I was surprised to learn that Caleb Carr’s novel “The Alienist” will soon be a TNT miniseries—not because it lacked fans (it reached the top 10 of The New York Times’ Bestseller list in 1994), but because filming had been held up for years. Paramount Pictures had optioned the screen rights in 1993 and Curtis Hansen was tapped to direct, but exorbitant budgets and constant rewrites forced Paramount to call the whole thing off, leaving the movie in showbiz limbo.
Fade in on 2017, when Paramount Television greenlt “The Alienist” as an eight-episode series, with the premiere set for January 2018. The TV adaptation was created by Cary Fukunaga—best known for directing “True Detective”—and includes directors from “Black Mirror” and “Game of Thrones,” leaving Alienist and crime-drama fans alike buzzing with anticipation, especially after the trailer was recently released.
Contrary to what the title might have you believe, an “alienist” has nothing to do with aliens, but was a term used before “criminal psychologist,” or as Carr explains:
“Prior to the twentieth century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be ‘alienated,’ not only from the rest of society but from their own true natures. Those experts who studied mental pathologies were therefore thought of as alienists.”
So what’s the story? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s 1896 in New York City, and a serial killer is on the loose, targeting young male prostitutes. The narrator, a reporter named John Moore, teams up with, among others, Sarah Howard, the first female NYPD secretary, and Dr Laszlo Kreisler, the alienist. Although it’s a work of fiction, Carr’s cast includes then-police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt, who insists the investigation and crimes remain secret—both due to their brutality and homosexuality, and fears about how it all could impact his own political aspirations. (Speaking of brutality, I don’t know how TNT will handle the gruesomeness of these crimes—I won’t even begin to describe what happened to the novel’s first victim—along with the fact that they’re perpetrated upon children. I think even HBO would find this one a challenge, and I watch “Game of Thrones.”)
“The Alienist” was one of those novels that was on everyone’s bookshelf in the early ‘90s, like “The Firm” or “The Lost World.” But it seemed to have much more depth, possibly because of its haunting cover (yes, I judge a book by its cover). However, it wasn’t until 2013 that I finally read “The Alienist”—my first Kindle purchase. Carr’s opening chapter was perfection, and I settled in for what was sure to be a great whodunit. Unfortunately, the rest of the book did not live up to its beginning, as I felt Carr grew more exhausted from keeping up with the story—as did I—and the main characters all began to sound the same. (Excepting the occasional Rooseveltian “Bully!”) Nevertheless, the trailer does contain the promise of the book’s opening, and I will be among those who tune in on January 22nd. I just have to find someone who has TNT and is willing to watch “The Alienist” too. Bully to all that!