If TNT’s Adaptation of “The Alienist” isn’t Good, I’m Going to be Quite Upset

I don’t remember when I first read The Alienist, by Caleb Carr. It’s one of those stories that–once you read it–feels like it has always been a part of you. I had an old paperback copy that I read to death and once I had a commute that lasted longer than ten minutes, I bought the audio book as well. That audio book was so well done, I routinely searched Audible for an unabridged version of the sequel, The Angel of Darkness.

I even went so far as to buy an abridged version of The Angel of Darkness on cassette tape.

I say this merely to establish my bona fides. This is a story that I both love to death and know very well. The notion of a TV series based on the book fills me with more hope and fear should ever be invested in a gang of complete strangers.

“The Alienist” is the story of an investigation into the brutal murder of some boy-whores in New York City at the end of the 19th century. It’s narrated by John Schuyler Moore, a writer for the New York Times and features an alienist–we’d call him a psychologist or psychiatrist–named Lazlo Kreizler, and a young woman named Sara Howard who is insists upon fighting the strictures placed on women.

It’s a tremendous story. Interwoven with the hunt for a serial killer are enough historical vignettes and cameos by historical figures like J. P. Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt, Paul Kelly, and Thomas Byrnes that you feel like the events happened in recent memory.

This TV series clearly changes several things. That’s fine. It’s a TV series, not a book, it has a different structure and things are going to have to be different. That said, some of the changes give me great qualms.

  • In the books, the bodies are found near water or water-related structures (bridges, water towers, etc.) and they seem to have done away with that. I suppose it could be merely because some of the sets would have been ridiculously expensive, but the water thing is important to the murderer and plays into how he’s caught.
  • The knife the murderer uses is a bowie knife. The knife they hold up in the trailer is not a bowie knife. Why the heck would they change this? Is a bowie knife really not intimidating enough?
  • Edit Roosevelt is in five episodes and Alice Roosevelt is in four. Why? They’re trivial cameos in the book and I don’t really see a role for them. I hope it works. The story could use more women.

Some of the differences are fairly trivial. The trailer suggests that Dr. Kriezler hand-picked the team which isn’t really true. He picked John Moore, Theodore Roosevelt picked the brothers Isaacson, and Sara Howard picked herself.

Some of the differences are intriguing. For the show, Moore is transformed from a writer to an illustrator and the trailer shows him sketching something. It’s intriguing for a couple reasons. First, Moore is the narrator of the book and it’s presented in first person from his point of view. That’s obviously changing for TV.

But there’s another reason it’s intriguing. In the sequel, The Angel of Darkness, there’s a sketch that’s very important to the investigation and having Moore be an illustrator suggests they’re going to use that in this story. That raises the question of what else they’re going to mingle betwixt the stories.