I read Caleb Carr’s The Alienist when it came out in 1994. I loved it, and then promptly forgot what it was exactly about except that a person called an “alienist” (an early psychologist, so dubbed because they believed the mentally ill were alienated from their own natures) was trying to solve a crime involving a serial killer with his knowledge of the human mind.
Fast forward 24 years, and previews of TNT’s limited series The Alienist reminded me of it, and I got very excited. I promptly watched the show (twice through, for good measure) and picked up the book again. On having discovered that there was a sequel called The Angel of Darkness, I picked that up, too. Call me obsessive.
On re-reading the book, I was eager to discover how the writers of the show had adapted the novel–what was kept in, what was left out, what was changed completely. The book gives much more detail concerning New York City of 1896, historically and architecturally, though the lavish sets on the show brought it vividly to life as well. Small details were changed, dialogue tightened up and scenes re-arranged. But I was more curious about the characters: how did they measure up?
The book is narrated by Dr. Kreizler’s friend, the New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans). In the show, he’s an illustrator rather than a reporter, which solves a few plot quandaries and tightens up the storytelling. In the book, he can seem a bit boorish (this is especially true in Angel of Darkness, which he does not narrate), but he’s more likable in the show. The show has him develop feelings for Sara Howland (Dakota Fanning), a family friend who, as the first woman to work in the NYPD (as a secretary to Teddy Roosevelt), helps with the investigation. In the book, the author nixes that development fairly early on, preferring to keep Sara the proverbial independent woman who needs no man.
Sara herself is warmer and more playful in the book, while the show keeps her somewhat cold and aloof, wrapped in a kind of armor that John tries to penetrate along the course of the show. He nearly succeeds, but it’s left up in the air as to whether she’ll actually let him in.
Dr. Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl), perhaps, remains the least changed from book to show, although we get to see some of his more intimate moments on the screen that we couldn’t in the book, especially with his love interest, his mute ward and housekeeper Mary Palmer (who was changed from a blonde, blue-eyed beauty to a Native American beauty played by Q’Orianka Kilcher). These scenes are touching and gives us more insight into Kreizler’s vulnerability, while also setting us up more efficiently for the tragedy to come.
The Sergeant Detectives Isaacson, Marcus and Lucius (Douglas Smith and Mathew Shear) are fraternal twins in the show, rather than Marcus being the older brother in the book, but they remain essentially the same bickering, brilliant pair. The show, for reasons beyond my comprehension, created a subplot with Marcus having an affair with a lovely single mother, a thread that had no connection to the main storyline whatsoever.
I was pleasantly surprised that in the show, Teddy Roosevelt (in his role as Commissioner to the Police Department) was not portrayed as the knee-slapping, cowboy/adventurer who often cried out “By thunder!” , as he was in the book. Perhaps that was the man’s actual personality, but every time I encountered him in the book, I cringed a little bit. He seemed like a caricature, someone to laugh and roll your eyes at. Brian Geraghty played the future president with a subtlety and depth that made him come across as a real person, while still making it clear he was a man of action.
So what about our murderer? John Beecham’s life and motivations, as uncovered by our team of investigators, follows pretty much the same route as in the book, though the book naturally went into more detail. The show invented a red herring in the form of Willem Van Burgen, the son of a powerful Old New York family, to distract the investigation and put a spotlight on the way members of these families were nearly beyond the law.
The climax, while taking place in the same building in both book and show, played out quite differently. I preferred the show ending, as it was tighter and more believable. The book had Beecham clinging to Kreizler’s leg, weeping and whining, before being ultimately shot by Captain Connor. The show had Beecham defiant until the end, taunting him and trying to get away. I’m not sure which is more believable psychologically, but the show ending is better, in my opinion.
I’m about halfway through The Angel of Darkness, and I’ll have a proper review once I’m through.
If you like psychological crime thrillers, either the book or show of The Alienist (or if you’re obsessive like me, both) will keep you entertained for quite a while.