Fan Casting ‘The Secret History’ Because Why Not

Donna Tartt’s debut novel has never hit the big screen, but that can’t stop me from dreaming up a cast for this dark academia classic.

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Shortly after its publication in 1992, The Secret History seemed destined for a film adaptation follow-up. Renowned director Alan J. Paluka got the film rights, and no less than Joan Didion signed on to comprise a screenplay. Unfortunately, Paluka’s unexpected death in 1998 stopped the project in its tracks.

Despite its literary acclaim and the resounding calls of fans, an adaptation project for The Secret History was never able to take off. When Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch, hit the big screen in 2019 to a less than ideal response, a clamor arose yet again to prioritize an adaptation of her beloved debut book.

Book Cover for The Secret History
Image via Amazon

As a part of that continuing clamor for an adaptation of The Secret History, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to compose an ideal cast. I’ve consulted fan casting sites, social media, and my family members who’ve read the novel. After going in circles, here is my standing list for Hampden College’s cultish, Greek-savvy brigade and their classics professor.

Richard Papen – Alex Wolff

fan casting reference image for Richard
Image via IMDb

Visually casting Richard has much less of a guideline than the rest of the characters because he’s the narrator, so we don’t get much objective detail on his appearance. Therefore, the possibilities are truly endless!

Since casting Richard is a bit of a free for all, I ultimately went off of vibes. Wolff is an incredibly talented young actor. He was quite remarkable in Ari Aster’s disturbing horror flick, Hereditary. I think that he could perfectly embody our somewhat unreliable narrator with a longing for the picturesque.

Far from home and surrounded by this elite group of individuals he can never truly be himself with, there is a vulnerability to Richard that I think Wolff could translate to screen.

Henry Winter – George MacKay

fan casting reference image for Henry
Image via Flaunt Magazine

Henry is cold, calculated, and above all, a formidable leader. He’s described as an intellectual prodigy, speaking a number of languages, “ancient and modern.” In Richard’s initial intake of him on campus, he notes that he wears English suits and carries an old-timey umbrella.

As both imposing and mysterious, I think that George MacKay has the right kind of look for this crucial role in the story. Add some glasses to this man, and we’re golden.

Francis Abernathy – Luke Newberry

fan casting reference image for Francis
Image via 1883 Magazine

Francis was somewhat easy to narrow down because he had to have that characteristic red hair! In the novel, Richard describes him as pale, skinny, and impeccably dressed. He’s also described as wearing clear glasses, which I think Newberry could pull off.

His overall vibe in the novel romanticizes him as this elegant figure striding across campus “in a swish of black cashmere and cigarette smoke.” This is definitely a character where the costuming would truly make or break the role.

Camilla Macaulay – Natalia Dyer

fan casting reference image for Camilla
Image via Young Hollywood

I always pictured Camilla as quite willowy and withdrawn. When I saw Natalia Dyer with blonde hair, I was sold. Dyer has a very striking face and the kind of unsettling “epicene” beauty that Richard ascribes to her in the novel.

Notably, Camilla’s casting has to reasonably match up with her twin brother. I’ve seen some fan cast ideas online for Charlie Heaton to play Charles, but I figured that would be too ironic considering he and Natalia are a real-life couple. If you’ve read the book, you know that the existing chemistry between the actors would be oddly befitting.

Charles Macaulay – Dane DeHann

fan casting reference image for Charles
Image via Sony Pictures Classics

Ultimately, for Camilla’s twin brother, Charles, I went with the leading popular fan cast pick on the internet: Dane DeHaan. Honestly, I can understand why fans have quite unanimously gathered around this pick. He has the look!

DeHaan shined in another dark academia film, Kill Your Darlings (2013), alongside Daniel Radcliffe. Consequently, there is already a lot of great visual inspiration for how he could fit into this role.

Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran – Patrick Gibson

Image via Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons

Bunny has to have a certain face to him, a characteristic grin. He’s the most charismatic of the bunch and, I think, the most crucial character to cast in the group ensemble.

Going off of looks, I singled out Patrick Gibson for his adaptability. I think he has the face to play silly old Bun, the annoyingly extroverted addition to the clique. Loud and outgoing, Bunny at first seems like a good time, but he can be cruel.

Julian Morrow – Liam Cunningham

fan casting reference image for Julian
Image via Pinterest

It took forever for me to find a Julian that seemed satisfactory. For the group’s enigmatic classics professor, I went on his defining characteristic: snow-white hair. This certainly narrows down the grouping. In the end, when I thought of Liam Cunningham, it oddly fit the vague vision of Julian I had in my mind when I read the book.

In my eyes, Julian is somewhat of an understated villain in the story. Through Richard’s POV, we initially see him as brilliant and charming, but by the end, he seems nothing but a spineless narcissist.

On a concluding note, I do want to acknowledge that the majority of my fan cast selections are from the UK. Admittedly, I fan-casted this novel based solely on visuals that I thought aligned with the book’s character descriptions. I did not account for the accents! Oh well, it’s all in good fun.

Ultimately, the joy of fan casting is that readers can engage with a beloved story by debating their unique visions for the characters. So, in the spirit of bookish debate, I will say that my fan cast is not set in stone but subject to change as I wait impatiently for a screen adaptation somewhere down the road.

Finally, click here to learn more about Donna Tartt, the mind behind this novel’s dark academia brilliance.