Back in the mid 1990s, there was no question that Caleb Carr’s bestselling serial killer thriller novel The Alienist was destined to be a film.
Set in 1896, the novel centered around a psychologist (aka an Alienist) and a reporter tracking down a killer of boy prostitutes in New York’s Gilded era. It’s a time when a young Theodore Roosevelt, recurring from personal losses, is the police commissioner in a very corrupt New York City. The book spent about 30 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list back in the day. .
However, cracking the script proved harder than the novels’ protagonists solving the book’s key crime. Paramount bought the book for $750K for producer Scott Rudin in June 1993 after an intense auction from studios. They hired Tony Award winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) to adapt intially for a reported $300K advance against $600K. The late Curtis Hanson circle the project to direct at one point, followed by Philip Kaufman. By 1996, Paramount had shelled out close to $2M developing the project with Steve Katz also penning but balked at the pic’s $50M production cost. Variety reported then that Rudin and Kaufman had 60 days to set up the film at another studio, with Kaufman’s draft and budget, before the project kicked back to Paramount. Meanwhile, author Carr became a script doctor around town in the late 90s and receiving writing credits on both Renny Harlin and Paul Schrader’s original Exorcist prequel back in prequas Exorcist: The Beginning 13 years ago.
Cut to 2014, Paramount TV, who still has the rights to the book, signs a first look deal with Anonymous Content and sets their first drama series which is The Alienist. Series EP Rosalie Swedlin today at TCA said she came to the project via Anonymous.
“We started from a blank page,” said Swedlin as the the previous drafts of the project were all feature-length, “part of the richness of the novel is this fantastic investigation of a serial killer when no one believed one existed.”
Carr per Swedlin wasn’t involved in the day-to-day writing of the TNT 10-episode series, however she marveled has just two lines in the author’s book would provide inspiration for entire character arc. The EP described how many topics in the book from immigration to technological advances back then (such as movies, the automobile) along with the Socialist and Suffragette movements of the era provide rich story material that could still resonate with today’s audience.
“We were extremely lucky,” said Swedlin,”(TBS/TNT president) Kevin Reilly was a big fan of the book before we ever shopped it to anyone else.”