'How to Get Away With Murder' Learned Its Lessons From 'The Secret History'

With the second season already in production, How to Get Away With Murder finds itself at a crossroads.

How to Get Away With Murder

Cast: Viola Davis, Billy Brown, Alfred Enoch, Jack Falahee, Katie Findlay, Aja Naomi King, Matt McGorry
Network: ABC

The Secret History

Publisher: Knopf
Author: Donna Tartt
Publication date: 1992-09

Shonda Rhimes’ How to Get Away With Murder is a show with a lot of hype behind it, and rightly so. It’s hard to deny the series’ first season didn’t make a strong impression. It threw together an awesome and diverse cast, a fun episodic formula, and a serialized mystery that definitely hangs with the best of them.

That said, it was How to Get Away With Murder’s blend of contemporary college drama and sprawling murder-mystery that stuck with me the most, because it evoked a fascinating set of similarities to Donna Tartt’s seminal campus-murder novel, The Secret History.

If you haven’t heard of The Secret History before, go track down a copy. I’ll wait. It’s well worth the read. Now, be aware that there’s a bucketload of spoilers to follow.

Though How to Get Away With Murder favors melodrama over the sophisticated Grecophilia tendencies of Tartt’s novel, comparing the two side-by-side is a course destined to bring out more than a few commonalities. Both follow a group of talented pupils brought together under an idolized mentor and explore what happens when they are forced to work together in extreme circumstances in the subversion of that mentor.

The two works also have a fascinating commitment to their central thesis. In The Secret History’s case, this centers on the concept of beauty, while How to Get Away With Murder concerns itself with the malleability of the truth. The former explores this implicitly in its charting of the tragic rise and fall of Julian Morrow’s five classics students, whilst the latter takes a more explicit approach through the case-of-the-week in each episode.

There’s even a sort-of-symmetry between some of the archetypes that populate the narratives of each text. Both Richard and Wes are separated from their peers by their socio-economic status, Both Francis and Connor by their sexual identity (though the latter is much less of a pariah as a result), and both Bunny and Asher fill the role of jock-like outcasts to their group’s inner circle.

Even from a structural perspective, the two bear curious resemblance to one another, with the first halves of their plots having to do with how individuals can be pushed to murder and the second exploring what it takes to get away with such a crime -- and the toll it takes on those who do. Both the prologue of The Secret History and the pilot of How to Get Away With Murder conclude with the murder of a main character and the series meticulously builds its way up to this catastrophic event as a mid-point for its narrative. Then, both texts spend the rest of their plot concerning themselves with the traumas and pressures that present themselves when their protagonists are forced to live with the crime they’ve committed.

Even some of the biggest differences between the two texts could be interpreted as further evidence of their shared heritage. How to Get Away With Murder peppers its dialogue with countless references to smartphones and social networks to anchor its story firmly in the present and establish a powerful contemporary backdrop to the series’ melodrama. The Secret History’s own cultural influences -- the sex, drugs and music of the '80s -- play a similarly important role in the narrative’s composition.

With the second season already in production, How to Get Away With Murder finds itself at a crossroads. It could continue to pinch elements from The Secret History and concern itself with the breakdown of the group in the wake of Rebecca’s ‘disappearance’, or it could move on from its main plot entirely and see members of the group concern themselves with a new long-form mystery. The former would see them continue in the footsteps of Tartt’s novel, while the latter could see them abandoned it entirely. As a fan of both works, it’s hard to say which possibility is more tantalizing.

Splash image: Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder





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