Here Tarnoff dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature:
A lot of actors have played Mark Twain over the years. Hal Holbrook might be the best known, but Val Kilmer has also suited up for the role. There’s also that time-traveling episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation when Twain helps rescue Captain Picard.View the trailer for The Bohemians, and visit Ben Tarnoff's website.
These Twains are invariably the Twain of popular imagination: the man in the white suit, with the electric shock of white hair, chomping on a cigar, dispensing witty one-liners. This was Twain in his later years, when he was a national icon and an international celebrity, and his best work was behind him. My book focuses on the younger Twain, when he was just embarking on his literary career, and he hadn’t yet learned how to conceal his tumultuous inner life under a genial grandfatherly façade. Twain in his twenties and early thirties was tormented by depression, mania, professional uncertainty, financial fears. He was an extremist, prone to excesses of all kinds and terrifying flights of rage.
I’d give the part to Matthew McConaughey, who’s proven his high-Method chops with True Detective and Dallas Buyers Club, and could bring an appropriate degree of demonic intensity to the role. I also think he could nail Twain’s voice, which was infused with a peculiar droning, drawling, drunken twang.
My book’s other characters might be a bit harder to cast. Bret Harte was dandyish, aloof, and sarcastic. He emerged from San Francisco’s literary scene of the 1860s to become America’s most famous writer for a brief period before completely self-destructing, and spent the rest of his life in relative obscurity and poverty. I could see Robert Downey, Jr having fun with it.
Charles Warren Stoddard had great spiritual depth and little practical sense. He always had an air of boyishness about him—a permanent child, even into middle age. Michael Cera? Elijah Wood?
Ina Coolbrith might require the most nuanced performance. She was a very specific mix: stubborn, solicitous, self-pitying, irreverent. I’d nominate Tilda Swinton, who’s one of my all-time favorites.
I hope the movie studios are listening.
Writers Read: Ben Tarnoff.
The Page 99 Test: The Bohemians.