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Casting the Characters of 'The Secret History'

'Pomegranate' by Vlad Loktev

“They all shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had the strange cold breath of the ancient world : they were magnificent creatures, such eyes, such hands, such looks - sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora ferebat.”

Yes, yes, it has been done before, but after re-reading the book I really can't stop myself from casting what should have been the best movie of the decade. This is a book that has shaped generations of readers with its beautiful portrayal of the darkness that lurks within us. Tartt's descriptions are so incredibly detailed and poetic, its easy to picture their surroundings in all their macabre sweetness.

Donna Tartt's 'The Secret History', should be prescribed to all, but its especially good if you're interested in classics, dark academics, the occult and bildungsroman. However if you haven't read it, there's probably some spoilers in this post! Check back here when you've finished reading the book and you can compare my perception of the characters to yours.

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Richard Papen played by Alex Lawther

“I am gifted at blending myself into any given milieu — you’ve never seen such a typical California teenager as I was, nor such a dissolute and callous pre-med student — but somehow despite my efforts, I am never able to blend myself in entirely and remain in some respects quite distinct from my surroundings, in the same way that a green chameleon remains a distinct entity from the leaf upon which it sits, no matter how perfectly it has approximated the the subtleties of the particular shade.” 

Richard is the lower-class everyman, a normalising foil blighted by his tragic flaw: “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs”. As the unreliable narrator of the tale, there are few descriptions of his physical appearance, except through comparisons to his more visually striking and glamorous friends. He is shorter than Bunny and Henry but slightly taller than Francis. The character is at times awkward and out of place, but also can be astute and introspective; I've always admired his ability to hold silences.

Choosing an actor to play Nick Carraway-esque role was more difficult than I expected. Because of all the connections between his character and Fitzgerald's one, I initially gravitated towards Tobey Maguire. Then I thought of a young Kieran Culkin or Emile Hirsch. It was only as I watched 'The End of the Fucking World' that I decided (although the characters differ widely in terms of confidence), Alex Lawther's emotiveness would work so well as the chameleonic outsider Richard.

Bunny (Edmund Corcoran), played by Alexander Ludwig

“Bunny is just this very sort of bumbling, comic, pontificating, character…The kind of person you just know is going to be this useless alcoholic fixture at the country club by the time he’s thirty-five.”

Without a doubt, the most irritating of Tartt's characters. The awkward meal between Richard and Bunny, exacerbated by the latter's homophobia and false display of wealth, was enough to solidify him in my mind as a nuisance, but it was Henry's (perhaps exaggerated) description of their trip to Italy that really bothered me. Bunny is described as zealous but unmotivated, chatty but sullen, in many ways a poorly maintained facade of the American elite.

Physically, Tartt describes him as "A sloppy blond boy, rosy-cheeked and gum-chewing, with a relentlessly cheery demeanor and his fist thrust deep in the pockets of his knee-sprung trousers. He wore the same jacket every day, a shapeless brown tweed that was frayed at the elbows and short in the sleeves, and his sandy hair was parted on the left so a long forelock fell over one bespectacled eye."

I think Alexander Ludwig would work best for this character because he matches the idea of the blonde American, with blue eyes, straight teeth and a side parting. I've always envisioned Bunny to be slightly heavier or perhaps more muscular than the rest of the group, because of his fixation on appearing wealthy. The character drinks heavily, dines out frequently and behaves with complete confidence in his exterior.

Francis Albernathy, played by Oliver Hayes

“Angular and elegant, he was precariously thin, with nervous hands and a shrewd albino face and a short, fiery mop of the reddest hair I had ever seen. I thought (erroneously) that he dressed like Alfred Douglas, or the Comte de Montesquiou: beautiful starchy shirts with French cuffs; magnificent neckties; a black greatcoat that billowed behind him as he walked and made him look like a cross between a student prince and Jack the Ripper. Once, to my delight, I even saw him wearing pince-nez.” 

Francis, like the others, is alluringly debonair, deceptively flamboyant. He walks with a “swish of black cashmere and cigarette smoke”, but the undercurrents of anxiety that pervade his speech eventually lead to the emancipated and neurasthenic version of Book Two.

Okay, this is an obscure choice and not technically an actor (he's a model), but I saw him on my instagram explore page and I think it makes sense! It took me a while to find a face for Francis. I’m not sure if that’s because of his twitchy nature, always flamboyant on the sidelines, or perhaps because of his ginger hair, which I didn’t even pick up on when I read it first time through. Because of Hayes' paleness, bone structure and idiosyncratic style, I think he suits Francis quite well.

Charles Macaulay played by Lucas Till

"They looked very much alike, with heavy dark blond hair and epicene faces as clear, as cheerful and grave as a couple of Flemish angels. Their eyes were the same color of grey, intelligent and calm."

Another, very likeable, character driven into less-likable territory. Charles is beautiful and genial, but from the start is shown to be at times sullen and a heavy drinker, which gradually metastasises into alcoholism and depressive episodes. In a lovely moment Tartt compares the twins to "long-dead celebrants from some forgotten garden party".

I was (and still am) pretty on the fence between Lucas Till and a younger Charlie Hunnam. They both have an angelic gleam about them, but I think Hunnam has more of a surfer air than Till who is more reminiscent of the typical 'boy next door'.

Camilla Macaulay played by a younger Romola Garai

"She, I thought, was very beautiful, in an unsettling, almost medieval way which would not be apparent to the casual observer. She looked so much like her brother, yet his straightforward, uncompromising good looks were almost magical when repeated, with only slight variations, in her."

It's fitting that whilst Richard's first impressions of the others are singular, Tartt has the twins described with identical physical traits. The incestuous relationship that hides amongst the chaos of murder does nothing to help Richard's occasional romanticised notions of her as innocent. But her fierce loyalty, interactions with Henry and deceptive sweetness undermine this image and she is rarely highlighted as a female amongst the patriarchal clan.

“Being the only female in what was basically a boys’ club must have been difficult for her. Miraculously, she didn’t compensate by becoming hard or quarrelsome. She was still a girl, a slight lovely girl who lay in bed and ate chocolates, a girl whose hair smelled like hyacinth and whose scarves fluttered jauntily in the breeze. But strange and marvellous as she was, a wisp of silk in a forest of black wool, she was not the fragile creature one would have her seem.”

There are so many beautiful blonde actresses, but to play such a steely, perceptive character, the shortlist included Ria Zmitrowicz and Elle Fanning (also maybe a younger Amanda Seyfried?). Whilst no comparison should be made between Camilla and Romola Garai's brilliant rendition of Emma in the BBC miniseries, she certainly has a deceptively innocent and beautiful appearance that matches Camilla so well.

Henry Winter played by Ezra Miller

“Henry’s a perfectionist, I mean, really-really kind of inhuman — very brilliant, very erratic and enigmatic. He’s a stiff, cold person, Machiavellian, ascetic and he’s made himself what he is by sheer strength of will. His aspiration is to be this Platonic creature of pure rationality and that’s why he’s attracted to the Classics, and particularly to the Greeks — all those high, cold ideas of beauty and perfection.”

Henry is the most interesting character of the group due to being the hardest to unravel. Even in his suicide we're left with questions like what did he whisper in Camilla's ear? Hopefully something lovely in Greek, or the hiding place of some groundbreaking item. Henry acts as the enigmatic but flawed mastermind behind Bunny's murder (he terms this as "a redistribution of matter"), which, come full circle, results in his own death. He defies convention in almost every way, and is content with reading Dante in its original form, without understanding a word of Italian.

Tartt describes him physically as: "The larger of the two - and he was quite large, well over six feet - was dark-haired, with a square jaw and coarse, pale skin. He might have been handsome had his features been less set, or his eyes, behind the glasses, less expressionless and blank. He wore dark English suits and carried an umbrella (a bizarre sight in Hampden) and he walked stiffly through the throngs of hippies an beatniks and preppies and punks with the self-conscious formality of an old ballerina, surprising in one so large as he. "Henry Winter," said my friends when I pointed him out, at a distance, making a wide circle to avoid a group of bongo players on the lawn."

I can't really cast the eccentric bacchanals of The Secret History without Ezra Miller. Not only are they an exceptional actor, but if you’ve seen some of Ezra’s more transgressive characters, like in ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin', you can see why he would suit Henry’s almost psychopathic manipulation and destructive stares quite well. Also, Ezra's fashion choices defy convention, perhaps in a different way to Henry's, but nonetheless reflect the same internal assurance needed for external subversion.

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It's been a lot of fun casting these characters, let me know in the comments about your own choices-- what castings did I get wrong? I will leave you on this beautiful moment, that encapsulates Tartt's novel so well:

“It's funny, but thinking back on it now, I realize that this particular point in time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very much different from what I actually did. But of course I didn't see this crucial moment for what it actually was; I suppose we never do. Instead, I only yawned, and shook myself from the momentary daze that had come upon me, and went on my way down the stairs.”

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