share some news I unearthed about backlist gem The Secret History.
Donna Tartt’s Agent Drops a Bomb to The Optionist
Vermont’s Bennington College produced Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt and Jonathan Lethem out of its outrageous avant-garde, boundary pushing mid-80s milieu. It was like an Algonquin Round Table...sometimes piled high with coke. And from this world I’ve identified three sets of rights that incredibly are still available.
Bennington jumped back on the radar this past fall with the release of Lili Anolik's buzzy podcast Once Upon a Time ... at Bennington College which primarily focused on Ellis and Tartt, with Lethem detours. It wonderfully brought alive what the school was like. As I listened, I wondered what happened to the movie adaptation of Tartt's 1992 sensation, The Secret History. And what Ellis would say if I reached out? (I did. Read on).
For those who don't recall, The Secret History was one of the great "it" novels of the ‘90s. It centered on a group of classics students under the sway of a charismatic professor. They take his teachings too far — all the way to murder (dun dun dun). It was loosely inspired by Tartt's own time at Bennington. With Ellis' help, Tartt signed with super agent Binky Urban and scored a huge advance (said to be half a million). The novel was an instant bestseller with Michiko Kakutani calling it "ferociously well-paced entertainment" and EW saying it was "perfect blend of high-end art and low-end drama." The enigmatic Tartt, with her throwback androgynous outfits, pixie look and Southern Gothic childhood, fascinated the media.
Alan J. Pakula grabbed the rights and recruited Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne to pen the script. But the project floundered and Pakula's 1998 death in a car accident brought it to a halt. A few years later, Gwyneth Paltrow and her brother Jake announced they were going to adapt the book for Miramax, but another death – their father Bruce – brought the project to a standstill again. The option lapsed and the rights reverted to Tartt. In 2013, Ellis and Melissa Rosenberg (Twilight), another Bennington alum, were reported to be trying to develop it as a miniseries but failed to find any takers. (Secret History’s dedication is to Ellis.)
The 2019 Warner Bros. film based on Tartt's other novel The Goldfinch, a Pulitzer Prize winner, renewed interest in A Secret History movie. There were rumors about what Tartt wanted and how the making of The Goldfinch movie soured her on Hollywood (the movie, brimming with high expectations, was a critical and commercial flop). Speculation abounded since about the future of The Secret History, so I reached out to Tartt's UK-based agents at RCW to ask what's going on.
Cara Jones, an agent in the office, wrote back, "I can confirm you are correct, rights are with Donna Tartt, they are not available and she has no interest in having this work adapted for film." So that's the definitive word: The Secret History will remain one of the greatest novels never to appear on the screen — for now.
But if that's the end of The Secret History it’s not the end of a Bennington story on screen. After all, it has already produced Less Than Zero, the 1987 Robert Downey Jr/Andrew McCarthy adaptation of the bestseller Ellis wrote while a student, and The Rules of Attraction, the 2002 film with James Van Der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon and Jessica Biel that more directly fictionalized Ellis' time in college. (Around 2013 the same time he was developing The Secret History limited series, Ellis was also pitching a Less Than Zero reboot for TV that never got traction).
Somebody could take a swing at Once Upon a Time .... at Bennington which is well structured to turn into a limited series with its colorful cast of characters and fabulous stories of LA (Ellis grew up on Sherman Oaks’ Valley Vista Road and went to Buckley), New York gliteratti, sexual identity (Tartt’s androgony, Ellis’ coming out), and class (financial aid student Lethem says in the podcast he was from Brooklyn before it was cool to be from Brooklyn). Creator Anolik tells me the rights are still available and repped by ICM. (The previous season of Once Upon a Time... about Traci Lords has been optioned).
Of course anyone who takes it on has to be prepared to face the wrath (and possible lawsuit) of Tartt, so unhappy about the way she was portrayed in the podcast —she declined to participate— that she threatened to sue Anolik and producer C13 Originals.
I imagine Ellis is the way in. He's the podcast’s star. Every time his voice comes on to narrate a part of the story it gets that much more interesting. Despite fictionalizing parts of his life in Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction (also in Lunar Park and Imperial Bedrooms), Ellis and his real-life story seem tailor-made for adaptation: outrageous high school partying in LA, the future TV star girlfriend he loses to Leif Garrett, the abusive father, Andy Warhol cameos, becoming a literary wunderkind at 21 and then his literary Brat Pack days after that. Think next-generation Licorice Pizza.
I emailed Ellis to ask if anyone had approached him about adapting his life for the screen. To my surprise he wrote to say he hadn't heard from anyone.
If interested, have your people call his people. Stat!
BOOKS I LIKE (current)
Character-Driven Historical Drama
Things Past Telling by Sheila Williams (Amistad, March 15) There's a huge sweep to this story of the life of an enslaved woman that spans a century, from the Revolution to the end of the Civil War. (The publisher pitches it as the "romance and adventure of Outlander, the sweeping drama of Roots and the haunting historical power of Barracoon.” Whew. That's a lot.) But what I like is the strong vivid central character Momma Grace, who has a dramatic life — captured at 10 in Africa, stolen by pirates, sold to a Virginia plantation, becomes a midwife, has a family and harbors escapees — but is fully developed and accessible. In some ways the comp here is The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and I imagine the list of Black actresses who would want to take a swing at the kind of role that Cicely Tyson made legendary is as long as, well, as long as the list of Black actresses in Hollywood. REPS: Gersh
The Bodyguard by Katherine Center (St. Martin's, July 19) Remember when filmed entertainment didn’t have to always have an underlying social message? It could just be, you know, fun? We all miss rom com romps and I liked this one with its gender-swapped spin on the Whitney Houston-Kevin Costner classic. Here a female bodyguard hired to protect superstar actor Jack Stapleton from a dangerous stalker must pose as his girlfriend when he visits his family on their Texas ranch so they don't know about the stalker. Hijinks, hilarity and (duh) love ensues. Several of Center's earlier books have been optioned: The Lost Husband (with Josh Duhamel) debuted on Netflix in August and Happiness for Beginners (with Ellie Kemper) filmed in the fall for a 2022 debut also on Netflix. REPS: Cornerstone Literary/Lucy Stille Literary
Romance, Crime Procedural
The Verifiers by Jane Pek (Vintage, Feb. 22) Claudia Lin works for Veracity, a detective agency that investigates potential online dating partners but she’s got her own romantic problems as well. The plot thickens when one of her clients is murdered and Lin, a detective novel fan, decides to try to solve it herself. Lin gives off a Veronica Mars vibe and the secondary characters, including her immigrant parents trying to marry her off to a good Chinese husband, and her roommate Max are well-rounded and interesting. There’s adventure, mystery and humor in this debut novel which has all the bones to turn into an ongoing series. REPS: The Book Group/CAA
For Nancy Meyers Fans
Almost Romance: A Memoir by Nancy Balbirer (Little A, Feb. 1) Balbirer recounts her almost-didn’t-happen later-in-life romance with her TV producer husband (Howard Morris, creator of Grace and Frankie), whom she married at the age of 50, after more than 30 years of friendship. In a story that spans from the 1980s where they first met at NYU to the present, Balbirer marries and divorces someone else and has an ill-fated romance with a director with a thing for BDSM. It is that last incident that improbably brought Balbirer and Morris together for a happily-ever-after 30 years in the making. Balbirer told Morris the story over email and he shared it with the writer’s room, prompting one of them – Alexa Junge – to say, “if you don’t marry that woman, I will” and then to track down Balbirer in NYC to tell her that Morris was in love with her. Meryl, call your agents! REPS: Dunow, Carlson & Lerner
BACKLIST GEMS (books that deserve a second look)
Twisty Historical Mystery
An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (Riverhead Books, 1997) This book’s agent, Valerie Hoskins, says this 1663-set twisty mystery — described in one early review as "Rashomon meets The Name of the Rose" — is especially near and dear because it’s the first book she loved so much that she tracked down the author after reading it to pitch representation. Four different people narrate from their POV about the murder of an Oxford professor and the hanging of a servant girl for the crime. Along the way, the richly drawn and engaging characters solve the crime and debate the nature of science, religion and power (in ways that still feel timely today). It was a bestseller in the late ’90s and has been optioned three times, falling through each time. Could it be fourth time’s a charm? It is perfectly primed as a streaming service limited series with international appeal. REP: Valerie Hoskins
High School-Set Drama
Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School by Shamus Khan (Princeton University Press, 2010) I always think of Mean Girls, loosely adapted from Rosalind Wiseman's somewhat wonky Queen Bees and Wannabees, when I think of the screen potential of this fantastic book full of shrewd observations about the lives of elite high schoolers (and those clamoring to be one). I discovered the book years ago and it recently got a 10th anniversary edition. It shares with Queen Bees a smart understanding of teen life but, unlike Queen Bees, it has a great narrative at its heart. Khan, the son of a Pakistani doctor father and Irish mom, never felt like he fit in with the blue bloods at St. Paul's boarding school. It wasn't that his family wasn't wealthy or cultured, but there was so much subtle behavior among the old money WASP kids that went over his head. Fast forward a decade: he returns to teach at St. Paul's and turns those observations about the unwritten rules colliding with the school’s recent diversity push and transformed student social order into a great book. There are a couple ways to go but one I would like: primarily set it in the present but flash back to Khan's own school days. (I picture Ted Lasso's Nick Mohammed as a grown up Khan but can also see a sexier version with say Dev Patel). I talked to Khan a few months back. He got some interest when the original book came out but he didn’t think the people were serious, so he didn’t pursue it. REPS: Interested? Let me know, I’ll connect you.
Varsity Blues True Crime
The Dredging: She was an Ivy League student with an inspiring story. Then her university started investigating by Tom Bartlett (Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 7) University of Pennsylvania student Mackenzie Fierceton was everything an elite college would want: First generation to go to college, an abusive home survivor, a ward of the foster care system, and so brilliant she became a Rhodes Scholar. But soon after, an anonymous tip revealed that maybe her story was a little too good to be true. It turned out she attended a posh private school and her mother was a radiologist. The basics were mostly true but how much dramatic license was too much? Was she really once near death? Did her mother abuse her? How much time was she in the foster system? Like the Varsity Blues case, this story taps into all our considerable anxieties about college admissions: Who should get a helping hand? Is the only winning essay now a kind of adversity porn? How much fact checking are colleges expected to do? Fierceton is such a perfect main character because she's a cipher. Is she a liar or a person who shrewdly understood how to exploit the admission process? Maybe the answer is all and none. There's a doc here and also a movie/limited series. Think Varsity Blues meets Shattered Glass. (Fierceton just sued Penn for unjustly withholding her degree so a trial might make more information public, and two senior professors wrote a letter slamming the University’s handling of the case). REP: Interested? Let me know and I’ll connect you.
The True-Crime “Podcast Junkie” Turned Real-Life Murder Suspect:Is Steve Pankey a cold-blooded killer who got away with murder for decades, or just a true-crime obsessive craving attention? By Dylan Taylor-Lehman (Narratively, Jan. 13) What happens when a true crime podcast host finds out a key suspect in a crime the show covered...is a big fan? Steve Pankey became a person of interest in the unsolved 1984 disappearance of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews in Greeley, Colo. after her body was discovered in 2019 by construction workers. Over the years Pankey had been offering police clues about the case – clues they had initially dismissed because they thought Pankey, in brief, was nuts. Then when he indicted for the murder, it came out that Pankey was a podcast junkie and had donated to several through Patreon. Pankey started giving interviews about the case, denying involvement but dropping hints that he might've been involved but during the trial he said on the stand he made it all up to get back at townspeople he thought wronged him. The jury couldn't decide on a verdict. They agreed he lied to the police but not about whether he really committed the crime. The DA wants to try Pankey again but as of now there's no date. This is a great story that has the feel of a dramatic real-life version of Only Murders in the Building and it raises great questions about the role of true crime podcasts in bringing suspects to justice. REPS: APA
Thanks for reading! Have a great weekend and happy reading. See you back here next Friday. Please check out The Ankler, which the New York Times calls a “hit Hollywood newsletter” if you love the business of entertainment.