Great Books in Search of a Good Film Adaptation II: Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Historian”

I was living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania back in 2008 when someone – a friend or coworker, as I remember –handed me a copy of the 2005 novel The Historian by someone called Elizabeth Kostova. Upon getting a book about the size of my grannie’s old and uber-thick Yellow Pages, I studied the dustjacket quizzically. What precisely was The Historian and why should I care enough to spend the time reading it? I politely thanked my benefactor for the loan, took the tome back home and promptly forgot about it for a time before, out of sheer boredom, I’m sure, I finally picked it up and began digesting all (gulp) 720 pages of it. What I hadn’t counted on was that like first love The Historian put a magical and dark spell on me that remains ‘til this day. And apparently I wasn’t alone: Kostova’s freshman effort all but took over the top spot on the coveted New York Times Bestseller List and garnered millions of fans during its blitzkrieg of various and sundry book charts. So why has Hollywood been so sluggish in getting this popular book to the silver screen?

The Historian is about a teenage girl whose father – a professor and student of history if ever there were one – mysteriously vanishes one night. Suspecting something other than a routine missing person’s case, the teen sets out to uncover precisely what happened to her father. What follows is a dark and mesmerizing traveler’s brochure you’re sure not to find at any travel agencies, with Kastova weaving a taut thriller and mystery that leads unbelievably into the world of vampires and Count Dracula. That last left-hook I just threw at you might seem outlandish and reality-breaking, but trust me Dear and Constant Reader: It works and it works brilliantly.

Efforts have been made over the years in getting this mamba jahamba of a book into movie houses: In the weeks and months leading up to publication of The Historian, Sony outright purchased the film rights for a modest $1.5 million smackers with little to nothing to show in return in the years since. Entertainment Weekly at one point felt that the problem in adapting the book to screen came from its slow pace, arguing that “this is a frigging vampire novel. There shouldn’t be slow parts.” The stalwarts at EW left their argument there, no doubt to check their social media feeds which, I’m confident, had no “slow parts.”

Kostova’s massive achievement is no doubt a weighty tome to attempt to film, and I can’t help but feel that there are at least two movies within this book. It’s a challenge absolutely, one that would require a master storyteller along the lines of the late Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, Cold Mountain) or perhaps Christopher Nolan (Memento, Dunkirk) or Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition, 1917).

The Historian as a novel still haunts, still sits proudly on many-a bookshelf throughout the world. With or without a film adaptation, that’s a very noble legacy.

About Ryan Vandergriff

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