Here you can find information about attempts taken thus far to create a movie adaptation of The Alienist. To learn more about The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness plots, critical reception, and timelines, or to access quizzes, character lists, maps, information about key locations, and general history as it relates to the books, please use the side menu.
A brief history of The Alienist movie
Caleb Carr always had a movie in mind when writing The Alienist. Already having spent several years as a screenwriter in Hollywood prior to working on the novel, Mr. Carr has stated, “You won’t find many writers who love movies as much as I do. Movies formed much of the imagery that I use in my books. I just don’t have the same love for written literature that I have for movies. Language doesn’t particularly thrill me in and of itself. I’m a storyteller, not a writer.”1 He has also indicated that he “purposely chose to describe buildings that [were] still there in New York,” such as the Flatiron Building, that would be easy to shoot and apply period detail to via special effects.2 As for the characters, while he didn’t envision any specific modern actors while writing, it appears that he still took some inspiration from the silver screen in their creation.3 He has stated, for example, that Dr. Laszlo Kreizler was “based” on classic actor Anton Walbrook,3 explaining that he would have had “just the right blend of urbanity and dark threat” to play the Doctor.4
So, why hasn’t the novel made it to the big screen? Will the novel ever make it to the big screen? While the answers to these questions aren’t terribly encouraging, the following is a summary of the publicly available details about the attempts made thus far to turn The Alienist into a movie.
Scott Rudin purchases the rights to The Alienist
Soon after submitting the 700-page manuscript of The Alienist to Random House in the Spring of 1993, Caleb Carr’s soon-to-be-bestseller was the talk of Hollywood. Interest in purchasing the film rights to the novel was high, with names like Mike Nichols, Kathleen Kennedy, and Scott Rudin all looking at the manuscript.5
In a 2013 New York Times book club chat, Mr. Carr revealed that Mike Nichols had originally wanted to purchase the rights to The Alienist but was outbid by Paramount Pictures in collaboration with Scott Rudin.4 On the morning of June 25, 1993, Mr. Rudin had phoned through a bid of $400,000 to Mr. Carr’s agents with the caveat that the offer would only be good until 3pm, Hollywood time. Mr. Carr, meanwhile, was on a golf course in the Bronx with no telephone access and no idea that Mr. Rudin’s offer that had come through. Time passed with no response and Mr. Rudin raised his bid to $450,000. By the time Mr. Carr returned to Manhattan following his round of golf, Mr. Rudin had upped his offer yet again to $500,000. Following consultation with his agents, and with Mr. Rudin making the additional promise that Mr. Carr could write the movie’s script if the first screenwriter didn’t work out, Mr. Carr finally accepted the offer.5 Discussing the high-profile purchase in an interview the following year, Mr. Carr said, “I walked around with my head in the clouds for two days.”6
The movie is plagued by script problems
Despite the early excitement associated with taking The Alienist to Hollywood, Mr. Carr lamented in the 2013 book club chat that he now wishes he hadn’t listened to his agents in selling the rights to Mr. Rudin.4 A first draft was written by Tony-award winning playwright David Henry Hwang who turned in a script that “diverged radically” from the novel by placing too much emphasis on “a minor female character” (presumably Mary Palmer).7 This would turn out to be the first of several scripts that would end up being rejected. Feeling that Mr. Rudin had “decided […] to completely change the characters in the book,” over subsequent years Mr. Carr took steps to prevent a number of “horrible scripts” from going ahead, resulting in a conflict that would last for years.8 In 1997, Mr. Carr explained to Salon9 why he felt the need to fight Mr. Rudin on the script choices:
I don’t know that they really understood what book they were buying in a certain sense. It’s a period piece, yes, but that’s not hard. Period pieces are coming out all the time now. It doesn’t have to be that expensive, either. But it’s an ensemble piece that doesn’t happen to involve a love story. And that’s where they’re really tripping. They’re trying to make it a star vehicle with a love story. Well, that’s not the book they bought.
Regarding the original agreement that Mr. Carr be provided with an opportunity to write the script if the first screenwriter didn’t work out, Mr. Carr said that Mr. Rudin “reneged on [his] pledge.”3 Providing further detail in 1997, Mr. Carr told the Los Angeles Times, “[Rudin] has had three writers and at least six drafts–none of them done by me. He never fulfilled his pledge to bring me in.”1
The project stalls in pre-production
Script problems aside, the project also struggled to attract a director.8 Although one early script managed to attract director Curtis Hanson to the project, Mr. Rudin and Mr. Hanson apparently had a falling out over the proposed budget that resulted in Mr. Hanson’s departure as well.8,10 When Mr. Rudin finally partnered with writer-director Philip Kaufman, producing yet another script along with an estimated budget of $50 million, Paramount Pictures put their foot down and gave the pair 60 days to set the film up at another studio–the studio had apparently already spent between $1.5 and $2 million on the stalled film prior to this point–or the project would revert to Paramount.10 It is unclear what happened at this stage, but evidently an alternative studio could not be found. Commenting on this series of events in the 2013 chat4, Mr. Carr stated:
[Rudin] spent many years and millions of dollars on writers and directors who turned in one lousy script after another, which I was fortunate enough to be able to stop, incurring Rudin’s well-known wrath. He has now repeatedly said that there will never be a film of the movie, and although that decision is the studio’s, not his, he spent so much money on development that no one can afford the turnaround.
Where to now?
Due to the ongoing conflict over The Alienist, Mr. Carr stated in a 1999 Time web chat that he had not yet sold the rights to The Angel of Darkness, and confirmed in the 2013 chat that things continue to look “bleak” on the movie front for the Alienist books.3,4 However, only a relatively short time later in April and May of 2014, the president of Paramount Television, Amy Powell, made the surprise announcement that the newly relaunched television division of Paramount Pictures had several projects now in development including, “a drama series inspired by Caleb Carr’s best-selling novel, The Alienist, with Anonymous Content (True Detective) executive producing.”11
1. Reynolds, Susan Salter, “Writer’s Rantings Draw Raves”, Los Angeles Times 5 November 1997. Link.
2. Forshaw, Barry, “Caleb Carr Interviewed by Barry Forshaw”, Crime Time. Link.
3. Time Yahoo! Chat, “Visions of the 21st Century”, Time.com 3 November 1999. Link.
4. Big City Book Club, “Live Chat with Caleb Carr, Author of ‘The Alienist'”, The New York Times 16 January 2013. Link.
5. Dubner, Stephen J., “Serial Killing for Fun and Profit”, New York Magazine 4 April 1994. Link.
6. Kornberg, Erica, “Carr for the Course”, Entertainment Weekly 1 April 1994. Link.
7. Natale, Richard, “Will ‘Angels,’ ‘Alienist’ Ever Fly?”, Los Angeles Times 22 October 1995. Link.
8. Posner, Michael, “Past perfect, future tense”, The Globe and Mail 23 December 2000. Link.
9. Garner, Dwight, “The Salon Interview, Caleb Carr”, Salon 5 October 1997. Link.
10. Petrikin, Chris, “‘Alienist’ in Limited Turnaround”, Variety 26 December 1996. Link.
11. Andreeva, Nellie, “Paramount TV Unveils First Development Slate That Includes Series Takes on ‘Narc’ & ‘Truman Show’, Firms Up Executive Team”, Deadline 9 April 2014. Link.