24 years after ‘The Alienist’ was published, a surprisingly timely adaptation finally makes it to TNT
Just how long has it taken Hollywood to adapt “The Alienist,” Caleb Carr’s bestselling novel about a serial killer on the loose in Gilded Age New York?
Here’s some perspective: Dakota Fanning, who plays one of the leads in the 10-episode miniseries premiering Monday on TNT, was born a few weeks before the book came out in 1994. When noted during a recent conversation, the fact prompted disbelief from one of her co-stars.
“No way,” gasped Luke Evans, who was joined by Fanning and Daniel Brühl at a hotel in a historic corner of downtown Manhattan near City Hall. “That’s a joke.”
Alas, for those of us who can vividly recall devouring Carr’s hefty novel, it is not.
A dark, richly detailed psychological thriller that transported readers to fin-de-siecle New York City, “The Alienist” followed an unlikely team of investigators, led by the pioneering “alienist” (or psychologist) Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (played by Brühl), on the hunt for a vicious serial killer.
The book, which provided a fascinating look at the origins of criminal psychology and modern forensic techniques like fingerprinting, was exactly the sort of big book that studios were still keen to adapt in the ’90s. Rights to the novel were scooped up by Paramount on behalf of producer Scott Rudin well in advance of publication. But in the nearly quarter of a century since, the project has followed a path so tortuous it would take a forensic scientist to fully unravel.
“It’s been a journey, that’s for sure,” says director and executive producer Jakob Verbruggen.
Multiple would-be film adaptations from big names like Curtis Hanson and Philip Kaufman stalled, thanks to the complexity of Carr’s narrative and the eye-popping expense of faithfully re-creating a bygone Big Apple. But like “Outlander” and “11.22.63” before it, “The Alienist” has at long last been rescued from development hell by the gods of Peak TV.
In 2015, newly revived Paramount Television, which still owned the rights to Carr’s novel, and production company Anonymous Content announced plans for a limited series adaptation directed by Cary Fukunaga, who’d won an Emmy for his work on the first season of “True Detective.” “We all said to each other, ‘that’s the jewel in the crown of the Paramount library,’” recalls Paramount TV President Amy Powell.
Within a few weeks, TNT had also come on board the prestigious project, which then newly installed president Kevin Reilly saw as a key step in the network’s move away from lightweight procedurals to grittier, more ambitious fare. The network was “extremely aggressive” in its pursuit, says Sarah Aubrey, executive vice president of originals at TNT. “‘The Alienist’ represented everything that we wanted to bring to this newest iteration of programming.”
Despite widespread passion for the material, the project hit a few snags. As producers struggled to find a suitable location for filming — scouting New York and Montreal before settling on Budapest — Fukunaga eventually had to drop out because of scheduling conflicts with his Netflix series, “Maniac.” (He is still involved with “The Alienist” as an executive producer.)
Verbruggen, a Belgian director whose credits include “London Spy” and “The Fall,” was eventually tapped to replace Fukunaga. Producers were intrigued by his take on the killer’s victims — young boys, often the children of immigrants, forced into prostitution. “It’s about childhood meaning something so different than it does now and these boys being survivors,” he says by phone.
Verbruggen directed the first three episodes, establishing the show’s tone and visuals. And he remained on location throughout most of the lengthy shoot in Budapest, a city chosen because it offered the right mix of period-appropriate brick buildings, skilled artisans and backlots massive enough to house dozens of elaborate sets.
“Authenticity was key,” says Verbruggen, who likens the series to “visual time travel.” The director, who’d only been to New York once before he signed on to “The Alienist,” spent a few weeks in the city receiving an “amazing crash course” in local history from Richard Zacks, author of “Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York.” (He did not, however, get the chance to talk to Carr.)
Production designer Mara LePere-Schloop re-created entire cobblestone-lined city blocks, parts of the Williamsburg Bridge and the long-gone elevated train along the Bowery, while costume designer Michael Kaplan meticulously reproduced the period’s restrictive high collars and leg-of-mutton sleeves.
Such commitment to period detail did not come cheap: “The Alienist” is the most expensive drama produced by TNT, with a reported price tag of $5 million an episode.
But for the cast at least, it was worth it. Evans, who stars as playboy newspaper illustrator John Moore, recalls filming a scene set in a crowded tenement apartment belonging to a family of a dozen or so Italian immigrants. “It was so real, visceral, hot, and uncomfortably claustrophobic,” he says. “There’s a wonderful juxtaposition to the story. You go from gold, gilt, beautiful dining rooms, and then to the filth. You don’t want to smell it, but you know if you could smell it, you’d be gagging.”
While the novel unfolds from Moore’s perspective, the series balances the story between the three central characters — a gang of forward-thinking outsiders who enjoy a little criminal profiling over lavish 10-course meals at Delmonico’s.
Brühl plays Kreizler, a brilliant but prickly genius — or, as the German-Spanish actor puts it, “a real pain in the ass.” With a serial killer terrorizing the city, Kreizler is enlisted by his Harvard buddy, police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), to spearhead a covert investigation. Moore, another Harvard pal, is recruited, as is Sara Howard (Fanning), an independent-minded secretary in the police department.
Sara, the department’s first full-time female employee, “sees an opportunity to advance herself and to challenge what was comfortable for a woman to do in this time period,” notes Fanning. She also faces constant ogling and the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated world. Sound familiar?
Like the book, the series provides a vivid look at an era of sweeping social and technological change in the burgeoning metropolis as it grappled with anti-immigrant sentiment, widespread corruption and yawning class inequality.
Issues that, as Brühl notes, arguably make “The Alienist” more relevant now than it might have been had it reached the screen two decades ago.
“It doesn’t feel like a dusty period piece,” he says. “It’s actually quite modern.”
Maybe the wait was worth it after all.
Where: TBS and TNT
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-MA-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language, sexual content and violence)
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